Heralding another world

Published : Mar 14, 2003 00:00 IST

Under the banner `Another World is Possible' the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre provides a platform for representatives from 156 countries protesting against the corporate-led globalisation and the American war cries.

in Porto Alegre

A GLOBAL rebellion of over 100,000 gathered against the American Empire on the brink of waging a war against Iraq. Under the provocative banner that read "Another World is Possible", the 2003 World Social Forum (WSF) brought together concerned citizens from around the world to Porto Alegre, Brazil, during January 23-27.

Over 25,000 of the participants were young people attending the Youth Camp resurrecting the memories from another generation of anti-war agitators, at Woodstock, United States, in 1969.

The only commendable achievement that can be attributed to George W. Bush these days is that his military and economic aggressions have evoked rebellious, organised mass actions throughout the world. Mass demonstrations against such aggressions were held daily during the five days of the WSF. The WSF also provided a radical, progressive space to explore alternative possibilities and experience political cohesion in a continent cradled by coca leaves. People from 156 countries protested against capitalist corporate-led globalisation, resisted the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) and added to the growing worldwide anti-war movement. People of various Left orientations representing 700 organisations attended and conducted 1,286 workshops and seminars. The 2003 WSF's direct costs exceeded $ 3.48 million. In addition, the authorities of the city of Porto Alegre provided numerous other services that pushed up the costs.

India will be the host of the next WSF. The date and location of the event are yet to be decided but there is growing excitement about the possibilities of greater Asian and African participation. The decision to relocate the meeting to Asia was not easy. Anxiety existed over the limited time available for organising the WSF in an another location. Some wanted to retain it in Latin America, where the WSF already has a great momentum and following among the people and the leaders. But the final decision of the International Committee of the WSF is that it needed to move to another continent to ensure that it is truly a "World" Social Forum. This position was clearly supported by Samir Amin, Director of the Third World Forum. He felt that over the last three years, access to the gathering for Asians and Africans was limited owing to financial and geographical reasons. In 2005, the WSF is likely to return to Porto Alegre.

The WSF is a counter-punch to the World Economic Forum (WEF) held annually in Davos, Switzerland. The WEF is where the rich and powerful countries ponder neo-liberal agendas to plunder the natural resources and human capital of the resource-rich but debt-burdened countries. Initially, the anti-Davos protest was initiated, by a small group of 50 activists representing peasants, workers, human rights groups and progressive intellectuals. The anti-Davos movement, combined with the growing forces of the anti-globalisation movement, has laid the foundation for the WSF's fight against neo-liberal agendas across the globe. The coming together of these forces led to the organisation of the first WSF in Porto Alegre in 2001.

Porto Alegre was chosen because it was seen as a world class example of participatory democracy at work. Over the last seven years, Porto Alegre has engaged its people in a participatory budgeting process that stood out and demonstrates that "Another World is Possible". A key goal of the WSF is to make democratic participation contagious, by spreading and democratising the current discussions that guide the works and struggles of world civil society.

The regional forums were held in Europe and Asia. Next year they will also be held in Africa and in the Panamazonian region. Thematic forums devoted to deepen specific themes - like the Argentinean Forum to discuss alternatives to neo-liberal economic models, and a Palestinian Forum to discuss the West Asia crisis - will also be held next year.

Former trade union leader, Luiz Incio Lula de Silva, of Brazil, who took over as Brazilian President in January 2003, after winning over 55 per cent of the vote (60 million of 110 million votes cast), welcomed the participants to the WSF and to Brazil. In an open-air stadium at Anfiteatro Pr-do-Sol, WSF participants were greeted by his local supporters belonging to the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT: Workers Party). About 1,50,000 people heard his welcome address.

Lula's speech was undoubtedly the most expected event of this year's WSF. He deftly appealed to the needs and emotions of the crowd. On the one hand, he promised not to "fail"; on the other he tried to moderate the huge expectations of his people by pointing to the pressures faced by his government from international neo-liberal forces. "Running a government is like running a marathon. You can't rush...[otherwise] you'll end up panting in the first street corner," he said. (Underlining this position later at Davos, he said: "I have four years to proceed calmly and cautiously".)

Lula launched a "zero hunger" campaign standing firmly grounded with his people. Wherever he goes, huge crowds follow him. The tremendous local support he enjoys keeps him under pressure to uphold his mandate and campaign promises. His charisma as a leader is outstanding, it is only slightly diminished, when you hear him say - "when all things are considered we may not be able to accomplish everything we aspire to achieve, but we will get there."

The most phenomenal feature of the WSF is the types of people it attracted: peasants, union leaders, human rights advocates, Left intellectuals, and youth. Most of them are connected to various people's movements including the movements against big dams that are built with funds from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the Dalit movement in India, the movement of landless peasants in Brazil, the global movement against privatisation of water, and the movement against the deforestation of the Amazon. We may call these social struggles and movements the struggles of the proletariat, the rebellions of the "wretched of the earth". In general, what the activists in these movements are calling for is the mass mobilisation against capitalist-led globalisation and neo-liberal agendas; almost always it boils down to actions against the American Empire's military and economic aggressions.

Against the backdrop of the slogan of the WSF "Another World is Possible", the keynote speakers, Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy, who had been given the topic "Confronting Empire", rose to the occasion, facing a crowd of over 15,000 at the Gigantinho Stadium. As they took their seats, the audience spontaneously broke into a rendition of John Lennon's "Imagine": "You may say I am a dreamer, but I am not the only one, I hope some day you'll join us, and the world will live as one".

Noam Chomsky, in his address, said: "There is also a conference of the World Economic Forum going on right now, in Davos. Here in Porto Alegre, the mood is hopeful, vigorous, exciting. In Davos, the New York Times tells us, `the mood has darkened'. For the `movers and shakers', it is not `global party time' any more. In fact, the founder of the Forum has conceded defeat: `The power of corporations has completely disappeared,' he said. So we have won. There is nothing left for us to do but pick up the pieces - not only to talk about a vision of the future that is just and humane, but to move on to create it. Of course, we should not let the praise go to our heads. There are still a few difficulties ahead."

Chomsky further invigorated the crowd by saying that he will not try to answer the question posed to him - how to confront the Empire? He said: "The reason is that most of you know the answers as well or better than I do, through your own lives and work." The way to "confront the empire" is "to create a different world, one that is not based on violence and subjugation, hate and fear. That is why we are here, and the WSF." These are not "idle dreams", he said, offering hope. Chomsky went on, to the cheers of the crowd, to deal with signs of hope, countering the widespread judgment among elites that the tradition of dissent and protest has died. Invariably, comparisons are drawn to the campaign against the Vietnam War, a very revealing fact. "We have just passed the 40th anniversary of the public announcement that the Kennedy administration was sending the United States Air Force to bomb South Vietnam, also initiating plans to drive millions of people into concentration camps and chemical warfare programmes to destroy food crops. There was no pretext of defence, except in the sense of official rhetoric, as we are seeing today."

The crowd chanted "Sante... Sante", which means saint, as Arundhati Roy rose to speak. Saintly she was not in her speech. Arundhati Roy, the lastest recipient of the U.S.-based Lannan Foundation Award for Cultural Freedom, said that how to confront the empire was a huge question. "I have no easy answers." First, "we need to identify what `Empire' means. Does it mean the U.S. government (and its European satellites), the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation, and multinational corporations? "Or is it more than that?" she asked. "In many countries, Empire has sprouted other subsidiary heads, some dangerous byproducts - nationalism, religious bigotry, fascism and, of course, terrorism. All these march arm-in-arm with the project of corporate globalisation."

She used India as an example to illustrate her point - the world's biggest democracy is currently in the forefront of the corporate globalisation project. Its "market" of one billion people is being prised open by the WTO. The government and the Indian elite are welcoming corporatisation and privatisation. She spoke of her own country's intimate relationship with the Enron-men who are selling India's infrastructure to corporate multinationals. Many among who want to privatise water, electricity, oil, coal, steel, health, education and telecommunication are all members or admirers of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). (The full text of her speech was published in, Frontline, February 14, 2003.)

With many celebrated leaders on its side, the challenge before the WSF is to create a fine balance of dynamic leadership and mass struggles against the growing might of the American Empire.

Sharmini Peries is the Director of Justice International based in Toronto, Canada.

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