MIA: History: ETOL: Newspapers & Periodicals: International Socialist Review: Issue 16

International Socialist Review, February–March 2001

Tom Lewis

The Promise of Porto Alegre


From International Socialist Review, Issue 16, February–March 2001.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.


Tom Lewis attended the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Here he reports on what he found there.

Last month’s World Social Forum (WSF) represents a major step in building the international fight back against corporate globalization. More than 10,000 participants, including delegates from 117 countries, met January 25–30 to discuss the theme “Um outro mundo é possivel” (“A different world is possible”).

WSF organizers consciously billed the meeting as “anti-Davos,” referring to the annual gathering of imperial governments and corporate barons at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland. Yet the Porto Alegre event went beyond exposing the economic and social injustices perpetrated by the Davos gang. It also resulted in a call for mobilization that can help to shape international struggle in the coming months.

Activism everywhere

A march of 15,000 gave the WSF an activist tone from the beginning. Under the lead slogan “Marcha pela vida e contra o néoliberalismo” (“March for life against neoliberalism”), protesters denounced the lethal package of privatization, layoffs, cuts in social services, and debt repayment that has come to be known as “neoliberalism.” Often imposed on Third World countries by the infamous “structural adjustment” programs of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, neoôiberal policies are equally embraced by many national governments, including Brazil’s current administration under President Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

Demonstrations outside a McDonald’s in downtown Porto Alegre, as well as outside the office of Monsanto Corporation in Não-Me-Toque, also highlighted the WSF’s first day. Protesters burned the American and Spanish flags, along with an effigy of Uncle Sam. The Brazilian left views Spain – which has bought up a number of Brazilian banks and firms in recent years – as a junior imperialist power.

That night brought a spectacular invasion of Monsanto’s experimental farm in Não-Me-Toque by 800 small farmers and landless peasants belonging to Brazil’s most powerful social movement, the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST). Two-and-a-half hectares of genetically modified soy and corn were destroyed. MST leader João Pedro Stédile declared, “This act is symbolic, but it also serves as a warning to Monsanto. If they continue with transgenetic research, we will return and will not rest until they are gone from Brazil.”

José Bové, head of the Confédération Paysanne Européene, accompanied the MST protesters. Although he barely participated in the destruction of property, the Cardoso government subsequently ordered his deportation to France. Thousands at the conference quickly put on stickers proclaiming, “Todos somos Bové” (“We are all Bové”).

”You are our enemies”

A defining moment occurred Sunday, January 28, when WSF representatives in Porto Alegre debated their WEF counterparts in Davos during a live teleconference. Hebe de Bonafini, the president of Argentina’s Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, shouted to the Davos group: “You are our enemies.” Billionaire financier George Soros replied by stating, “I’m trying to dialogue, but that’s not going to be possible, and we will have to stop.” Bonafini insisted: “Does Soros know how many children are killed each day because of your murderous policies? The blame is yours; you are death to the poor. We hate all of you.”

The WSF exploded with demonstrations on its last full day. U.S. imperialism provoked loud protests for its military aid to Colombia, which the government of President Andrés Pastrana uses to conduct state terrorism and to fund right-wing death squads. A coalition of feminist organizations, Articulación Feminista del Marco Sur (Feminist Union of the South), held a spirited pro-choice demonstration at which the dominant chant was “Não a Bush” (”No to Bush”). A drag queen accompanied by supporters called attention to the oppression of gays and lesbians throughout the world.

A number of environmental and indigenous rights groups decried capitalism’s pillage of Latin America’s natural and human habitats. In particular, protesters denounced attempts to privatize water. Veteran leaders of the successful struggle to stop Bechtel Corporation’s attempt to privatize water in Cochabamba, Bolivia, gave inspiration to hundreds of activists. Oscar Olivera, a metal worker, union leader, and current spokesperson for the Coordinadora de Defensa del Agua y de la Vida (Coordinating Group in Defense of Water and Life), affirmed, “In Bolivia they have privatized everything except the water and the air. We have to find a way to stop them and to turn things back.”

Throughout the WSF, 2,000 people engaged in discussions and debates at an International Youth Encampment, and 700 joined an Indigenous Nations Encampment. A banner in support of U.S. death row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal draped a main balcony during the final two days.

Major themes

A closing Porto Alegre Call for Mobilization, signed by the majority of organizations attending the WSF, demanded the “unconditional cancellation” of Third World debt. This position reflected numerous discussions throughout the meeting of how debt imprisons countries in a cycle of poverty. It also affirmed the view that the “debt” has already been paid many times over in the form of profits extracted from the developing world by the imperialist powers. The document similarly supported a tax on speculative financial transactions across borders in order to fund badly needed social services, jobs, and schools.

The Porto Alegre Call also targeted the next round of hemispheric trade negotiations. In particular, the document endorsed the mass demonstrations against the attempt to establish a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) scheduled in Buenos Aires on April 6–7 and in Quebec City on April 17–22. If the bosses have their way, the FTAA would extend NAFTA to all of the countries of North and South America, with the exception of Cuba. Blocking the FTAA is therefore an important goal in the fight against global capitalism.

From opening to close, WSF participants voiced fierce opposition to U.S. imperialism. Javier Cifuentes, the pseudonym of a comandante from the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), received several ovations from delegates when he denounced the United States’ Plan Colombia. He linked opposition to U.S. military intervention with a defense of Latin America’s natural resources. The alleged “drug war” being waged by the U.S., he argued, is not only a pretext for the U.S. government to fight the Colombian insurgency but is also a pretext for establishing U.S. control over the water and riches of Amazonia.

The Porto Alegre Call for Mobilization thus included the demand for an end to U.S. military intervention in Colombia, as well as an end to U.S. blockades and to U.S. interference in the internal affairs of sovereign countries.

Different strategies

The issues that most divided WSF participants concerned the broader strategies for change. Should institutions like the IMF be reformed, or should they be abolished? Is “neoliberal” capitalism the enemy, or is the enemy capitalism in all its forms? What is the alternative to neoliberalism: a more humane capitalism or socialism? And if socialism is the alternative, what does socialism mean?

Some participants, especially representatives of small-business and liberal organizations, clearly defined their aim as one of giving capitalism “a human face.” Yet most participants seemed to support the idea that socialism is the desirable alternative to neoliberalism. As Kjeld Jakobsen, Secretary for International Relations of Brazil’s Central Unica dos Trabalhadores (CUT), explained, “Rules to defend workers’ rights and human rights don’t do much good unless you eliminate the causes of the violation of these rights, which is precisely the unjust and unequal development that exists in the world today.”

The city administration of Porto Alegre appeared to embody the ideal of socialism for many at the WSF. For twelve years, the municipal government has been in the hands of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers Party, PT), which has instituted a “participatory budget.” Here government spending priorities are determined in town-meeting style forums. Two years ago the PT won the governorship of Rio Grande do Sul, the Brazilian state of which Porto Alegre is the capital. The state now intends to implement the “participatory budget” as well.

After last year’s elections, moreover, the PT boasts three governors, seven senators, 56 congresspeople, and 187 mayors. The party employs a fiery rhetoric of opposition to neoliberalism. It is not surprising, therefore, that many look to the PT and the electoral road to socialism as an alternative. But the PT’s overall record suggests that this is a mistake. Not only has it refused to adopt such positions as cancellation of Third World debt, but in Porto Alegre and R”o do Sul it has administered cutbacks and opposed strikes.

Other mistaken models of “socialism” prevalent at the WSF were those of Cuba and guerrilla warfare – both of which continue to have a hold on the imagination of the Latin American left. The Cuban delegation received the greatest applause at the inaugural ceremony, and the number of T-shirts with Che’s face on the front was rivaled only by the number with “No to Plan Colombia” on the back.

On balance

The undeniable success of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre consists of its historic consolidation of a new internationalism that has fueled antiglobalization demonstrations from Seattle to Nice, and from Washington, D.C., to Prague and Melbourne. For revolutionary socialists, Porto Alegre thus confirms the openings that exist to build a worldwide movement to end capitalism. Actually bringing such a movement into existence, however, still requires a vigorous debate over reform versus revolution, as well as a patient explanation of the real revolutionary tradition of socialism from below. The year ahead, beginning with the demonstrations against the FTAA in Buenos Aires and Quebec City, holds great promise.

Last updated on 27 July 2021