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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 238 | Mayo 2001



Porto Alegre The Strength of Being Together

Well-known Chilean-Cuban leftist intellectual Marta Harnecker was among those who attended the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre. The following are some of her impressions of the event.

Marta Harnecker

Thousands of people from all over the planet, moved by a great common objective—repudiation of the current neoliberal model and the conviction that "another kind of world is possible"—gathered together in Porto Alegre, Brazil, on January 25-30. It was like a Resistance International, in which we represented the broadest spectrum of the left, from those who want to transform capitalism gradually to those convinced that this oppressive system can only be brought to an end through revolutionary struggle; from those who favor prioritizing negotiations to those practicing "direct action" methods such as the French peasants represented by José Bovè or the landless peasants of Brazil. In the words of Bernard Cassen, president of the Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions in Support of the Citizenry (ATTAC), director of Le Monde Diplomatique and one of the Forum’s organizers, it was the "embryo of a real Rebel International."
For four days, all these varied leftist tendencies—including libertarians, communists, socialists, anarchists and progressive democrats—shared ideas, demonstrating to the world that a new leftist culture is beginning to emerge. It is a pluralist and tolerant culture that stresses what unites it over what divides it, unites around common values such as solidarity, humanism and defense of nature and rejects the idea that love of profit and the laws of the market are the guiding principles of human activity.

The proposal to create a World Social Forum grew out of the successful mobilizations in Europe against the Multilateral Investment Agreement (MIA) in 1998 and the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle in the United States in November 1999, followed by various other demonstrations in other parts of the world. These mobilizations demonstrated that new actors had appeared on the political scene who are willing to fight resolutely to stop neoliberalism from continuing its exterminating advance that imposes rules on the world game that produce increasingly exclusionary results and only favor the big transnational consortiums. Given how many self-termed leftist parties have retreated in the face of neoliberalism and how many others have been struck by inertia, new protagonists have taken up the role of criticizing and actively mobilizing against neoliberal globalization. Their basic organizational tools are the Internet and email, demonstrating once again that technological advances can serve to liberate human beings when used with non-profit ends.

Four days of intense work were preceded by an opening ceremony in which the normal routine of political speeches was replaced by autochthonous music and a simple dramatization showing how an oppressed people gradually recovers its dignity and picks itself up to fight against its situation. There followed a massive and festive march by over 10,000 people, whose route was modified at the last minute to avoid banks and McDonalds restaurants that might have provoked uncontrolled reactions. The conservative press would have seized upon such occurrences to attack both the Forum and the hosting Porto Alegre government, led by the Brazilian Workers Party (PT), which, after its notable advances in the local government elections, looks like it could win the 2002 presidential elections.

During the mornings of the following days a sea of people flooded the four big amphitheaters and corridors of the Conference Center, where internationally recognized figures were participating in four simultaneous round tables. Among many others were Samir Amin (Egypt), Danielle Mitterand, Ignacio Ramonet and Bernard Cassen (France), Hillary Wainright (England), Aníbal Quijano (Peru), François Houtart (Belgium), Atilio Borón (Argentina), Lula, Emir Sader, Frei Betto, Michael Lowy and Raúl Pont (Brazil), Ricardo Alarcón and Alfredo Guevara (Cuba), Ahmed Ben Bella (Algeria), Diane Matte (Canada), Roberto Sabio (Italy), Manuel Monereo (Spain) and Norman Solomon (the United States).

Between the lunch break and late evening, thousands of participants spread into the conference rooms of varying sizes where hundreds of meetings were being held. Four thousand delegates from 122 countries (they had expected 50-60) had registered but between 10,000 and 15,000 people—most of them Brazilians, followed by Argentines, Uruguayans and a strong French contingent—circulated around the Forum grounds. Workshops were planned for the afternoons, with each organization or entity that registered in the Forum eligible to submit a subject, assuming responsibility for the subject chosen and its presentation. The local organizers then had to guarantee a room based on a rough guess of the number of people interested in the subject. This was an arduous task for the organizing team since only 150 workshops had been anticipated, but some 400 on the most diverse subjects had been requested by email. Since the conference rooms could not cover the demand, they had to turn to the Federal University and other locations. If any subject was not presented at the Forum it was due to lack of initiative by those interested in it, not to any censorship by the organizers.

At night various internationally known figures made presentations. They included PT leader Luíz Inácio da Silva, better known as Lula, and Joao Pedro Stádile, both Brazilians; the Argentine Plaza de Mayo mother Hebe de Bonafini; José Bovè from France; and Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano. In some cases, the assigned arenas were swamped way beyond capacity, as happened during Galeano’s presentation; the room held 700, but over 3,000 turned up, causing frustrated admirers to strongly criticize the organizers.

The day’s activities were rounded off by an open-air cultural show in the Por do Sol Arena. One of the most acclaimed groups was the Buena Vista Social Club from Cuba.

Certain parallel activities were also held within the context of the Forum itself, including a world mayor’s meeting, a world parliamentary forum that brought together 500 federal and state senators and representatives, and a three-day seminar on "Resistance to Neoliberal Globalization" organized by the CEDESP and the unions that attracted an audience of 300-400. There was also a youth camp that brought together 4,000 young people—double the expected number—and an indigenous camp. Although only 400 national and foreign journalists had been expected to turn up, 1,300 covered the Forum’s activities. Eight organizations from Brazilian civil society were responsible for staging this great event: the Brazilian Association of Nongovernmental Organizations (ABONG); ATTAC; the Brazilian Justice and Peace Commission (CBJS) of the Brazilian Bishops’ Conference; the Brazilian Association of Businesspeople for the Citizenry (CIVES); the United Workers Confederation (CUT); the Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analysis (IBASE); the Center for Global Justice (CJG); and the Landless People’s Movement (MST). They were joined by other international organizations, of which ATTAC from France deserves particular mention. A very important role was played by the Rio Grande do Sul and Porto Alegre local governments, which are run by leftist coalitions headed by the PT. Before the Forum was even underway, the right-wing press harshly criticized these governments for dedicating a significant amount of money to the organization of this great gathering against neoliberal globalization.

The World Social Forum broke the normal rules of international events organized by the Left. It was not a party event or an event for parliamentarians or governors, but rather a gathering of international organized civil society. This does not mean that there were no governors or politicians present, just that they participated as any another citizen. There were no harangues or speeches, just presentations. Enough time was allotted for the presentations and for the public to participate. It was not intended to be a deliberative event and there was thus no final declaration, although broad consensus was reached on three struggles: to annul the foreign debt, to put an end to tax havens and to set a tax on financial capital. The latter, known as the Tobin Rate and involving a 0.1% tax on financial transactions, was proposed by Nobel Economics Laureate James Tobin.

The representatives of the strongest social movements wasted no time in calling several meetings with the representatives of the other movements present—around 900 in all. By the end, they drew up a pronouncement that reflects their maturity. Among their proposals are cancellation of the foreign public debt and reparation for historical, social and ecological debts; the closing down of tax havens and taxation of financial transactions; genuine recognition of the right of unions to organize and bargain to achieve new rights for workers; the right to a fair trade system that guarantees full employment, food sovereignty and equitable terms of exchange; a call for massive mobilizations against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA); the end of IMF and World Bank interference in national policies and organized protests against their measures; the implementation of a democratic land reform that provides peasants with land, water and seeds; and the struggle for a sustainable form of agriculture that is free of transgenic crops. They also stated their opposition to war, arms build-up and the arms trade. They demanded an end to the repression and criminalization of social protest and condemned foreign military intervention in their countries’ internal affairs, firmly rejecting Plan Colombia as nothing more than a pretext for US military intervention in Latin America.

The pronouncement concluded with a call to reinforce the alliance around these proposals and mobilize around them throughout 2001. The communiqué recognizes that the Porto Alegre World Social Forum represents a step toward a more just world with sovereign peoples and considers that the event served to enrich the struggles of each of the social movements present, which left the Forum stronger and more disposed to fight to build a better future.

What made such a significant event possible? One answer is the inability of the neoliberal policies applied for over a decade to resolve the most urgent problems of humanity. Not only have such policies failed to resolve the problems, they have caused poverty and social exclusion to spike extraordinarily, while increasing wealth is being concentrated in the hands of an ever-smaller group of people.

Another reason is that the Left has begun to shake off the depressive syndrome into which it sank following the defeat of socialism in Eastern Europe and the USSR. Its critical and analytic capacity is on the rise again and it has begun to recover the initiative. It no longer limits itself to exposing neoliberal logic and denouncing its pernicious consequences on a large part of humanity, but is also proposing alternative measures and starting to demonstrate through the initiatives of both organized social movements and local governments that it is not just claiming to be better, but actually is better in practice. Without any doubt, however, the most important factor was the success achieved in various parts of the world by the struggles against the introduction of neoliberal measures. In this sense, Seattle has become a symbol.

Although diagnosis outweighed therapy in most panelists’ presentations, and denunciations outweighed proposals in the discussions, there is growing awareness that this weakness must be overcome. In his presentation, Samir Amin offered us some pointers on how. In addition to a profound theoretical criticism of the current neoliberal capitalist system, it is necessary to study the projects of struggle and action that are currently confronting the system and building practical alternatives, and that are above all forging the subjects or protagonists required by the new society. In this respect, the idea of creating a web site through the initiative of the World Alternatives Forum with technical support from Alternatives, a Canadian NGO, was a particularly interesting idea. This site will be dedicated to gathering all of the alternative experiences that emerge in different countries, regardless of their dimensions. That will be the means for getting the word out about them so they can be replicated in various parts of the world.

Among the main achievements of the World Social Forum was the successful breaking of the informational blockade placed around the Left by the communications transnationals. Events in Porto Alegre occupied considerable media space, and took up as much space in some countries as the Davos Forum. "There was a lot of talk and what was talked about was heard throughout the world," as Brazilian actor Luis Fernando Veríssimo put it during the event’s closing ceremony in the text "Another World is Possible." Secondly, it was possible, thanks to the Left’s new culture, to bring two of its great currents together in the same activity: the one that aims to accumulate forces based on the transforming use of institutions and the one that seeks to do so through the construction of autonomous social movements. I am convinced that only uniting the militant efforts of both currents will create the correlation of forces needed to vanquish the powerful enemy that stands before us.

And thirdly, it was demonstrated that democratic practices are an enormous help when it comes to gathering forces. I can testify to the predominantly democratic and pluralist nature of the Forum. Four days before the deadline for submitting workshops, Alternatives and Latin American Popular Memory (MEPLA), the NGO that I run in Cuba, submitted the subject of "Youth and Politics" and invited the following panelists: the presidents of the Federation of Brazilian Students and the Student’s Federation from Austral University in Chile and a representative from Venezuela’s Young Homeland Movement. We decided to divide the meeting according to four issues: "Why are young people skeptical of politics?"; "How do young people view the changes that have taken place in the world, particularly the technological revolution?"; "Can we do without parties?"; and "What should be done today?" We managed to bring together 200 young people who exchanged opinions for well over two hours. Each panelist talked about each subject for five minutes and then the other participants intervened. Due to time limitations, questions were submitted in written form. As the moderator, I only intervened when it was necessary to add something or clarify a certain point. That was the general style of the debates.

I consider the Porto Alegre First World Social Forum to be the most radical event held by the world’s Left in recent times. Its radical nature lies not in raising the most belligerent slogans, which only a few follow because they frighten the majority, but rather in being able to create spaces in which broad sectors can meet and struggle. Demonstrating that we are many and are in the same struggle is what makes us strong, what radicalizes us.

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