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World Social Forum 2005:
Crossroads for the movement

February 4, 2005 | Pages 6 and 7

LEE SUSTAR reports from the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

THE 2005 World Social Forum (WSF) reflected the traditional strengths of the movement that brought about these annual meetings four years ago--internationalism, diversity and youth opposed to the priorities of the system.

But this year's forum highlighted crucial debates for the left in Latin America and internationally--mainly, the relationship that the forum should have with the new center-left governments in Latin America and, more generally, traditional labor and social-democratic parties.

After taking office two years ago--just days before the last WSF that was held in Porto Alegre--Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, leader of the left-wing Workers' Party, has proceeded to carry out the same free-market agenda (known as "neoliberalism" in much of Latin America) he once denounced. The government's policy includes raising interest rates to please Wall Street, increasing the share of gross domestic product used to repay foreign debt and cutting pensions for retirees--all while it fails to deliver on long-promised social programs.

The WSF should have been a center of opposition to such policies. Instead, its sprawl and lack of focus obscured these crucial issues.

When it began in Porto Alegre in 2001, the WSF provided a counterbalance to the gathering of the wealthy and powerful at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland--bringing together movement activists, unionists, left-wing organizations and more for days of panel discussions, workshops and other events. The following year, the upheaval that ousted four presidents in neighboring Argentina showed that the forum's ideas had the potential to mobilize masses of people.

In Brazil, the election of Lula--who was a metalworker and labor leader during the old military dictatorship--similarly highlighted the appeal of the challenge to neoliberal politics. Newly installed as president, Lula appeared at the 2003 WSF. The event also played a valuable role in coordinating international antiwar protests on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

But at the WSF in 2005, many of the crucial debates were sidestepped--and the influence of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) was strongly felt. Meetings that in previous years indicated a shared project--on subjects such as the social economy, the debt, labor rights, etc.--now seemed to avoid the subject of the broken promises and disappointments of Lula's first years.

For example, there were numerous meetings this year on opposing the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA)--a target of a major march and protests in 2002 and 2003. But there was no large discussion focused on the fact that Lula is attempting to shape the FTAA rather than oppose it.

Instead, the government's supporters were able to use the WSF to burnish Lula's left-wing credentials. Speaking at a stadium to thousands of supporters, Lula declared, "I belong here."

Then, he jetted off to Davos for the WEF gathering of the rich and powerful. After posing for a photo with U2 rock star Bono and Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, Lula partied alongside wealthy CEOs and powerful politicians in the exclusive ski resort--while positioning himself as the leader of the United Nations' call for an end to world hunger.

Lula did face organized opposition at the WSF, including a 2,000-strong protest of his rally led by the two main socialist parties to the left of the PT, the Unified Socialist Workers Party (PSTU) and the Party of Socialism and Liberation (P-SOL).

Events organized by the left at the forum were among the most vital--including several meetings focused on imperialism and the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

Nearly 800 people attended a meeting titled "U.S. Voices Against War and Imperialism," sponsored by the Center for Economic Research and Social Change. George Martin of the United for Peace and Justice steering committee gave a moving account of his tour of Iraq a year ago. The South African poet and activist Dennis Brutus argued for the need to link the issue of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle in the antiwar movement.

International Socialist Review editor Ahmed Shawki drew wide applause when he argued against the idea that the election of George W. Bush was a referendum on the war. And Campus Antiwar Network member Monique Jean Dols described how antiwar activism is being rebuilt after the movement abandoned protests to support John Kerry's prowar campaign last year.

Other such meetings, however, were lost among the vast numbers of self-organized workshops that focused on organizational rather than political topics. An entire axis of the conference was given over to New Age spirituality, putting a discussion on meditation techniques on equal footing with another on the campaign for Third World debt relief. The effect was to muffle the radical politics that characterized the WSF in the past.

One measure of difference between the WSF of the past and this one was seen in the role of top government officials at the event.

In 2003, the incoming PT Environment Minister Marina Silva, who comes from a poor background and a history of struggle, electrified hundreds of young people who jammed into a meeting, seeing her as an embodiment of their aspirations for a new society. This time, government officials used left-wing rhetoric to cover their pro-business record--while pouring cold water on hopes for change.

For example, Flavio Damico, Lula's top negotiator at the World Trade Organization (WTO), defended the Brazilian government's decision, along with India, to reopen negotiations on agricultural trade with the U.S. and the European Union in last year's "July framework." The result, Damico claimed, would be a rise in agricultural exports that would benefit small farmers, as well as Brazil's huge agribusiness companies.

Walden Bello, the radical Filipino economist, dismantled Damico's figures, arguing that Brazil and India had been "co-opted" by the big powers with a deal that will provide at least $200 billion in new agricultural subsidies for the U.S. and Europe. The WTO's last summit in Cancún, Mexico, had collapsed. But now, Bello said, Brazil had "put the WTO back on its feet."

In her presentation, Dot Keet, the veteran South African activist, said that the agreement essentially gave Brazil, India and South Africa a "sub-imperial role" in relation to the poorest countries in the world. A representative of the Landless Workers Movement (MST), Rogerio Mauro, pointed out that Brazil had been an agricultural exporter for 500 years since the epoch of colonialism and slavery--and "we still have poverty and hunger." Agriculture should be kept out of the WTO altogether, he said.

This was the kind of crackling debate that previously made the WSF a valuable tool for the global justice movement. Yet it was buried in the schedule--with an obscure title, no listing of speakers and held in an out-of-the-way location in the endless maze of tents in a hot and dusty waterfront park.

Ironically, it was Bello who had captured the fighting spirit of the founding WSF in 2001, when he used a videoconference debate with the WEF in Davos to urge the assorted CEOs and billionaires to do the world in favor--and get into a rocket and blast off into outer space.

Some important discussions on the state of the movement did receive more prominence--such as a meeting titled "Perspectives of the Movement for Another Possible and Necessary World," featuring Bernard Cassen of the French global justice group ATTAC, Brazil's Emir Sader, and veteran antiwar campaigner Tariq Ali. Ali used his time to hammer the Lula government for sending troops to lead the occupation of Haiti following the U.S.-backed coup.

Although this meeting filled the largest tent, which had a capacity of 1,000, it was smaller than similarly themed meetings at larger venues in the past--and highlighted the relatively small number of high-profile antiwar meetings in comparison with the 2003 WSF, which was held on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Debates at those large meetings two years ago radiated out across the WSF, despite its vast size. This year, however, the decision to hold more numerous and smaller meetings on the war had the effect of sidelining important arguments within the movement--notably on the character of the Iraqi resistance and the role of the sham elections held under the guns of the U.S. military.

In fact, the WSF at times seemed like more like a series of parallel conferences than a single event. Well-endowed NGOs were much more prominent than in the past, using the forum to hold events that were really policy workshops for professionals, rather than strategy sessions for global justice activists.

A bright spot was the Youth Camp, which housed at least 10,000 people and became a nonstop center for discussion and debate of radical politics. Revolutionary socialist and autonomist groups organized large tents that served as meeting spaces. Another current at the WSF was a series of meetings and discussions hosted by PSOL that were aimed at linking the effort to build a left-wing alternative to the PT in Brazil with attempts to further collaboration of various socialist currents internationally.

Left-wing trade unionists also used the forum to give shape to a new, class-struggle grouping within organized labor known as Conlutas. Initiated by the PSTU, Conlutas was formed in response to labor law reforms that would concentrate power in the hands of the top officials of Brazil's main trade union federation, the CUT.

What message did Chávez send?

THE BIGGEST meeting of the WSF was a rally with Venezuela n President Hugo Chávez at the local soccer stadium, which formed a bookend with Lula's appearance at the beginning of the event.

In 2003, Chávez--then struggling with a lockout in the oil industry organized by his conservative opponents--was prevented from officially participating in the WSF and upstaging Lula. Under pressure from the new PT government, WSF organizers shunted Chávez off to a small meeting at Porto Alegre's city hall.

Today, however, Lula has forged a closer alliance with Chávez in efforts to develop a more integrated Latin American economy and trade bloc. Moreover, Lula, having disappointed millions of his followers, was eager this time to associate himself with Chávez--and outsource hope for radical social change to Venezuela.

Chávez's speech was his most radical yet before an international audience, citing Marx, Lenin, Mao, Cuban leader Fidel Castro and revolutionary martyr Ché Guevara. The Venezuelan president repeatedly denounced U.S. imperialism, and called for a "break with capitalism" and its replacement with "real socialism"--not the bureaucratic model of Eastern Europe, but a system based on "equality and justice."

At the same time, however, Chávez threw a lifeline to Lula, describing the first three difficult years of his government amid an economic crisis and the U.S.-backed coup attempt of April 2002. Chávez recalled the "patience" with which Venezuelans had to wait before the government mounted a "revolutionary counteroffensive" with new social programs funded by oil revenues--an implicit but unmistakable call for the Brazilian left to get in line behind Lula.

Leftists in the audience, however, chanted "Lula reforma neoliberal, Venezuela enfrente capital"--Lula carries out neoliberal reforms, while Venezuela confronts capital. But amid the loud cheers and applause in the closing moments of his speech, Chávez responded by slipping in references to Lula as a fighter and "my dear friend."

The future of the social forum movement

LULA HAD anticipated that the WSF would provide a platform for his left-wing critics. Asked his opinion of the forum last year, he shrugged it off as an "ideological fair."

That description turned out to be accurate. The sense of drift at this year's forum led prominent intellectuals closely associated with the creation of the WSF--notably Emir Sader of Brazil and Atilio Boron of Argentina--to argue in large meetings that future social forums needed to be restructured to focus on action. The WSF should be geared to "the people who are actually making history," said Brazilian professor Moacir Gadotti at a 1,000-strong meeting aimed at assessing the movement.

A few large meetings did highlight debates on how the left should organize--notably John Holloway, Michael Hardt and Toni Negri, who defended their autonomist theories of social change reflected in the title of Holloway's book, Change the World Without Taking Power.

The palpable sense of impasse at the WSF over how to deal with the center-left governments highlighted the weakness of such views--given that even powerful social movements like the landless workers in Brazil or the unemployed piqueteros in Argentina are facing populist governments pursuing the same neoliberal agenda.

This isn't just a question for Latin America. "We elected a president based on a reform agenda, and within a year, he capitulated to George Bush on everything," Ng'ana Thiong'o of the Kenyan Social Forum told Socialist Worker. "He [President Mwai Kibaki] and his wife stayed overnight at the White House and all they brought back to Kenya was the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which is really the USA Patriot Act--and it turns us all into 'terrorists.'"

The African National Congress (ANC) government of South Africa--which is angling to host the next WSF--was also slammed by activists for abandoning its promises of social change since taking office a decade ago. "My city of Durban is running out of space to bury people because so many are dying of AIDS, day after day," said Mandisa Mbali of the Treatment Action Campaign, which is demanding production and access to generic AIDS drugs.

The South African government's AIDS policy is part of its overall embrace of the neoliberal agenda--which is why if the next WSF is held in South Africa under the wing of the ANC government, "the left will be on the outside, demonstrating," said Dennis Brutus.

The debate on the relationship between the social forums to political parties and governments also surfaced in a meeting on efforts to build a U.S. social forum (sponsored, oddly enough, by an NGO based in Finland and Peru). One speaker, Mark Ponniah of Clark University, a former researcher for the WSF, argued that the U.S. Social Forum--tentatively scheduled for July 2006--should align itself with the Democratic Party in an effort to oust the Republicans.

In fact, the lesson of the 2005 WSF is precisely the opposite. If the social forum is to continue to play an important role in organizing the international left, it will have to reassert its independence from liberal and reformist parties which, once in office, maintain the same neoliberal agenda that the WSF was created to oppose.

Anthony Arnove, Rafael Greenblatt and Peter Lamphere contributed to this report.

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