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World Social Forum comes to a crossroads

January 27, 2006 | Page 11

LANCE SELFA reports on the themes of this year's World Social Forum.

MORE THAN 100,000 activists are expected to converge on Caracas, Venezuela, January 24-29 for the fifth edition of the World Social Forum (WSF), the global meeting of the broad left opposed to free-market dogma and imperialist war.

The meeting will begin with a march and rally against the war in Iraq--international antiwar activists like Cindy Sheehan will speak. The following three days will be filled with more than 2,000 "self-organized" events--meetings, forums, performances, film showings--offered by hundreds of registered organizations from around the world that are attending the event.

This year's event is "polycentric." It is being held across three sites: Caracas, Karachi in Pakistan and Bamako in Mali.

Of these, the Forum in Venezuela is likely to be the largest, and is certainly the most prominent. This is because of its location in Latin America, the site of some of the largest protests and movements against the U.S.-backed global neoliberal agenda.

The WSF will take place days after Evo Morales, leader of the union of coca farmers and critic of U.S.-backed free market policies, is inaugurated as the first indigenous president of Bolivia, following his landslide victory in December.

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THE PRESENCE of large numbers of international participants, especially those from the U.S., will be an important show of solidarity with Venezuela and its president Hugo Chávez, which the Bush administration has paired with Cuba and Fidel Castro as regional boogeymen.

There have been important developments in Venezuela. But they go beyond the government's use of the country's oil wealth to fund programs for early childhood education, literacy, free health care and food assistance.

Perhaps more important has been the organization of millions of Venezuelans in their workplaces and their communities to formulate and fight for their own demands--sometimes in opposition to the wishes of the government.

In 2002-2003, oil workers occupied facilities of the state oil company PDVSA when it was on the verge of shutting down due to a bosses' strike against the Chávez government. Many workers who kept PDVSA operating in spite of the employers' sabotage asked themselves if they really needed bosses to run the economy in their own interests.

The Chávez government has encouraged cooperative enterprises, in which workers band together to produce goods or services, often with government subsidies. But this isn't the same thing as workers power that forms the basis of a socialist society.

While the Chávez government has reportedly spent more than $9 million to support the planning of WSF, organizers made it clear that they did not want the forum to become simply a platform for Chávez. The WSF will offer plenty of opportunities for Chávez partisans to promote their ideas and programs, but many other diverse perspectives will be discussed as well.

Chávez will appear in two events organized alongside the WSF: a January 25 meeting with agrarian movements, including the Brazilian Landless Rural Workers Movement, and the January 29 meeting and rally with social movements.

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THIS YEAR'S forum comes at a particularly important crossroads for the Social Forum concept. When the event was launched in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2001, it was seen as a place to identify "the paths and mobilizing proposals for demonstrations and concrete actions of civil society," according to the Brazilian organizing committee's proposal quoted in Jose Correa Leite's history The World Social Forum: Strategies of Resistance.

But there is a sense today among supporters of the WSF that it must move beyond critiquing and protesting the existing society to talk about how to bring about a new society.

"The World Social Forum is leaving the phase of resistance to neoliberalism and is moving to actively participate in the struggle for 'another possible world,'" wrote Emir Sader, a Brazilian sociologist and leading social movement and global justice intellectual.

"Holding the Social Forum in Venezuela is an excellent opportunity to take this leap. If it remains unaffected by this and returns to the same perspective as before, without having learned from the extraordinary advances and lessons that Latin America and the Caribbean have offered, then it will be condemned to continue on the sidelines of the great struggles that have been unleashed against imperialist domination and neoliberalism, the rule of money, arms and the corporate media."

There is truth to what Sader says, especially in light of last year's WSF, the last held in Porto Alegre. The forum took place two years after Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva of the Workers Party won election as Brazil's president. Lula's victory was seen as part of the wave of elections of left-of-center governments, reflecting the opposition to neoliberalism that the WSF represented.

But by early 2005, Lula's adherence to the harsh free-market economic policies of his predecessors, his implementation of a series of anti-worker "reforms" and his foot-dragging on land reform had disappointed the rank and file of the Workers Party and the social movement activists who formed the base of the WSF in Brazil.

Rather than let this clash of perspectives between the pro-Lula leaders of the Workers Party and the United Workers Central (CUT) trade union federation find a focus in any of the high-profile meetings, the 2005 WSF devolved into hundreds of smaller meetings where these debates were sidelined.

With large social movements successful in stopping privatizations of important resources, toppling neoliberal presidents, and electing left-of-center governments throughout the continent, the left and the social movements in Latin America certainly have a lot of experience to debate and discuss.

This has raised a number of political questions for the movement: How can we defeat neoliberalism? What does Chávez's talk of "socialism for the 21st century" mean? What relationship should the social movements have to "their" left-of-center governments? How can we win workers' power?

Sader is correct to assert that questions like these--questions of political power, rather than policy proposals for "civil society" emanating from non-governmental organizations (NGOs)--should move to the center of debates at the WSF.

But he tends to argue that the movement should simply adopt the perspectives of the Venezuelan, Cuban and Bolivian governments, which he characterizes as " the direction of the idea that anti-neoliberalism must incorporate elements of anti-capitalism."

This perspective fails to acknowledge that the left and the social movements need to develop an independent political perspective that is prepared to act independently of progressive governments, too--none of which, rhetoric aside, has broken with capitalism.

Such a perspective will be crucial, for example, for the Bolivian workers and social movements that propelled Morales to power. Morales will come under pressure not to deliver on his promises of nationalizing oil and gas and ending privatizations. The social movements will have to respond to any backtracking by him.

Two of the main organizing themes of the WSF are "Power, politics and struggles for emancipation" and "Imperial strategies and popular resistance." A review of the planned discussions at the WSF (available for download at shows that hundreds are focused on crucial political questions, including open discussions about socialism and Marxism.

These are precisely the kinds of debates, taking into account concrete experience, that a left dedicated to making possible another world should have.

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