Porto Alegre, Brazil
Thursday Night

Just hours after the third annual World Social Forum was officially inaugurated this afternoon, ten of thousands of delegates, visitors and local residents are gathering for a peace march through the city–a march that will culminate in a huge nighttime rally and celebration.

Much like last year’s gathering, which took place barely three months after the 9/11 attacks, this edition of the WSF opens under clouds of possible US war in Iraq. No accident then that the first event of this five-day gathering, which is expected to draw 100,000 people and host an amazing 1,700 conferences, panels and workshops, is a “mobilization against war.”

Indeed, the big question now is to what degree the issue of possible war will overshadow the rest of the conference, which is ostensibly dedicated to debate and discussion about and among what has loosely and erroneously been called the international antiglobalization movement (but which prefers to be called the movement for global justice.)

“The war might be the most important thing happening this moment, but it is not the most important thing happening in the world in terms of the big picture,” said one European delegate concerned that the WSF stay focused. “We are here to seriously debate the causes and remedies of inequality on the largest scale. It would be a shame if this turned into just one big anti-George Bush rally.” There was a suggestion of that possibility when during today’s kick-off “installation” ceremony, which drew about 2,500, much of the crowd loudly applauded when two particpants waved large Iraqi flags above their heads.

Today’s inaugural session featured a report from an international polling company that indicated that broad majorities in fifteen countries –from the richest to the poorest–support many of the basic concepts of the global justice movement. Those majorities agree that globalization benefit the rich not the poor, that it is driven by a procorporate agenda and that it weakens the control people have over their own lives. The trick is how to politically capitalize on those sentiments.

Apart from the issue of war and peace, questions of trade equity, sustainable economic devlopment, of a more democratic politics, of human rights and the future of the environment are on the Forum agenda. A palpable buzz of anticipation surrounds the scheduled speech tomorrow night by Brazil’s just-inaugurated leftist President, Luiz Inazio Lula Da Silva. His Workers Party governs this city of Porto Alegre, but recently lost political control of the surrounding state of Rio Grande Do Sul. Other big conference draws are the scheduled talks by MIT Professor and author Noam Chomsky, Indian novelist Arundahati Roy and Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano. Venezuela’s embattled President Hugo Chavez has also announced a last-minute decision to appear here on Sunday. Traditionally, the WSF has barred particpation by elected heads of govenment (with the exception of Lula). We ll see if that exemption is extended to Chavez.

Meanwhile, participation by American delegates has more than doubled from last year–from 400 to just over a thousand. Folks from the United States run the range from writer Barbara Ehrenreich to trade activist Lori Wallach of Public Citizen. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney had been scheduled to participate but had to cancel at the last minute. Last night in my hotel elevator, I bumped into Federation Executive Vice-President Linda Chavez-Thompson, so there’s at least some significant American labor representation here. More in the next report after Lula speaks.