Voices against war and neoliberalism: World Social Forum

by Lee Sustar, Lance Selfa and Orlando

Internationalist Socialist Review, April 2003


Nearly 100,000 people participated in the third World Social Forum (WSF) in Porto Alegre, Brazil, January 23-28, 2003 as part of the movement to build an alternative to a world dominated by economic crisis and war. "I will never forget what I saw and who I met here," said Larissa Berbare, a college student from Sao Paulo. "It's a unique opportunity to meet people from around the world and see them exchange and defend their ideas."

The ideas discussed at the WSF-at the big panel discussions, the hundreds of smaller workshops, and the nonstop discussions taking place in the hallways and plazas-ranged from environmentalism to racism, from women's oppression to opposition to the free-market policies known as neoliberalism.

The entire spectrum of the left was present-from moderate politicians an nongovernmental organizations to revolutionary socialists. The size of the crowd and numbers of workshops created an atmosphere of one enormous, nonstop meeting. For example, hundreds of people-many of them Brazilians of African origin-listened intently as America actor Danny Glover spoke about his opposition to war on Iraq and his work as chair of the TransAfrica Forum. At the same time, they could hear the voice o the new environmental minister for Brazil, Marina Silva of the Workers' Party address a crowd of nearly 2,000 in a room designed to hold half as many people.

Overall, 20,763 delegates representing 5,717 organizations in 156 countries attended. The event attracted huge numbers of young people from across Brazil and neighboring countries. Some 25,000 stayed at the WSF youth camp.

The size of the event created organizational chaos, but delegates improvised. Despite an error in the program, some 400 people turned out for a meeting introduced by Ignacio Saiz of Amnesty International that featured a live videoconference hook-up with the U.S.-featuring recently pardoned Illinois death row prisoner Aaron Patterson, as well as Darby Tillis, another former death row prisoner who was exonerated in 1987.

Delegates from around the world gasped when they saw a replica of the torture device used by Chicago police against Patterson and a dozen African American men, whose coerced confessions were used to send them to death row. The audience cheered Joan Parkin of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, who spoke in Porto Alegre, when she compared Bush's record of executions as governor of Texas and his willingness to slaughter hundreds of thousands in a war on Iraq.

The United Socialist Workers' Party of Brazil (PSTU in Portuguese) organized large meetings on issues such as the Palestinian struggle, globalization, the U.S. war drive against Iraq and the new Workers' Party government in Brazil.

A tale of two presidents

For all the excitement of the event and the prospects for Brazil after Workers' Party leader Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva's historic victory in last year's presidential election, there was notable unease about the direction of the new government. Much of this unease was unstated, as the PSTU was one of the only organized forces that presented a left-wing critique of the new government from its platforms.

Lula spoke to tens of thousands of people at an open-air rally January 25. It was the first time that Lula, a former factory worker and union leader, addressed a mass audience of the left as leader of the biggest nation in Latin America.

There was a great deal of expectation about the speech-particularly after the announcement that Lula would then go on to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to meet the world's top political officials and corporate chiefs. But in his speech at the WSF, a very cautious Lula explained to his followers that the times are tough-and that it would be practically impossible to comply with every one of the demands of the Brazilian people. "We have four long years to work," Lula said.

He claimed that he was going to Davos "to bring the voice of Porto Alegre to them." But despite the fact that the WSF showed very clearly the widespread opposition to neoliberalism, the Washington-backed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) and George W. Bush's war on Iraq, Lula followed the same script in Davos as all new presidents who want to gain the favor of the big moneylenders. In his speech to the wealthy and powerful, he spoke of fiscal responsibility and greater openness to imports and foreign investment.

Two days later, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez came to Porto Alegre for an indoor rally at City Hall and a press conference. News of Chavez's visit spread like wildfire, with people attending the WSF anxious to demonstrate their solidarity with the people of Venezuela. Delegates understood that the workers and poor of Venezuela were suffering from a disruption of the oil industry by a bosses' strike-actually a lockout-backed by the Bush administration. Many organized solidarity with Venezuela, such as a Brazilian youth group that issued a statement opposing the bosses' strike and denouncing U.S. imperialism.

Unfortunately, the WSF authorities didn't provide space for Chavez to speak to a mass demonstration. This would have been a great opportunity to show support for the Venezuelan people. The close relationship between the organizers of this event and the Brazilian Workers' Party, Lula's party, was responsible for this missed opportunity.

Lula was given the chance to speak to a mass meeting of the Latin American left to crown his career from trade union organizer to Brazilian president-and by extension, the new leader of Latin America. But now, as president, Lula wants to be seen as the leader of all Brazilians- including Brazilian capitalists. So he didn't make the kind of fiery speech that he's famous for. And organizers apparently didn't want Chavez to upstage him. Chavez and Lula don't have fundamental differences in their approach to issues like the FTAA, the International Monetary Fund and neoliberalism. Chavez was unacceptable to the WSF organizers, who were afraid of giving away Lula's leadership.

Some in the global justice movement felt the appearances of Lula and Chavez undermined the WSF's purpose. In a January 30 Toronto Star column critical of the WSF, journalist Naomi Klein wrote:

But wait a minute: How on earth did a gathering that was supposed to be a showcase for new grassroots movements become a celebration of men with a penchant for three-hour speeches about smashing the oligarchy?

[At its founding] the World Social Forum didn't produce a political blueprint-a good start-but there was a clear pattern to the alternatives that emerged. Politics had to be less about trusting well-meaning leaders, and more about empowering people to make their own decisions; democracy had to be less representative and more participatory.

This criticism missed the point. The mass of the delegates who attended the WSF-including the ranks of the social movements-support Lula and Chavez as symbols of the fight against free-market policies and U.S. imperialism. At the same time, they stood to the left of Lula and Chavez on most questions. They and the movements they represented will learn through their own experience the limitations of politicians like Lula and Chavez. And how they respond will be a matter for political and social organizing, not of "imagining new movements" or models for politics, as Klein wrote. The debates and organizing that must take place will be as old as the question the Polish socialist Rosa Luxemburg posed at the beginning of the last century: "Reform or revolution?"

The world says no to war

Running like a thread through every major discussion at the World Social Forum was opposition to George W. Bush's plan for a war on Iraq. On the first day, antiwar banners dotted contingents in the opening march, which stretched for miles down Avenida Burgos de Medeiros. At the first major plenary session, held at the Gigantinho Arena, British antiwar activist and author Tariq Ali told the crowd of more than 5,000 that Bush's plans amount to nothing less than a revival of American imperialism.

Egyptian anti-imperialist campaigner Samir Amin described Washington's drive to dominate the world-even if it means confronting its European allies over control of the world economy. United for Peace and Justice activist Medea Benjamin, a founder of Global Exchange, described the breadth of the U.S. antiwar movement and the speed with which it has developed. When she finished, the crowd gave her a standing ovation. This show of solidarity with U.S. antiwar activists typified the spirit of internationalism that overcame many participants' assumption that the U.S. population stands behind Bush.

A special meeting, "Voices from the U.S. against the war and imperialism"- sponsored by the International Socialist Review gave attendees a sense of the growing U.S. antiwar movement. Bringing together leading activists from the U.S.-including Benjamin, Global Exchange's Kevin Danaher, Dennis Brutus of Jubilee South Africa, Rania Masri of the Southern Peace Research and Education Center, Rebecca Hanscom of Jobs with Justice and Lee Sustar of the ISR- the meeting conveyed to the Porto Alegre audience the depth of antiwar sentiment in the U.S.

A number of progressives and veteran activists, including Tom Hayden, Barbara Ehrenreich and Arundhati Roy, attended the event. "I think it showed that there's a sizable peace movement, and many of [the WSF participants] didn't believe that it existed," Brutus said afterwards. "On the contrary, there is a viable, active and growing movement for peace" in the U.S.

More than simply describing the antiwar movement, the meeting also confronted the necessity for the U.S. antiwar movement to take up the issue of Palestine, the Bush Doctrine's designs for an international empire, and Bush's war at home. Masri blasted Bush's hypocrisy for wanting to dictate acceptable leaders for Iraqis and Palestinians "when he wasn't even elected himself...If there is any regime that needs changing, it's ours." Hanscom described how Bush's attacks on ordinary Americans-from union busting to cuts in schools and health care-has fueled a growing labor opposition to the war.

Danaher emphasized the need not only t o confront U.S. imperialism, but to turn the fight into "a transformative moment" to challenge the capitalist system as a whole. "When people opposed the dictatorship of General Pinochet in Chile, we struggled by your side," Danaher said. "We struggled by your side in East Timor against the ways of the Indonesian government. Now we have our own liberation struggle. We ask you, humbly, for your support in helping us fight this government that has taken over our country."

Similarly, at a January 27 rally on "Confronting Empire," Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy encouraged a cheering stadium crowd to take up the fight against the coming war. Chomsky methodically laid out the systematic deceptions that the U.S. government and the media have used to terrorize ordinary Americans into accepting the "need for the brave cowboy to ride to our rescue"- thus diverting "attention from tax cuts for the rich and many other policies that are destroying the possibility of a better life for the majority of the population."

But Washington isn't going unopposed, Chomsky pointed out. "Protests in the U.S. and elsewhere are at levels that have no historical precedent," he said. In contrast to the movement against the Vietnam War, "There are large-scale and principled protests across the U.S. before the war has even started." Roy argued for the necessity to fight "corporate globalization-shall we call it by its real name, imperialism?" and to expose George Bush and Tony Blair and their allies "for the cowardly baby killers, water poisoners and pusillanimous long-distance bombers that they are.... We can reinvent civil disobedience in a million different ways. In other words, we can come up with a million ways of becoming a collective pain in the ass.... Remember this: We be many, and they be few.

A fighting alternative to a world of crisis

At the first World Social Forum in 2001, delegates assembled to challenge the elite World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, with a live debate via videoconference. "[T]he best gift that the 2000 corporate executives at Davos can give to the world is for them to board a spaceship and blast off for outer space," radical Filipino economist Walden Bello, speaking from Porto Alegre, told financier George Soros in Davos. "The rest of us will definitely be much better off without them."

This year, Lula was broadcast live at the WSF from Davos. While his comments to journalists in Davos drew cheers from the crowd in Porto Alegre, Lula's trip to meet the assembled CEOs, politicians, bankers and bureaucrats symbolized the rightward move of the Workers' Party over the past three years.

The World Social Forum was launched in Porto Alegre because the Workers' Party then controlled the city and state governments and presented itself as a new type of left-wing rule. Ironically, in the same election that Lula won the presidency, the Workers' Party was voted out of those state offices-following widespread bitterness over austerity measures that it imposed.

Now Lula, after two decades of arguing for the need to refuse to pay previous government's foreign debt and to stand up to the U.S., has announced that his government will repay Brazil's $344 billion foreign debt, even though a third of the population lives below the poverty line.

While Lula has also promised major reforms-including the "zero hunger" initiative-the amount allocated in the new budget is only enough to feed 9 million of the 54 million who would be eligible. The result is that 45 million will go hungry for another year while the bankers get paid on time.

The other major concession is that Lula has agreed to negotiate the FTAA with the U.S. after years of opposition. During the election campaign, the Workers' Party refused to participate in a referendum organized by the rural workers' movement in the Landless Workers' Movement (MST), the church and the revolutionary socialist party, the PSTU. Nevertheless, more than 10 million people participated in the plebiscite-and 98 percent voted against participation in the FTAA.

Since the election, the MST has moderated its stance and given critical support to Lula. But the PSTU organized at the World Social Forum a massive signature campaign demanding a plebiscite. In five days, the campaign gathered 30,000 signatures-nearly one of every three attendees.

Lula remains hugely popular. Crowds at rallies chanted his name when speakers referred to him. Having been inaugurated only three weeks earlier, Lula was still experiencing a honeymoon that will dissipate as he attempts to push through the unpopular policies he's pledged to the global bankers.

The conjuncture of events-the upsurge against neoliberalism and imperialism in Latin America, Lula's honeymoon and Bush's war drive-combined to double the attendance at the WSF from 2002. This conjuncture also created a unity among different forces on the left that will face a sorting out over the next few years.

For now, many of the grassroots movements in Brazil feel that "their" government is in power. In a year's time, they may be involved in open confrontation with that government. Opposition to Bush's war could unite those who are opposed to imperialist war in principle with those who are opposed only to a "unilateral" or non-UN approved war. As Washington embarks on its war against the world-with or without the UN's support-antiwar forces will have to take stands that will distinguish the principled anti-imperialists from those who want to "win without war."

This means that the 2003 WSF may be the last Forum that subsumes political differences under the slogan "Another World Is Possible." As the left develops to respond to the challenges that it will face over the next several years, debates over "what kind of world?" and "how do we make it possible?" will lead to organizational conclusions. For instance, if Lula's government joins the FTAA, how will a future WSF bring together supporters of the government's decision with social movements that are adamantly opposed to it?

At the Forum's end, there was little doubt where the spirit of most of the delegates lay. Musicians entertaining the crowd as it gathered in the stadium for the final rally led thousands in a multi-verse rendition of "The Internationale," the traditional socialist anthem. As the musicians led in Portuguese, the crowd sang along in their native languages. The crowd poured out from the final rally into an enormous march against war on Iraq and against the FTAA. "The world is finally changing to the way we want it," said 16-year-old Andre Berto Gimenez after the rally. "It's getting there." The potential for real change for Brazil can be seen in this fighting mood. And in fact, the massive left-wing opposition to neoliberalism on display at the WSF shows that there is an alternative in the struggle for change that has boiled up across Latin America. The challenge ahead will be to build the organizations and politics that can bring about that change from below.


Lee Sustar, Lance Selfa and Orlando Sepulveda attended the World Social Forum as part of a delegation from the Center for Economic Research and Social Change, publisher of the International Socialist Review.

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