BRAZIL: World Social Forum calls for end to globalisation

February 13, 2002



PORTO ALEGRE — The outstanding success of the second World Social Forum dealt a severe blow to the proponents of the "end of the anti-globalisation movement after September 11" pundits.

Some 51,300 people from all over the world and representing 4909 organisations participated in the forum, held in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre in the state of Rio Grande do Sul from January 31 to February 5. A vast array of discussions and actions all called for an end to the tyranny of neo-liberal globalisation.

The World Social Forum (WSF) was established in 2001 by social movements and non-government organisations as a counter-meeting to the annual gatherings of the capitalist elite's World Economic Forum.

This year's WSF occurred in a context of heightened conflict and military aggression from the US and other imperialist governments in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. The dramatic financial crisis and popular revolt in neighbouring Argentina also gave added impetus to the meeting.

Indian feminist and environmental activist Vandana Shiva summed up the mood and resolve of many activists present at a conference held early in the WSF. Referring to a recent article in the London Economist on the anti-globalisation movement, she noted that "incredibly the magazine characterised the organisations Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace as 'terrorists', because of their opposition to genetically modified crops, and called for the extension of Bush's 'war on terror' against these activists."

"What we are witnessing is a process of criminalisation of social protest and rebellion", said Shiva. "The powers that be want to characterise any challenge to their system as akin to terrorist violence.

"Our task is to resist this criminalisation of protest and to assert the legitimacy of our challenge to globalisation and assertion of the values of real democracy and the environment."

The WSF itself went a long way towards achieving this. It commenced with a 70,000 strong rally and march through Porto Alegre. A sea of red flags flooded the streets with strong applause for the Cuban and Via campesina (peasant and landless workers) contingents.

The rally ended with speeches and performances at a massive outdoor amphitheatre. The crowd responded with enthusiastic chants when the tremendously popular Workers Party (PT) governor of Rio Grande do Sul — Olivio Dutra — took to the stage in full gaucho (southern cowboy) kit to open the WSF.

Dutra noted that "the relentless drive to war by the United States and the crisis in Argentina show that now more than ever an alternative to globalisation is needed.

"That alternative can be built through the vision of the social and labour movements, the popular communities and civil society. The principles of deepened and participatory democracy can act as a starting point to the dictatorship of the market and capital."

Over the following five days thousands participated in 27 conferences, 130 seminars and more than 700 workshops covering an immense range of topics. Added to this were pages of cultural and less official activities. The official program was a 151-page tabloid-sized publication in Portuguese and English.

Almost half the participants were aged 30 years and under. A very successful youth gathering was held in conjunction with the WSF. Some 11,600 young people camped out at the city's forshore reserve, immediately adjacent to the state government's offices.

The youth forum had its own agenda of activities with an additional 60 workshops. A separate series of Quilombo workshops focused on the struggle of Afro-Brazilian population for equality.

Numerous protests and activities punctuated these activities. These included protests in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle and 30,000 strong rallies in solidarity with the Argentine people and against the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas.

In preparation the scheduled United Nations Earth Summit II conference in South Africa, a "Rio + 10" seminar of international environment groups occurred in the three days before the WSF started. It noted the lack of progress in achieving environmental sustainability in the 10 years since the first UN Rio Earth summit.

Children's and parliamentary, judicial conferences also occurred as parallel events.

The immense number of the participants was evident in the often over-crowded venues located throughout Porto Alegre. Numerous markets and information stalls added a festive character.

The tremendous range of speakers meant that an immense range of views was expressed.

In the conference on Third World debt the different strategies of debt relief and debt cancellation were debated. In opposition to the debt relief strategy, Eric Toussaint of the Brussels-based Committee for the Cancellation of Third World Debt argued: "Ultimately all the negotiations with the creditors have generated very few results. Instead we need to look at the example of the Argentine people who can no longer wait for a solution. We have to be wary of proposals that call for mechanisms like international courts based on contract law. These invariably favour creditors. Instead, we have to rely on citizen mobilisation as the most effective tool for monitoring the use of development funds"

Liddy Napcil of the Freedom from Debt Campaign in the Philippines agreed stating, "even if there is some form of relief it is very quickly overcome by exacerbations of the debt problem. We believe it is high time not be content with few minor improvements but for us to develop a world-wide movement that really addresses the roots of the issue."

Similar debates occurred around issues of development and the need to reform or abolish much of the "global financial architecture".

Questions of how to achieve the changes that were being discussed were often touched on. However, the prevalence of NGOs meant that language was often ambiguous, constantly extolling the virtues of "civil society".

Popular Canadian author Naomi Klein argued that what was needed was "civil disobedience, not civil society". While it was fine for non-state organisations to call on governments to change their economic and social policies, it was ultimately mass action and protests which threatened the power of elites that counted.

An issue that attracted much interest and which demonstrated something of the tactical choices facing the anti-globalisation movement was the discussion over the participatory budget process in the host city of Porto Alegre.

Governed by an alliance of left political parties led by the PT since 1988, Porto Alegre has been the site of a unique and successful experience of participatory democracy. Open local assemblies discuss and decide all aspects and priorities of the municipal government.

For some, this experiment contained the seeds of a whole new system of "governance" as an alternative to market-driven policies. Current Porto Alegre mayor Tarso Genro spoke of its capacity to "end the alienation of the citizen and civil society from the state".

Italian Party of Communist Refoundation leader Fausto Bertinotti pointed to it as a way of building the future institutions of socialism within the framework of capitalism. As decision-making could be gradually "handed back to direct control by citizens eventually expanding to all areas of the economy".

Others, such as Russian socialist Boris Kargarlitsky, were more skeptical of both the possibility of reproducing the experience of Porto Alegre elsewhere and the assumption that capitalist society could be transformed through such a gradual "democratic" process.

Perhaps former mayor and leader of the PT left Raul Pont put the most nuanced view. His 10 theses on Porto Alegre concluded that "the participatory budget was one mechanism of counter-acting the centralisation of decisions and finance to the central government in Brazil, with a resulting decline in social expenditure, since the implementation of neo-liberalism in the 1990s".

"However", he added, "it is one strategy of popular mobilisation amongst many that must be focused on the establishment of a popular and democratic government against the interests of capital."

While talks and discussion often contained oblique language, occasional mentions of "socialism", "revolution" or "Cuba" invariably received strong applause.

The issues discussed in the WSF will continue to be debated in the social movements. The breadth of participation meant that the WSF was largely centred on discussion rather than decisions or organisation.

Perhaps the biggest gain of the WSF was the intensive discussion and education that occurred. Thousands of young activists, particularly from Brazil and other parts of Latin America, participated in an unprecedented opportunity to discuss an immense array of political issues.

From Green Left Weekly, February 13, 2002.
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