Another Europe is possible

Print edition : January 31, 2003

A march taken out by peace activists on November 9 as part of the European Social Forum held in Florence from November 6 to 10. - PIER PAOLO CITO/AP

The European Social Forum held in Florence turned out to be an impressive congregation of groups ranging from political parties to non-governmental organisations in search of an alternative social and political order for Europe.

IN Firenze (Florence), Italy, a number of organisations, political parties (mostly of the Left), non-governmental organisations, mass organisations involved in education, trade unions and individuals protesting against the way the world is being directed by vested interests organised the European Social Forum with the major banner proclaiming `Un altra Europa e possibile: Another Europe is possible'. All the participants had to register and take the general oath of the social forum, which included the commitment to use only non-violent means of protest and each one had to be certified by some organisation as a genuine participant in the search for an alternative social and political order. The registration process began on November 6 and went on till November 9 when the formal deliberations of the forum ended. The main seminars and conferences were held on November 7 and 8. The biggest demonstration that any city has seen so far against the United States' preparations for the invasion of Iraq was held on November 10.

I was invited by two of the participating organisations - Associazione Culturale Punto Rosso and Forum Mondialle delle Alternative - to give a talk at a seminar entitled `The world is not a map: the movement and the war'. The seminars were held mainly in a huge pavilion, called Fortezza da Basso, with several halls capable of accommodating between 2,000 and 5,000 persons and others with room for several hundred persons at a time. But as the number of participants was far higher than anticipated, meetings had to be organised at the Palace of Congresses, and other locations in the city. The forum was made up primarily of European participants but there was also a scattering of participants from West Asia, North Africa and Latin America. There were only a handful of Indian participants, including some delegates charged with organising the Asian Social Forum in Hyderabad, and representatives of the Indian chapter of the Fourth International.

When I turned up at the entrance gate of Fortezza da Basso, I was told firmly that I, like all the other participants in the Forum, must acquire a badge of accreditation before I was let in. Given the obvious displeasure of the Berlusconi government for the kind of movement the Forum represented, it was necessary to prevent the infiltration of agents provocateurs. I went to the Palace of Affairs and acquired a badge. The enthusiasm about the Forum was evident from the swelling numbers of registered participants: on November 6, 6,000 persons registered, by November 7 the number had gone up to 18,000, and by November 8, the number would have doubled. The vast majority of the participants were women and men below the age of 40. I talked to lorry drivers from England, schoolteachers from Italy and workers from France. There was an atmosphere of carnival on the grounds outside the seminar halls. People burst into impromptu songs, coined slogans and formed dancing groups. In the evenings there were cultural events all over the town. Concerts and street plays were held in open piazzas. Performances were made by major theatre groups in halls. Films from all over the world were screened, and a play by Dario Fo, directed by the great writer himself, was staged. Other events were too numerous to be detailed here.

Inside the seminar halls, people sat or stood, and listened with rapt attention to serious discussions on the social and political issues troubling various parts of the world. The official brochure listed 143 seminars; there were several dozen workshops and more than a score campaigns listed in the brochure. There were additional workshops, campaigns and even seminars, which were announced after the brochure was distributed. The subjects of the seminars ranged from human rights and their abuses in Europe and elsewhere, the problems of the Mediterranean region, the attempted colonisation and genocide of Palestinians, globalisation and hunger, consumerism and people's livelihood, regional and global environmental destruction, resistance against war-mongering, the violence of the Hindu Right and the rights of trade unions, to North-South relations.

In the panel of which I was a member, there were some charismatic leaders of the past and the present. Georgio Riollo of Punto Rosso coordinated the proceedings, and Samir Amin of the World Forum for Alternatives, in his opening speech, laid out the main agenda of discussion. According to him, neo-liberal capitalism has reached a heightened phase of militarisation. With the current state of war prevailing under the auspices of the U.S. and its allies or clients such as Israel, and the totally unreasonable and aggressive stance adopted by the U.S. and Britain towards Iraq, the world is in a situation that is as serious as in 1932, on the eve of Hitler's accession to power.

AHMED BEN BELLA, the legendary hero of the Algerian struggle for independence, and the first President of independent Algeria - still physically upright at the age of 86 - denounced strongly the criminal waste of resources in war, when the only defensible goal before humanity was to feed and nurture everybody in order to sustain their development into well-educated, free and healthy human beings. He also said that his experience taught him that there is no such thing as a holy war, or a just war.

Edmilson Rodrigues from Brazil pointed to the extensive usurpation of the Brazilian people's resources by multinational corporations under the neo-liberal regime reigning in that country until now. In the name of fighting terrorism in Colombia under Plan Colombia, he pointed out, the U.S. government was trying to impose an army of occupation not only on Colombia but on the surrounding countries, including Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, because the people of all those countries were trying to break the shackles of neo-colonialism. The alternative, Plan Amazonico, promoted by organisations linked to the Workers Party led by the victorious President of Brazil Ignacio Luiz Lula da Silva is a programme to restore the land rights to the landless peasants and the indigenous peoples of Brazil.

The hall in which the seminar was held, Sala Ghiaia (the Yellow Hall), was packed with the listeners, a large number of whom were sitting on the floor or standing around the seats; I was told that there were about 4,000 persons present in the hall.

Carlos Tablada, a Cuban diplomat, spoke of the depredation caused by multinational corporations, backed by their client governments, upon the inherited resources and livelihoods of the people of the Third World. The audience stood up and cheered Ben Bella, Rodrigues, and most others following them.

Mustafa Berghouti, of the National Association of Palestinians, spoke of the terrible atrocities committed by the Israeli occupation army on Palestinians as they took over more and more land from Palestinians in order to create an even larger number of illegal Jewish settlements. Already 2,000 persons out of a total Palestinian population of 3.3 million in the Israel-occupied Palestinian territory have been killed over the past two years. Most Palestinians experience 24-hour curfews for days together, when they cannot go out of their houses for work, in case of medical emergencies or for procuring essential commodities. In the town of Nablus, there was a curfew for 135 days. Intifada was the Palestinians' struggle against the Israeli attempt to subject Palestinians to a permanent system of colonisation, apartheid and eventual expulsion from their homeland. Ali' Ekber Uguz, leader of the Kurdish Party in Turkey, spoke of the right of the Kurdish people to be treated as full participants in the political process in the countries between which they are now distributed.

Giovanni Berlinguer, a doctor and the son of Enrico Berlinguer, who was the Secretary of the Italian Communist Party after Togliatti, spoke on the numerous ways in which children are victimised by war. They face premature death, or are forced physically or through sheer hunger to work far more cheaply than adults; they can also be turned into brave soldiers because children do not develop the sense of self-protection that adults learn through experience. Raffaele Salinari, president of Terre des Hommes, talked about the utterly criminal waste of resources and misuse of science when 30 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa alone die every year of hunger. Yet the rich countries spend hundreds of billions of dollars on preparing weapons of mass destruction. Manlio Dinucci, a writer, warned about the continuing danger from nuclear arms, whether they are stockpiled or used for a final military solution by the U.S. or other nuclear powers.

Giulietto Chiesa, an eminent Italian writer and journalist, spoke eloquently about the dubious role played by most of the established media in keeping people in ignorance and misleading them by manipulation and selective suppression of news. Ordinary people did not even know the terrible fate that their so-called leaders are preparing for them through the pursuit of armed neo-liberalism.

In my brief presentation, I touched on the motives for the U.S. government's eagerness to start a war against Iraq and against countries it dubs as forming the axis of evil, even though it possesses a far larger arsenal of weapons of mass destruction than any government has ever had access to, and even though it has systematically perpetrated terrorism against the associates or mere neighbours of anybody it regards as an enemy. Two of these motives are strictly economic: to allow the multinational arms manufacturers and their agents to make more profits, and to monopolise the huge oil resources of Central and West Asia. The third motive is political, namely, to distract the attention of ordinary citizens from the impoverishment and loss of human dignity that they have been subjected to under the neo-liberal dispensation.

There is a dreadful precedent for what George W. Bush and his cronies may be contemplating. It is people like them among their ancestors who killed native Americans and grabbed the wealth of the resource-rich U.S. Why not mete out the same fate to the Arabs who are sitting on huge reserves of oil that Bush's backers want to take over? Newspaper reports of the mobilisation of a large army for crushing Iraq lend credibility to such a monstrous fear.

I had to come away before November 10 and therefore could not take part in the anti-war demonstration in Firenze on that day. According to reports of the news agencies, between 400,000 and 500, 000 demonstrators marched in the biggest, wholly peaceful, demonstration against war and neo-liberalism that Europe has ever witnessed.

Amiya Kumar Bagchi is RBI Professor of Economics at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata.

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