From Protest to Politics
A report from Porto Alegre
by Marc Cooper
The Nation magazine, March 11, 2002
Porto Alegre, Brazil
In a balmy evening, under a sky streaked pink with the dying
| sun, the fiery leftist governor of the state of Rio Grande do
Sul | set the loftiest of goals for the second annual World Social
| Forum, which convened here at the end of January. On the ~ forum's
opening night in this city of 1.3 million, a jubilant crowd that
had been singing "Another World Is Possible"-the forum's
theme song-cheered mightily in a bayside amphitheater as Olivio
Dutra proclaimed a battle against what he called the 'profound
dehumanization and systemic banalization of civilization."
He added, "We are among the millions of other people who
now proclaim that humanity is not for sale."
It was in these pages, on the eve of the WSF, that Paris-based
activist and author Susan George laid down a daunting challenge
to that snaking, sometimes seething, ill-defined thing generally
called the "antiglobalization" movement. In a world
where official leadership fails to address the most basic of injustices
and inequalities, George pondered whether the citizens of the
globe were willing to "accept the risk of being serious."
Governor Dutra's words seemed to confirm that this gathering of
50,000 people- three times more than last year, when the WSF was
born as an alternative to the corporate World Economic Forum-was
ready to offer up a resounding "yes."
The world may or may not have changed forever after September
11. But the movement was certainly at a turning point that demanded
sober introspection. It had proved it could build giant puppets
and wreak creative civil disobedience in one capital after another.
It could attract the media's gaze as well as the loyalty of a
new generation of college activists. It could begin to build once
unthinkable bridges between hardhats and tree-huggers. It could
force powerful international agencies like the World Trade Organization
to rework their rhetoric and public posturing. But after the shattering
events of the past six months, with the political topography radically
reworked under its feet, it was clear the movement must now collectively
think in long-term, strategic and politically effective ways.
"September 11 was the cutting edge of the offensive against
us," said Filipino economist Walden Bello. But, he noted)
referring to the demise of one of the world's most enthusiastic
corporate proponents of globalization and the collapse of a country
that was only recently hailed as a model of one-size-fits-all
global economic policies, "history is cunning and inscrutable.
And she has handed us two boons: Enron and Argentina."
Against that backdrop, the thousands attending the WSF went
about a week's business of debate and discussion with the earnestness
of a gigantic study group cramming for finals. Organized primarily
by Europeans and Latin Americans, it was subsidized with $1.5
million from local leftist city and state administrations. The
intellectual menu was staggering, and refreshingly free of the
wearisome, process-obsessed infighting that often marks events
organized by the American left. Instead, from 8 in the morning
until late into the night, delegates, guests and the plain curious
from around the world jammed hundreds of seminars, conferences,
workshops and panel discussions focused on such fare as "The
Production of Wealth and Social Reproduction," "Access
to Wealth and Sustainable Development," "Civil Society
and the Public Arena" and "Political Power and Ethics
in a New Society."
If you didn't want to join the 3,000 admirers who overflowed
an auditorium to hear Noam Chomsky, you could go next door and
listen to Argentine Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel,
or visit with Sashi Sail from the women's movement of India, or
attend a panel on trade chaired by South Africa's Dot Keet, or
ponder the words of Suwit Watnoo from the Thai "Forum of
the Poor." At one point, Chomsky was inspired to compare
this gathering to those convoked by workers' movements a century
ago. "Porto Alegre," he said, "offers the real
possibility of building a new international."
No Blueprints, Please: Just 'Deglobalization'
Perhaps Professor Chomsky, understandably, got a bit carried
away on the high emotional tide. Fortunately, no manifestoes,
marching orders or instant recipes for a New Society issued forth
from the WSF. Instead, the focus was on what Emilio Taddei of
the Buenos Aires-based Latin American Council on Social Sciences
said were the five main areas of concern facing the movement:
"Strategies to confront international financial agencies,
imposing controls on international capital, the relationship between
politics and civil society, the tactics of protest and international
solidarity." From the week of reflection and debate a consensus
seemed to emerge as to how and where to move the fight forward
after the setback of September 11:
* Redefine the Movement. There was general agreement that
the time had come to reposition the movement in affirmative terms-moving
from a stance of exposing and protesting to proposing alternatives
and solutions. "We are labeled as anti, anti, anti,"
said Public Citizen's Lori Wallach. "We need to change that
perception. It's they who are anti. We are a movement for democracy.
For equity. For the environment. For health. They are for a failed
status quo." She joked, "You can see I've got who we
are down to about fifty words. Now we've got to get it down to
There was also recognition that after the bloody confrontations
in Genoa, and certainly after the World Trade Center attacks,
the movement could no longer afford any ambiguity about its stance
on violence. "Too often we get dragged into a swamp debating
what is euphemistically called 'diversity of tactics,"' said
one European environmentalist. "Now we need to speak up and
say clearly that violence, as a political tactic, just doesn't
work either in the United States or in Europe."
* Escalate the Fight Against the World Trade Organization:
"Shrink It or Sink lt." There was wide agreement that
the ministerial meeting of the WTO last fall in Qatar was a clear
setback for the poorer countries of the global South, notwithstanding
some rhetorical genuflections toward issues of equity by the richer
countries. "We have to strip the image of the WTO,"
said Martin Khor, founder of the Third World Network. "And
given that the WTO is becoming the most powerful multilateral
organization in the world' there's an added urgency to the task."
The still-tenuous new trade round launched at the Qatar meeting
aims to expand WTO authority radically into even more areas of
global commerce and culture. At a minimum, the WTO and its power
have to shrink.
One key part of this fight, Khor argued, is for the movement
to make clear that the WTO isn't unfair just because it is for
free trade. "It's not that simple," he said. "The
WTO is about free trade and protectionism at the same time. It's
about a double standard that continues to protect rich countries
against products that poor countries are good at exporting."
Tackling the WTO, argued Canadian Tony Clark of the Polaris Institute,
means campaigns ranging from what he called "reformist"
strategies of suing multinationals and imposing codes of conduct
on them to "radical strategies that question the right of
existence of corporations."
* Block the Free Trade Area of the Americas. At least in the
Western Hemisphere, the frontlines of the fight will be against
the White House push to approve the thirty-four-country FTAA-
a proposal that its critics call "NAFTA on Steroids."
"The FTAA is no less than a coup de grace to Latin America's
development and environmental protection," said economist
Miosotis Rivas Pena of the Dominican Republic. There's crackling
energy around this issue, and it sparked during the forum. "We
will fight [the FTAA] every possible way, and we will defeat it,"
vowed Luiz Ignacio "Lula" Da Silva, Brazil's most important
opposition politician. As head of the left-of-center Workers Party,
which already governs large parts of Brazil, "Lula"
is currently topping the polls in this fall's presidential election.
The FTAA "isn't really a free-trade pact," Lula said.
"Rather, it's a policy of annexation of Latin America by
the United States."
Much of the leadership in the fight against the FTAA is expected
to come from Brazil, which has the biggest economy in Latin America
and the ninth-largest in the world. Many Brazilians see their
country as the prime target for the corporatist agenda behind
the FTAA. Multinational interests covet not only the resource-rich
Amazon but also potentially profitable targets for privatization
in a country that still maintains a heavy state presence in its
In December the Bush Administration won a one-vote majority
in the House on "trade promotion authority" for fast-track
negotiations on the FTAA. It will still have to pass the Senate
and then go back to both houses for reconciliation votes, where
opponents think they have a good chance of killing it. In Porto
Alegre, plans were floated to call for a series of national plebiscites
on the trade pact-giving ordinary citizens a voice in the debate.
Wallach said, "Our best weapon is the 'Dracula strategy'-exposing
the details of the pact to the light of public scrutiny."
The primary line of attack on the FTAA will be the extraordinary
powers it grants to private corporations, allowing them to sue
national governments that take any measure that could impinge
on profits. The model used in drafting this aspect of the FTAA
is the notorious Chapter 11 provision of NAFTA [see William Greider,
"How the Right Is Using Trade Law to Overturn American Democracy,"
October 15, 2001], which has allowed a US company to sue Mexico
for attempting to block toxic dumping and a Canadian company to
sue the United States because of California's clean-water standards.
The international campaign against the FTAA was formally jump-started
here last week with a march of 25,000 organized by the World Social
Forum and the Brazilian Central Trade Union Confederation, CUT.
* Propose a New World Financial Architecture. The International
Forum on Globalization, which groups together a number of prominent
anticorporate campaigners and strategists, used the occasion of
the WSF to release an advance summary of a report on alternatives
to corporate globalization that will be published soon. Economist
Bello, a member of the report's drafting committee, outlined a
post-cold war vision that seeks a third way between the two failed
models of the twentieth century. "There is no blueprint,"
he said. "We've had two blueprint disasters in the past fifty
years: centralized socialism and corporate capitalism. We need
Bello proposes that we think not in terms of withdrawing from
the international economy but rather of a process of "deglobalization."
This would mean reorientation of local economies toward domestic
and not foreign markets; significant land and income redistribution;
policies de-emphasizing growth and maximizing equity; and implementation
of a strategy that subordinates markets to social justice. "Which
likewise means we also have to rethink the role of the state,"
said Professor Alberto Arroyo, a trade studies expert from Mexico's
National Autonomous University. "When we are talking about
a new and strengthened role for the state, we have to be talking
about a new kind of state-one subject to real democratic controls
by civil society." Otherwise, he said, what results is a
failed model of centralized, bureaucratic socialism. Other thinkers
argue for the so-called Tobin tax, which would impose a levy on
international financial transactions to finance global development.
And some call for a full-scale global Marshall Plan.
Any of this requires a new system of global financial governance
that would supplant agencies like the WTO, the IMF and the World
Bank. "When it comes to these international institutions,"
Bello said, "it's not a matter of replacing neoliberal principles
with social democratic ones. Rather it's about decommissioning,
neutering and disempowering these organizations while revitalizing
regional pacts and UN groups, and constructing new institutions
that would devolve production and trade decisions to national
economies that would have the space to pursue diverse development
strategies and not be bound to one centralized model."
Bringing It All Back Home
At last year's WSF there was a constant buzz about the conspicuous
absence of US delegates-there was only a sprinkling of US attendees.
But this year's event drew more than 400 stateside representatives,
making the US delegation the fifth largest. The AFL-CIO sent a
small but high-level group headed by federation executive vice
president Linda Chavez Thompson. And president John Sweeney electrified
the crowd at the opening night celebration with a live satellite
video greeting from the New York City street protests against
the World Economic Forum.
Labor-backed Jobs With Justice (JWJ), working with other Washington-based
groups, put together a "New Voices" delegation of about
forty frontline community activists, ranging from members of a
Communications Workers local in Massachusetts to Southwestern
environmentalists, immigrant textile workers and Florida healthcare
organizers. "Up to now I haven't been involved in the antiglobalization
campaigns," said an ebullient Tracy Yassini, development
director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, which
has fought effectively for a living wage and union rights. "But
coming out of this forum, now I feel I have an obligation to get
Overall, the Americans kept a low profile in the forum, deferring
to the Europeans and Latin Americans, who were recognized as being
vastly more experienced in building oppositional social and political
movements. But they were treated with respect: Superstar attention
was lavished on Chomsky, and Americans Lori Wallach from Public
Citizen and Sarah Anderson of the Institute for Policy Studies
were on headliner panels.
There seemed to be a general notion among the Americans present
that they were at a decisive moment: that in the post-Seattle
rush, the movement's tactics had started running way ahead of
its strategy, that protest was supplanting politics and that it
was time to re-evaluate. "Seattle brought us visibility,"
said one organizer. "But it also brought so many people at
once into the movement that our goals got muddied. Leadership
got weakened and dispersed. We've actually lost much of the initiative
in the past year and a I half." The next stage, suggest some
delegates, is to dig in. "It's ever clearer that this can't
be a movement of hops from one summit to another," said JWJ
executive director Fred Azcarate. "It's going to be a very
It would be disingenuous to deny that the US movement faces
serious roadblocks. The blue-green coalition has frayed, and tension
between much of organized labor and the rest of the movement is
real. "The biggest problem inside the Seattle coalition isn't
the war," said one key US activist. "The problem is
around those who want to use violence. The post-9/11 labor movement
doesn't want its rank and file to see its leaders in street demonstrations
that turn violent. Labor is simply no longer on board for any
ambiguity." Bad blood is also brewing around the Bush Administration's
energy policy. The Teamsters, Mine Workers and building-trades
unions support the White House on proposed oil drilling in the
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (as does the AFL-CIO in a more
nominal way); nowadays their reps won't sit in some meetings with
the Sierra Club, which opposes expanded drilling.
Some Teamster/turtle channels remain open. And in spite of
the differences, work proceeds on several common projects. Public
Citizen's Wallach is confident that coming out of Porto Alegre,
and with the nonlabor part of the movement better focused, the
coalition will be reinforced. "We have too much in common
not to keep working together," she said.
Civil Society or Civil Disobedience?
One of the more spirited talks given during the week came
from Naomi Klein, the Canadian who wrote No Logo, which has become
a primer for many young activists. Denouncing the prevailing official
wisdom that a just society is no longer possible, K!ein brought
her audience to its feet when she said she had grown weary of
the week's focus on building civil society. Enough already with
being polite and civil. "The alternative to a world without
possibility," Klein proclaimed, "is not civil society-but
As a sort of pep talk to activists, Klein's speech was flawless.
But as political strategy, it seemed to be contradicted by the
central message that emerged from the week. Indeed, perhaps the
greatest value of an event like the World Social Forum is the
perspective it offers-one that counsels a decidedly more patient
view. Thousands of activists from hundreds of organizations from
dozens of countries have come together to realize that this is
not a single or, for that matter, a new movement. It's rather
a convergence of many and varied movements that have-at times-only
one thing in common: repudiation of a system that puts profit
before people. The only other point of unity is an acute awareness
that while alternatives and solutions are imperative, any temptation
toward easy answers collapsed along with the Berlin wall.
It was enough to look out at the city and state around us-both
governed by the Workers Party, a uniquely Brazilian concoction
that is equal parts social democratic, Marxist, Christian and
nationalist-to understand the very long and uncertain road ahead.
Born from the militant Metal Workers Union twenty-two years ago
during the darkest days of the military dictatorship, the party
eventually emerged from the underground, weathered storms of repression
and persecution, and today not only governs the surrounding state
of Rio Grande but also, a thousand miles to the north, presides
over South America's biggest city, Sao Paulo, with a population
of more than 11 million. Party leader Lula-a former metalworker-currently
leads presidential election polls.
Here in Porto Alegre, the Workers Party celebrates its thirteenth
year in City Hall. It's a party that is fully committed to the
same principles of global justice that defined the WSF. Budgets
have been democratized under its rule. City services have been
greatly improved. Clean natural-gas buses roam the streets. The
local security forces are taught "social policing"-mediation
and negotiation before repression. But under Workers Party administration,
injustice has not been repealed. Exploitation has not been abolished.
Multinational corporations have not been banned from Porto Alegre-nor
could they be, unless the city seceded from the world. And, in
other parts of Brazil, Workers Party mayors are still being assassinated
by rightwing death squads. So here is the Workers Party, eons
ahead of any similar political formation in the United States
and yet an equally incalculable distance from the goal of a new
society- of "another world."
Perhaps the forum's most poignant moments came during its
culminating evening session, when, after a long day of panel-hopping,
maybe 3,500 people overflowed a huge auditorium to hear a 'personal
testimony" from radical Brazilian economist Maria da Conceicao
Tavares. For more than an hour, the crusty, gravel-voiced, charmingly
profane 72-year-old university professor and former Workers Party
congresswoman, who at one time or another had just about every
member of Brazil's current political elite as a student, moved
the crowd from reverent silence to tears and finally cheers.
Using her own life experience as primary evidence, she counseled
the long and patient view and warned against any expectation that
the powerful would crumble if protesters merely stamped their
feet loud enough. Describing her childhood in Portugal marked
by the inflow of defeated Spanish Republican refugees, her adolescence
spent in the shadow of Portuguese fascism and the horror of World
War II, her immigration to Brazil only to face the imposition
of two decades of military dictatorship and now the past fifteen
years of building a leftist party within an unstable democracy
while hoping to elect Lula to the presidency in October, she said:
"Maybe when you are 20 years old you can believe in revolution,
socialism and even the resurrection of the flesh. But have no
illusions; the struggle is permanent. I have fought for fifty
years and I will continue fighting until I die. That is all I
know how to do. And I hope you will join me."
Marc Cooper, host and executive producer of RadioNation, is
the author of Pinochet and Me: A Chilean Anti-Memoir (Verso).