The World Social Forum: Protest or Celebration?

The World Social Forum: Protest or Celebration?

The World Social Forum: Protest or Celebration?

The World Social Forum in Caracas provided living proof of alternative political and social visions, but raised new questions about government co-optation.



The same question echoed in the back of thousands of minds as the Sixth World Social Forum (WSF) opened here in January: “Where’s Hugo?” In fact, on the day of the forum’s opening march, self-styled socialist Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was in Bolivia attending the inauguration of fellow left-wing President Evo Morales. Chávez’s presence, though, was everywhere in Caracas–on T-shirts laid out by vendors on the march route (outnumbering by 2 to 1 the face of revolutionary heartthrob Che Guevara); on pins with the flag of Venezuela, handed out by volunteers; in the chants of enthusiastic supporters; even in the talking Chávez dolls sold along the street.

For six days at the end of January, more than 80,000 participants from around the globe descended on Caracas to collaborate and strategize in the annual forum for leftist civil society. This year, the Caracas forum was one of three in a new “polycentric” format intended to foster more regional collaboration. Another was held in Bamako, Mali, the previous week; a third is scheduled for Karachi, Pakistan, in March (moved from January because of last year’s earthquake).

The decision to hold the forum in Venezuela gave the meeting a new flavor–as well as a new set of challenges. On the one hand, the country is living proof of the WSF’s slogan: Another World Is Possible. In a short seven years, Chávez and his “Bolivarian Revolution” (a reference to legendary South American hero Simón Bolívar) have upended the Venezuelan economy, using a ready supply of oil money to fund social programs for some of the world’s poorest citizens. At the same time, many forum participants expressed private dismay at El Comandante’s close ties to Cuba and his cult of personality, which some critics on the left see as more show than substance.

From the beginning, this forum had a more nationalistic feel than those in the past, which have taken pains to de-emphasize political parties in favor of an open space to debate. The opening march was festooned with national flags and insignia–not only from Venezuela but also from Colombia, Brazil and an 800-member Cuban delegation that marched in lockstep, wearing matching baseball caps and waving flags. Perhaps it was the overcast sky or the forbidding, postapocalyptic architecture of downtown Caracas, but the opening march of the forum also seemed less defiant than might have been expected, as if the participants weren’t sure whether to protest or celebrate recent events in South America.

These are heady times for the continent. In addition to Venezuela and Bolivia, four other countries now have left-leaning leaders: Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil, Néstor Kirchner in Argentina, Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay and the newly elected Michelle Bachelet in Chile. Last November their influence all but scuttled the Free Trade Area of the Americas (a linchpin of the neoliberal free-trade agenda, also known by its Spanish initials ALCA) at a meeting with George W. Bush in Argentina. Combine this with an open revolt against Bush’s foreign policy agenda in the United States, and leftists in the hemisphere suddenly have reason for optimism.

“In the Americas, the popular movements are on the offensive, not the defensive–not only against neoliberalism but also against militarism and terror,” proclaimed Jacobo Torres de León, one of the main Venezuelan organizers of the forum, at an opening plenary session. Torres de León tried to allay fears that the Venezuelan government was attempting to hijack the process. “Many compañeros thought this would become a Chavista forum. I can understand the reservations, but we are very interested that the forum doesn’t have a political seal on it.”

That may be so, but holding the forum in Venezuela breathed new life into a process some felt had turned into a debating society–and at the same time it raised questions about how movements can support a government without being co-opted. “I think to some extent people have moved on from the forum,” said Chris Nineham, the London-based organizer of the Stop the War Coalition, during the opening march as his cohorts chanted “George Bush, terrorista” behind him. “It’s essentially just a talking shop. But it’s fantastic to be in Venezuela and hear about the movement here.”

The government took full advantage of the event’s presence in the city by giving tours to government-funded “missions” in the densely packed Caracas slums, where thousands of tiny concrete homes are plastered precariously on the hillsides, without running water or sewers. Forum participants were shown new housing projects, community radio stations and free medical clinics, and also residents who expressed unmitigated love for their leader. “I’m not Chavista; I look at the whole thing with a hairy eyeball,” said Mary DiMatteo, an Evergreen State College student in a delegation from Global Exchange. But, she said, “when I saw that, I was like, I don’t want to hear any criticism right now. He’s giving people what they need–you can see it.”

Compared with the excitement of seeing the Bolivarian experiment up close, the poor organization of the forum was an exercise in frustration. More than 2,000 sessions scattered throughout the city were sometimes hard to find and often took a long time to get to. Given the obstacles faced by participants, many sessions started an hour or even two hours late, or didn’t start at all.

Meanwhile, the limitations of the World Social Forum were the same as at any conference, with too many panels dominated by men (though not white) and filled with feel-good speeches against “the empire,” with too little time for questions or discussion of practical issues. Some participants gave up going to sessions halfway through the event, concentrating on the forum’s grab bag of political spectacle that is part conference, part street fair and part spring break for lefties; dance parties rocked large tents with the rhythms of mambo and rumba late into the night. The real debates in the forum went on largely in private strategy sessions among members of like-minded groups, such as those planning a worldwide antiwar protest for March 18, the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.

Other groups, like the peasant farmer coalition Via Campesina, which counts some 100 million members around the world, used the gathering as an opportunity to strategize across national borders. “This is one space where we dicuss the campaign and debate the campaign and get political support,” said the organization’s executive director, Rafael Alegría. “There are academics, economists and Nobel Prize winners here, and many of them have allied with us in our work.”

And then, of course, there were the impromptu bull sessions over beers at the hotel bars. “So much of what’s said at the forum comes down to two basic points: Neoliberalism is bad, and participatory democracy is good,” said Thomas Ponniah at one of them. Ponniah is co-editor of a book of alternatives presented at the WSF and a regular organizer of events at the gathering. “What’s really going on underneath is, there is organizing and strategies. In each country the forum goes to, it strengthens the civil society in the country that hosts it.”

True to form, many sessions organized by Venezuelan groups were focused on promoting the ALBA trade pact, a kinder and gentler Bolivarian alternative to the neoliberal ALCA that emphasizes regional cooperation instead of foreign investment and trade. The concept began with an agreement to trade cheap oil from Venezuela for doctors from Cuba, some 13,000 of whom have set up shop in free medical clinics, to aid the country’s “Inside the Barrio” program. Recently it expanded with another agreement, this one between Venezuela and Bolivia to trade oil for soybeans and other food products. Advocates envision ALBA as not just a set of individual agreements but a trade pact with, among other features, a “compensatory fund” to prop up poor countries with contributions from richer neighbors.

“Just as with the polycentric forum, countries in the Southern Hemisphere are pushing this model of polycentric globalism. That’s the big paradigm shift that’s coming on the left that the right hasn’t clued in to,” said Ponniah. “The question is, How does civil society regulate those regional blocs such that we create a radically democratic, polycentric globalization?” There’s also the question of how such a bloc would be organized–leaders like Brazil’s Lula and Chile’s Bachelet, for example, are much more open to free trade than their northern neighbors. Even so, in many different sessions participants expressed a desire for regional collaboration, even if it’s not on the Bolivarian model.

“Ten years ago it was a utopian ideal that we could have governments like those of Chávez and Morales and Lula, but today we have them,” said Via Campesina’s Alegría. “Now the struggle is how we maintain them and move forward.”

If there is a leader who represents the power of the World Social Forum process to affect that struggle, it is the lower-profile Morales. Unlike Chávez, a former military officer who first attempted to seize power in a coup before winning election, Morales was an organizer of coca farmers who rose from the grassroots to a surprise election victory based on the support of indigenous movements and farmers. Now the social movements in Bolivia are looking for payback–pushing Morales to hold a convention to rewrite the Constitution, to carry out agrarian reform and to nationalize resources. “The victory of Evo in Bolivia is a victory for the social forum,” said Bolivian peasant leader Román Loayza during a session analyzing Morales’s win. “It was a movement born at the grassroots level, from the bottom up. Nobody, nobody thought Morales would be president. We worked organically to make it happen.”

It was Chávez, however, whom many participants came here to see, and the spectacle of his entrance did not disappoint. The energy in Caracas’s indoor stadium seemed more like that of a rock concert or a fútbol match than a political speech. The 15,000-seat stands were awash in the red shirts worn by Chávez supporters, who expressed an enthusiasm for their leader inconceivable in most countries. For an hour and a half before he appeared, musical groups amped up the crowd with booming renditions of revolutionary and folk music from Brazil, Argentina, the Andes and Venezuela, while those in the stands danced, waved flags and joined in pro-Chávez chants. (The most popular, “Oo, Ah, Chávez No Se Va!,” or “Hey, Ho, Chávez Will Not Go!”, had a way of echoing in the head for days after the event.)

Sitting on stage, many of the forum’s luminaries, including Focus on the Global South’s Walden Bello, ATTAC’s Bernard Cassen, Che’s daughter Aleida Guevara and antiwar mom Cindy Sheehan (whose presence was second in celebrity only to that of Chávez), seemed small amid the pageantry. Finally, with calls from the crowd of Se siente, se siente, Chávez está presente! (“Feel him! Feel him! Chávez is present!”), the man himself took the stage, wearing a bright red shirt and waving his arms ecstatically. As Chávez took his seat, air-raid sirens and machine-gun fire filled the stadium and a row of people dressed in black emerged from the wings with a black banner reading Bush and covered with the logos of multinational corporations. After a moment, young people with fake swords emerged from the other side of the stage and ripped the banner apart, afterward raising white banners against war and neoliberalism.

As broad as the pageant was, the stadium’s electric atmosphere made it strangely moving. Finally, to the self-conscious strains of “The Internationale,” Chávez took the podium. “Welcome to people from all over the world who have come here to Caracas. Feel at home here!” he began. The two-hour speech that followed (short for Chávez, who has been known to speak for up to seven hours at a time) was powerful, if sometimes rambling. It included a long history of Bolívar and other Latin revolutionaries, a sung tribute to recently deceased Salvadoran leftist leader Shafik Handal and quotes from Karl Marx, Fidel Castro, Noam Chomsky, Polish Communist Rosa Luxemburg and philosophers Bertrand Russell and Thomas Hobbes.

Chávez reserved his harshest rhetoric for President Bush, whom he repeatedly referred to in English as “Mr. Danger” to appreciative titters from the crowd. (Later turning to Cindy Sheehan, he kissed her and called her “Mrs. Hope.”) “The empire is the worst we’ve faced in history,” he thundered, fists pumping downward. “This is a cynical empire. At least the Roman Empire admitted it was an empire, but Mr. Danger’s empire talks about democracy and human rights.” Later he made a more direct challenge to US hegemony. “The empire is very powerful, but it is not infallible. This country, we will bury the US empire. We will bury the US empire. Against this force of imperialism, we say stop.”

US imperialism wasn’t the only thing Chávez challenged. He also goaded the social movements to come together to endorse a proposal for action stemming from the forum. “We can’t allow the World Social Forum to become a folkloric and touristic event,” he said. “A forum in which debates are held without conclusions is just odd. I insist on this. Respecting the autonomy of the social movements, I believe we need to set up an alternative movement.” He left no doubt about what conclusions he would like to see the forum reach, ending his speech with the invocation “Socialism or Death!”

The event sent shock waves through the forum, as participants later debated how much, if at all, it should ally itself with a government entity. That challenge was the latest salvo in an ongoing debate over whether the forum should issue joint declarations. At last year’s forum in Porto Alegre a group of nineteen intellectuals, including liberation theologian François Houtart and Egyptian neo-Marxist Samir Amin, stirred the pot with a document called the “Porto Alegre Manifesto,” which called for debt cancellation and reformation of the WTO, among other demands. This year at the African forum in Bamako, many of the same thinkers released a longer document called the “Bamako Appeal,” with dozens of concrete proposals split over ten subject areas.

In Caracas, meanwhile, a group called the Assembly of Social Movements, a largely European-led coalition of some 300 organizations, issued a statement praising Latin American countries like Venezuela and Bolivia that “have permitted political alternatives born in the heat of popular struggles to reach government.” The group continued with an action plan calling for protests against the Iraq War as well as the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg in July and the World Bank and IMF meetings in September.

Demands for action are sure to intensify as the World Social Forum matures–starting with a unified gathering in Nairobi in 2007, in which the challenge will be to connect with civil society in Africa. As Houtart put it, “If the forums don’t want to become the Fifth International, they should also avoid becoming a social Woodstock. Therefore other initiatives must be taken.” These joint initiatives, however, are a far cry from speaking in the name of the WSF itself or allying with specific governments, both of which are prohibited by the organization’s Charter of Principles. The day after Chávez’s speech, at a session on the future of the forum organized in part by Ponniah, the majority of participants spoke out against the WSF’s issuing a statement in the name of the gathering. “If you look at the history of the left, these are the debates that happened in the internationals, and they explode when they try to impose that unity on everyone,” observed Ponniah afterward. “It makes sense that a political leader like Chávez would make that appeal, but even though we admire him, we can’t repeat the mistakes of the past century.”

After all, three years ago the champion of the forum was Brazilian President Lula, who was given a hero’s welcome in Porto Alegre. Since then he has been criticized by social movements for cutting deals with neoliberal institutions and falling short on social programs–to say nothing of a corruption scandal that has undermined his government. Regardless of the route the forum takes in the future, the Caracas edition seemed to make the gathering newly relevant in its dialogue with living, breathing examples of the alternative world it’s always described. As the title of one event declared, the slogan for the World Social Forum may need to be changed from Another World Is Possible to Another World Is on the March! It remains to be seen where it’s going.

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