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Report from Porto Alegre
What will another world look like?

February 8, 2002 | Pages 6 and 7

AN ESTIMATED 40,000 people came from across Latin America and around the world to attend the World Social Forum (WSF) in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

First organized a year ago as a counter to the annual summit of corporate and political leaders at the World Economic Forum, the WSF showed both the mass bitterness caused by the globalized free market--and the growing desire for an alternative.

That first meeting became known for its theme: "Another world is possible." Now a second WSF--held amid the threat of a new stage in the U.S. "war on terrorism" as well as the crisis and revolt in Argentina--has sharpened the international debate on just what that new world should look like.

LEE SUSTAR reports from Porto Alegre on the massive countersummit to the bosses' celebration in New York.

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FOR A second year, the World Social Forum attracted an incredible range of social movements, labor unions and political groups from all over the world. The spirit of international solidarity and comradeship could be seen everywhere.

Meetings and workshops were spread out around Porto Alegre, but the university campus that hosted the main sessions was jammed. People poured in and out of panel discussions and packed around tables covered with left-wing literature and decorated with political banners.

Discussions and debates took place everywhere--often across language barriers, thanks to impromptu translation by strangers.

The turnout was a sign of the strength of the international left, despite the pressures of the September 11 attacks in the U.S. and the war on Afghanistan, said Vittorio Agnoletto, a leader of the global justice movement in Italy.

"Immediately after September 11, all the big Italian newspapers said this would be the tomb of the Italian movement, because now no one will protest the United States," said Agnoletto, who headed the Genoa Social Forum, which organized the protests of hundreds of thousands against the Group of Eight summit last July. "But we make a distinction between the people of the U.S. and the government."

Agnoletto said that some 150,000 people turned out to one of several big antiwar demonstrations in Italy last fall--including many workers, despite the refusal of unions to endorse the action. Such divisions were on display in Porto Alegre as well.

AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson attended the WSF, and AFL-CIO President John Sweeney sent video greetings. Both supported the war. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson was on hand to hold a press conference in which she called for "ethical" globalization. But she had the nerve to call the U.S. government's war "just" and "urgently needed." France's Socialist Party, which leads the national government and also backed Bush's war, sent ministers to the WSF.

But among the mass of WSF participants, the sentiment against the war and U.S. imperialism was widespread. On the first day of meetings, about 1,000 people turned out for an early morning session on "The Struggle Against Imperialist War and the Challenge of Building Internationalism," featuring author and activist James Petras, Martín Hernandez of the Unified Socialist Workers Party (PSTU) in Brazil and Ahmed Shawki of the International Socialist Organization.

The following night, 2,000 people turned out to hear Noam Chomsky lead off a series of meetings on "A World Without War Is Possible."

The WSF's final statement was a sharp antiwar manifesto, describing the U.S. response to the September 11 attacks as "the inauguration of terror…The United States moved to impose its will by force."

As Samir Amin, a veteran anti-imperialist campaigner and author, told Socialist Worker, "More and more people, organizations and the press agree that the struggle against neoliberalism cannot be separated from the struggle--I would not say for peace, but against imperialist wars led by the U.S. against the people of the "South."

To drive that point home, members of the Refounded Communist Party of Italy pushed for a final statement from the WSF World Parliamentary Forum that would have excluded parties that supported the war in Afghanistan.

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THE DEBATES at the WSF paralleled the controversy in the Brazilian left over the direction of the Workers Party (PT)--and in particular, of the presidential campaign of Luis Inácio "Lula" da Silva, who is the front-runner in elections set for October.

The PT originated in the CUT union federation after the fall of the military dictatorship in 1985. The party has never won the presidency. But it holds the mayor's office in the huge cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janiero, as well as the governor's post in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, where Porto Alegre is located. The PT's administration in Rio Grande do Sul was promoted at the WSF as evidence that social reforms and efficient, respectable government can go together.

The Brazilian right has its sights set on the PT. In recent weeks, two PT mayors were murdered, and many more were threatened with death by what is widely believed to be an organized right-wing death squad.

At the same time, under pressure from Brazilian big business and multinational corporations, Lula has moved to the right--for example, backing off his criticisms of the International Monetary Fund for demanding that Brazil repay its crushing international debt.

This argument came into the heart of the WSF at an opening day forum on external debt, when Eric Toussaint of the Committee to Abolish Third World Debt called for outright refusal to pay, while others argued for re-negotiation.

"I'm delighted that this debate is finally out in the open," said Dennis Brutus, a veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa who today works with 50 Years is Enough, a group that campaigns for abolishing the debt.

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LOOMING OVER all the meetings was the great uprising in neighboring Argentina, where masses of people took to the streets in December and forced out two governments committed to free-market policies.

The rebellion inspired participants--and also posed urgent questions about what to do next. This question came up at several meetings, including one on "Perspectives of the Global Movement of Civil Society."

Speaking on a panel that included Agnoletto and Eduardo Fernandez of the Southern Cone Trade Union Federation, Canadian author Naomi Klein pointed out that workers' struggles in countries like Brazil, South Korea and Indonesia had inspired a solidarity movement in the West.

However, the links between organized labor and the global justice movement are still too limited, Klein said in an interview. "I think there needs to be a lot more dialogue as to why certain tactics are used, as opposed to issuing rules that this is the correct way to protest and using platforms to condemn one another," Klein said. "I think that's the biggest barrier to solidarity."

Brazilian union leader Luiz Carlos "Mancha" Prates agreed that Third World workers' struggles initiated the movement. "But it is the involvement of youth in the U.S. and Europe that gives it a massive scale," he said. "In this sense, labor is still a small participant."

Mancha, a member of the PSTU who worked at a General Motors plant in Brazil for 14 years, is now a local union president in the FNM metalworkers' union. The movement can be broadened not only by the youth taking up issues facing labor, but by unions supporting the demands of students, Mancha said.

"There is no sense in the unions and the students having separate demonstrations," Mancha said. "By working together more closely, it will be easier for the movement to develop an anticapitalist perspective."

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THE DEPTH of the economic crisis and the pre-revolutionary situation in Argentina gave urgency to all the discussions at the WSF. Alberto, a dockworker from Buenos Aires whose pay and hours have been cut because of privatization of the ports, traveled to Porto Alegre to seek solidarity. "We used to have work every day and overtime pay on Sunday, but now we hardly work," he told Socialist Worker.

In a panel discussion called "Reform or Revolution in Latin America," leading members of Argentine socialist organizations--along with Tom Lewis of the International Socialist Organization in the U.S.--focused on the question of building a revolutionary socialist party.

In fact, the question of socialism was taken up explicitly in a number of panels. "A discussion of socialism is what happens when people conclude that a world run by capitalism is impossible," said Dennis Brutus. "The system has become intolerable. But we are building an international movement."

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