Chris Harman & Chris Nineham

Special report from the World Social Forum in Brazil

Against a world of war and poverty

(1 February 2003)

From Socialist Worker, No.1836, 1 February 2003.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Worker Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Chris Harman and Chris Nineham report from Porto Alegre

TWO THINGS formed the background to last weekend’s World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. One was the threat of a devastating war against Iraq within weeks. The other was the swing to the left in Latin America, expressed in the victory of left wing candidates in presidential elections in Brazil and Ecuador, and in the failure of the coup attempt against Hugo Chavez’s government in Venezuela.

Both themes were present in the big demonstration of 140,000 that marked the opening of the forum, and many of the discussions over the next four days. A 40,000-strong rally greeted new Brazilian president, Lula, when he visited Porto Alegre on Friday, and rapturous applause greeted Chavez on Sunday. People understood that Lula had won the election because he seemed to promise hope to the mass of people.

They also understood that Venezuela’s rich had tried to overthrow Chavez with a lockout, disguised as a strike, because he had promised a few reforms for workers, peasants and the poor.

Along with the applause for Lula, however, went some questioning of his policies. He is immensely popular as the first person from a working class party to win an election in Latin America since the overthrow of the Allende government in Chile in 1973.

But decisions he has made are worrying many of his admirers. He has accepted a deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) made by his neo-liberal predecessor Cardosa. He has appointed a former executive of a US bank as his economics minister. He has said he is willing to negotiate over the formation of an American free trade zone with the US.

Many people think this means continuing US economic domination of Latin America. Such worries were intensified when Lula went from the World Social Forum to attend a meeting of the organisation it was set up to oppose-the World Economic Forum of industrialists, bankers and government ministers in the Swiss skiing resort of Davos.

Lula sought to calm people’s doubts by saying he was going to argue for measures to deal with poverty. But some wondered how you could have a bridge between the rich and the corporations and those who suffer under their rule. A few people were even saying that Chavez was better than Lula, tending to ignore the compromises Chavez has repeatedly made with those who will try to overthrow him again if they can.

The most important thing, however, was what the enthusiasm expressed – a new confidence that the mass of people of the continent can fight back after two miserable decades of defeat and demoralisation.

The culmination of the forum came when 18,000 people crowded into the Gigantinho Stadium to listen to Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy speak about “resistance to empire”. Chomsky talked about how those who liked to think of themselves as “the masters of the universe” were damaging people’s lives: “We have been talking about life after capitalism. It would be better to say life, because there is not going to be any unless we do something about capitalism.” He exposed the hypocrisy of Bush and Blair and called on people to oppose their war against Iraq.

Arundhati Roy roused the whole stadium to applause as she denounced the way the world’s rulers were destroying people’s lives, their cultures and their environment in the search for profits. She said, “Resistance to empire – or, to call it by its proper name, imperialism – is growing.”

The whole audience rose to their feet as she ended, “We are many. They are few. They need us much more than we need them.”

Everyone felt all the issues debated over the previous four days had been brought together, and they left the stadium inspired to fight against the horrors George Bush has in store for us.

A tale of two different camps

THERE WAS often a contrast at the World Social Forum. There was vibrant enthusiasm in some of the big meetings, on the demonstrations, in the grounds of the university where most of the meetings took place and, above all, in the 20,000-strong youth camp.

You felt that people from every continent and every part of Latin America were all strengthened by the mere recognition that so many had gathered together. But that feeling was missing from many, possibly most, of the meetings. The bigger meetings tended to be dominated by platform speakers, usually middle aged, middle class, white and male, who read their speeches at length, leaving little time for participation from the floor.

Alongside these there were literally hundreds of small workshops, with anywhere between 15 and 100 people present. There was little effort at coordination of these to ensure fruitful sharing of different experiences. The result was that the formal side of the event felt less challenging to those who run the world system than did the European Social Forum at Florence in November.

Despite this, most people will have gone home aware that the global movement is growing, and even more committed to fighting capitalism’s evils – debt, hunger, ecological destruction, economic crisis, commodification of people’s lives and, above all in the next few weeks, the threat of war.

Four years ago it would have been unimaginable that so many activists from so many countries could get together like this. Today it is a reality which is not going to go away.

Worldwide action

ANTI-WAR activists at Porto Alegre launched a global coalition. More than 1,000 people from more than 60 countries came to a day-long assembly to discuss organising a network. Everyone who spoke agreed that the campaign against war on Iraq was of crucial importance.

Activists from the US, Brazil, Palestine, India, Portugal and almost every other corner of the world committed themselves to organising anti-war activity on 15 February. Speakers from the US all agreed that their movement was already bigger than the anti Vietnam War campaign in the late 1960s. One said, “This is the most important and powerful social movement in the US for decades – and it is growing in strength daily.”

Hundreds of Latin American delegates applauded speakers who said a global campaign against war on Iraq was crucial to weakening imperialism in their continent.

There was tremendous excitement in the hall. We all recognised we were building something unprecedented, something with huge potential. One delegate summed up the feeling when she said a successful global movement against the war would be a blow to the dictatorship of the IMF and the World Bank.

Hundreds of delegates from scores of organisations signed up to an international e-mail list, and a group of video activists started organising a global video link for the demonstrations on 15 February. Slogans about global resistance were becoming real in front of our eyes.

The dynamic heart of a growing movement

THE YOUTH camp was several miles from the main site of the forum. Around 20,000 people were cramped into a dusty park, sleeping in small tents they had brought with them.

On the first day it poured with rain, and they had had to scratch out shallow trenches in order to avoid getting flooded out. They were mainly Latin Americans – Brazilians, Uruguayans, Argentinians – with little money to spend in the city restaurants or even on bus fares to the main forum site. One 15-strong group had travelled by bus the 1,500-mile, 36-hour journey from Santiago in Chile.

Another teenage couple were anti-army activists from Paraguay, a country run as a dictatorship by generals for decades and still threatened with military repression.

Everywhere in the camp there was the feeling of young people challenging society, anarchists on one side of the camp, socialists, Communists and Trotskyists on the other, with red flags above each grouping of tents, and in between ecologists, pacifists, or anti-racist activists.

You would see them sitting in groups, with campfires in the background, engaged in earnest discussions. It was like an open-air rock festival – except it was the most dynamic part of a new world movement challenging an old world system.

Last updated on 13 December 2009