26 January, 2005

Global Resistance or Social Carnaval?: The World Social Forum in Porto Alegre

Sushma Joshi, Porto Alegre, Brazil

Americans traveling to the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, were in for a rude surprise. Brazil, reacting to new US policy which required Brazilians to be fingerprinted at the US border points, had instituted the same rules for Americans. Global tables had been turned - Iraqis and Libyans, the favorite whipping boys of the Western world, could walk across like respected nationals of sovereign nations, while Americans, used to waltzing across international boundaries without visas, found themselves in the "Have you taken part in any terrorist activities?" fingerprint line.

Brazil may be the only country to dare stand up to the Bush administration, and not just in small tit-for-tat reciprocity of nasty behavior to nationals. Brazil remains a vocal opponent of US policies in the WTO, calling for an end to subsidies to big transnational corporations that disadvantage small farmers and businesses in the South. Its been the first to flout the patents of pharmaceutical multi-national companies on anti-retro viral medicines that save the lives of millions with HIV and AIDS. Brazil led the way into manufacturing low cost, generic anti-retroviral drugs affordable to Third World countries. It was the first country to use alcool, ethanol fuel made out of sugarcane alcohol as an alternative to petroleum, and gas stations offer it along with petrol and diesel in Brazilian gas stations.

Behind the rebel country of 178 million is another rebel - Lula, one of the few democratically elected worker party leaders in Latin America. Lula is the founder of the Brazilian Workers Party (PT). Lula is friends with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, and maintains cordial relationship with Fidel Castro, which doesn't make the US very happy. But Lula's progressive credentials are difficult to demonize, and his movement, build on a real grassroots network of workers and trade unions, harder to buy off.

Lula was a factory worker in his youth, and lost a finger to machinery. In Entreatos, a documentary about Lula's runup to presidential victory, he remembers his days as a factory worker without nostalgia. The older Marxist-Leninist models of revolution was to take an intellectual and put him to work in the factory, says Lula. His model sees a factory-worker being able to run for president.

Porto Alegre, in the Rio Grande Del Sul, is the last bastion of socialism and rock n' roll, and therefore an ideal venue for the World Social Forum (WSF). The city of Porto Alegre has a participatory process through which it allocates its city budget - ordinary citizens have a significant say in where the money goes. It has grassroots councils where neighborhood groups and citizenry have a strong voice in decision making. The Social Forum has been set up in opposition to the World Economic Forum, which is held in Davos and attended by powerful world leaders who gather to discuss economic policies. The Economic Forum has been criticized for its undemocratic nature. But many say that the World Social Forum, with its 155,00 participants and its multiplicity of events, may itself have become unmanageable.

Lula, who flew down to give a talk to the WSF, said it is becoming a "marketplace of ideas." Lula was booed by the crowd who held him accountable for not living up to his promises, especially to reduce poverty. Bringing economic and social change in two years is not an easy task, loyal supporters say. Lula was preceded by Fernando Henrique Cardoso, nicknamed FHC, a right wing president who held office for eight years, and the impact of whose policies is still felt today.

Everybody in Brazil, it seems, has strong feelings about Lula. Trade unionists say Lula's changes, while slow, have been taking place. Renata Barbalho, a 17 year old high school student, says: "Lula was sensitive. He asked Brazilians to be more patient, and that he will eventually live up to his promises." But for other longtime supporters and friends who venerated Lula, his record is dismal, and they are not sure if they will vote for him again.

Brazil, deeply divided between the extravagantly wealthy and the poor, remains a tough economy in which to work a quick change. Although its per capita value is $7,770, 22% of Brazil's population live on less than US$2 a day. Another 8.2% lives on less than US$1 a day (Source: UN Development Report, 2004). The Human Development Index places Brazil in 72nd place in a list of 177 nations.

The history of slavery remains present in the present-day poverty of residents who live in the favelas, poor neighbourhoods that climb up the hilltops of Rio de Janeiro. There are close to 600 favelas in Rio, housing more than 20% of Rio?s resident in public land. In the rural areas, poverty continues in agriculture - the sugar industry still employs children as child laborers. Critics say Lula has done nothing to reduce poverty, and may in fact be moving towards a direction that hurts ordinary citizens.

Lula had to expel some of his party members after they protested pension reforms that followed IMF and Washington guidelines. Lula agreed to these reforms in order to get a World Bank loan to Brazil. Inspite of his support of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty, launched by an alliance of hundreds of grassroots organizations calling global leaders to cancel global debt and more and better aid to third world countries, Lula may find getting reelected after two years more difficult. Several celebrities, including Bono of music group U2 and former Irish Prime Minister Mary Robinson (former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and current Oxfam International President) have also endorsed this call, which was launched at Davos in January 28th.

Lula levels criticism at his critics by pointing to the increasingly bazzar-like nature of the World Social Forum. Held between January 26 to January 31st, the six day long forum hosted over 155,000 participants and over 1000 events. The dizzying array of events and venues leave even the veteran participants feeling disoriented. Supporters say that the nature of the event itself is a microcosm of the way democracy works, and any attempts to superimpose a higher authority will effectively make its lose its unique character of grassroots regulation.

This gigantic scale of the event has prompted some critics to point to its greying - the forum has been going on for a few years now, but there has been no change in the way it operates. The WSF needs to let go of its democratic nature of events management - all done by participants - and institute some coherence if it is to compete with the highly organized efficiency of Davos, say others. Competing with the capitalists will require using some of their own strategies - organization, productivity, networking. Five days of camping out in 32 degree heat could be better utilized if a free software advocate could be steered towards education and grassroots activists. The idea that the incoherence will "work out" has to be mediated with a more pragmatic approach, or it will turn into a social carnival. Taking heed of these criticisms, the organizers of the WSF have vowed to hold smaller forums all over the world in 2006, and also to hold the WSF of 2007 in Africa.

The WSF opened with a concert by Gilberto Gil, one of Brazil's most popular musicians and also their communications minister. Manu Chao was also present. As the musicians tuned up, a giant plastic ball representing the earth bobbed around, kept up by the hands of the participants. Wobbling unevenly, it made its way across the field, narrowly avoiding puncture from a zealous flag-pole. As the sun set over the river Guaiba, hundreds of musicians tuned up for everything from capoeira to punk rock. The incoherence turned to improvised order, and the jazz-like quality of humanity took over.

Whether the WSF will become more purposeful or not, or whether this should even be its aim, will become clearer in upcoming years. What is clear is that it remains a visual metaphor of the colossal and inchoate nature of the modern world, one where billions of people and millions of cultures and interest groups carve out their own agenda. There can be no central governing authority, no corporation to grab all as customers. That remains its biggest challenge, and its most awesome beauty.