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Dispatches from Porto Alegre
Sanuel Loewenberg reports on the 2005 World Social Forum in Brazil.
Samuel Loewenberg is a freelance journalist who specializes in the intersection of business and public policy. He has reported from Washington, D.C.; Brussels; the former Soviet Union; and China. Below he writes daily from Porto Alegre on the 2005 World Social Forum.
Subject: Can 100,000 Lefties Get Along?
Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2005, at 8:17 AM PT
PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil—As global conferences about managing the future of the world go, this one is pretty easygoing. Sure, there are a bunch of Nobel Prize winners, a few heads of state, and experts on every subject from agricultural subsidies to zero-sum growth. The conference has drawn more than 100,000 people. They will be here for six days, making plans to alter entire societies, cultures, and economies.
And not one of them has a briefcase. OK, I'm exaggerating. Maybe six of them do. But I've been here more than 24 hours, seen thousands of people, and not one person is wearing a suit. Of course, it's summer here.
I should explain. You will soon start seeing lots of news articles, which you won't read, about the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. You will vaguely remember that it happens every year around this time at an exclusive ski resort and that big politicians and business guys like Dick Cheney and Bill Gates lecture to gushing crowds of management consultants, as-yet-unindicted chief financial officers, and magazine editors. That's the World Economic Forum. Davos.
This is the Fifth Annual World Social Forum. Call it the left's version of Davos. Did I mention the Vietnamese couple wearing Ho Chi Minh shirts who handed me a flyer about the U.S. government's cover-up regarding the use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Did I mention that the man sitting next to me is wearing camouflage pants, sports a compass on his belt, has lots of exposed gray chest hair, and is reading the "Dialects" of Adorno and Horkheimer?
Although what I have said is true, I should stop being snarky. There are, after all, thousands and thousands of people flooding to this smallish city in the south of Brazil for the event. Most of them are university students, almost all of whom—I'm educated-guessing—have come from Latin America and Europe. Very few Americans, but more on that later.
All these people have come to hear experts, activists, politicians, trade unionists, members of indigenous tribes, and still more activists. There are even feminists here.
Oh, cynical American, you are dismissing it already. I know you. But as a British journalist (there aren't many Brits here either, according to him) just entreated me: Look at the numbers. Imagine if this many tens of thousands of Americans traveled all of these hundreds or thousands of miles to attend something other than a college football game or a Metallica concert. What if it was to hear a bunch of antiabortion preachers, pro-gun advocates, and advertising executives? That would be big news, right?
Wait, that happened. George W. Bush won re-election. But a guy called Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva from the Workers' Party is president of Brazil, which has 170 million people. Lefties have also been elected in Argentina, Uruguay, and Venezuela (whose leader, Hugo Chávez, is, admittedly, a strongman, but less so than many of the leaders being feted at Davos). So, with all these populist and reformist Latin America governments in power, the World Social Forum might be expected to be a leftist lovefest.
Or not. In a situation that might be familiar to anyone involved in Democratic politics, the left wing of the Workers' Party is furious with Lula for enforcing fiscal austerity and economic expansion policies. True, they've led to an economic expansion of 6.1 percent in the last year and a record-breaking $33 billion trade surplus. But folks here are angry with their elected leader, since fiscal austerity is not much fun to live through. Lula is willing to alienate some of his supporters, as he indicated to reporters while breaking ground on a new pipeline in the Amazon: "If people want development that preserves the environment, we have to have energy," he told reporters in April. "It's no good people saying the Amazon has to be the sanctuary of humanity and forget there are 20 million people living here."
Lula will attend the World Social Forum, but he will only address a select group, since a large crowd of leftists would likely be unfriendly.
And that, in a nutshell, is the dynamic—albeit perhaps unspoken—facing the global left over the next five days: how to navigate the terrain between ideology and practice.
Subject: The Process Is the Point
Thursday, Jan. 27, 2005, at 12:23 PM PT
PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil—When the World Social Forum opened yesterday with a panel calling for the cancellation of billions of dollars in foreign debt to aid the countries devastated by the Dec. 26 tsunami, I must admit I felt a bit cynical. The panelists, mostly activists from the affected countries who were joined by Argentine Nobel Peace Prize-winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, argued convincingly that Third World nations were already crippled with interest on so-called foreign aid—$23.6 billion in 2003—and that simply canceling the debt would be far more helpful than saddling them with new emergency loans.
Still, when I asked the panelists if they had had any indication that the International Monetary Fund and other major lenders might suddenly agree to wipe out their debts, they acknowledged that they didn't expect it to happen any time soon. Nor had they sent any delegates to Davos, where the British government has announced it is going to push for debt relief.
"If the players in Davos really care about what the people think, it is their burden and their challenge to come to Porto Alegre," said Filipina delegate Lidy Napcii.
If this was going to be the tone of the conference—we are right, and it is up to the powers that be to realize it—I was worried. The bigwigs in Davos seem pretty happy right where they are. True, they have been trying to soften their image lately, with panels this year like "Will income disparities always be with us?" "Mobilizing a disenchanted workforce," and "Why rich countries can't buy happiness."
Davos, of course, is really about networking, and that seems to be the overriding theme of Porto Alegre as well. I've been calling it a meeting of the left, but that's imprecise because it suggests some kind of electoral agenda. Much of what is going to happen here is the trading of ideas and business cards. It's a way to know that you are not working in a vacuum, said Gururaja Budhya, who works at a women's rights organization in Shimoga Karnataka State, India. At last year's forum, which was held in Mumbai, India, Budhya says he "met people from different countries working on the same issues. I encountered activists from Thailand, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Europe. We kept in touch. It was empowering." The program itself is a hodgepodge, composed of two 134-page volumes, plus an additional 12-page section of corrections. It was released only yesterday. As in years past, there will be dozens of meetings devoted to the dangers of globalization, the misdeeds of the World Bank and IMF, and how the left can best organize itself, all crisscrossed with varying shades of feminism, Marxism, environmentalism, and human rights activism. Other panels read like something you might see on the Learning Channel, such as a meeting on the "Unbearable Lightness of Equality," while another addresses the no doubt pressing issue of "the development of the grocery retail sector in the Italian market and its impact on the farming sector in the South."
The forum kicked off last night with a massive march that resembled a politicized Mardi Gras, with separate sections of the parade devoted to different causes. There were women's rights organizations in bright purple wigs, rain forest advocates carrying coffins, Indian trade unionists in traditional dress, and a bebopping delegation of middle-aged education advocates. The parade was massive, kilometers long, snaking through Porto Alegre as crowds cheered from sidewalks, bridges, and apartment windows.
The whole mishmash, tens of tens of thousands of people, converged in one of the city's central parks. Guys with Trotsky and Che T-shirts chatted with Brazilian tribesmen in traditional dress; others held banners with slogans like "Education Is Inclusion," "Davos No, Samba Yes," or one from antihunger group that simply had the image of a crossed fork and spoon.
It is difficult to describe the tone of the gathering—it was part political convention, part Woodstock, part Carnival, and like nothing I've ever encountered in America. As a reporter, I've covered political conventions, protests, and rock concerts for a decade, and I've developed the usual reporter's cynicism for all things done by large groups. I'm also a serious music snob.
The crowd sang songs about dignity and the forum theme "Another World Is Possible." The tone was not polemic. It was passionate and also optimistic. Groovy, even. It was strange—and very un-American (although not particularly anti-American).
When Gilberto Gil took the stage, the crowd went wild. This is who they had been waiting for. One of the country's most beloved musicians, he was jailed by the military dictatorship in the 1960s because his politics were too radical. Today, he is the minister of culture in the Lula government.
The next day, I ran into Gil at the forum and asked what he thought the significance of the event was. Would this big bunch of meetings involving all these different groups really change anything? Gil leaned back and smiled. He looked me in the eye and said: "I answer your question with a question. Do you think that change happens?" This was a guy who knew something about change.
Playing an acoustic guitar alone in front of a football-stadium-sized crowd is no easy feat, but Gil's rich voice and swinging playing had seemed to fill the huge park with ease.
When Gil hit the opening chords to John Lennon's "Imagine," I was surprised to find that I was no longer feeling cynical. I don't even like Lennon or the Beatles, but this was something different. I was smiling. I had even started to dance.
Subject: Yes, We Can All Get Along
Friday, Jan. 28, 2005, at 11:26 AM PT
PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil—Social justice is a lot of work. Especially when its 90 degrees and humid. The World Social Forum meetings are spread out along the Guiaba River, at 11 different sites, each one consisting of a couple of dozen tents. The sessions last three hours, and there are about 20 sessions per three-hour block. So, every three hours I have to choose among 220 mini-conferences that are spread out along several kilometers and take place in plastic tents and empty port warehouses. Did I mention it's hot and humid?
This morning I decided to spend my time in the tent devoted to discussions of bauxite mining. Bauxite is the main ingredient in aluminum, of which the United States is the world's biggest consumer. It is also dangerous to mine and polluting to the environment, a point that was driven home by a recent industrial accident in a bauxite refinery that led to a toxic spill in the Amazon region of Brazil.
What is going on today, in this small tent filled with about 30 people, is unusual. Three groups that at first glance have conflicting interests—Brazilian miners, German industrial unions, and American environmentalists—are attempting to form a coalition. It is easy to see why these groups' interests would nominally be opposed. The Germans would be concerned that the lower-wage Brazilians will take their jobs, and both would resist the American environmentalists, who want to put limits on their industry.
These differences do exist, but for now, at least, these disparate organizations see themselves as having a higher purpose, and it involves working together.
"We think in this age of globalization we can no longer work only in one country," said Dieter Eich, a representative of the Confederation of German Trade Unions. "It is not acceptable for German companies that manufacture in the developing world to use different standards than they do at home. Why is a Brazilian lung not as protected as a German one?" His union, the German equivalent of the AFL-CIO, is funding 20 education projects and pro-labor publicity campaigns in Brazil.
Free-trade advocates would dismiss Eich's concerns as mere rhetoric designed to protect the German market. After all, if you raise the health and environmental standards of poor countries to those of Europe, then corporations will not be as tempted to export jobs overseas.
Manuel Paiva, the president of the workers union in the Barcarena region of Brazil where the toxic spill happened, was not interested in an ideological debate. "We want to be sure that the work we do will not harm us," he told the audience. "We want to discuss how to have a mining industry that is not degrading to our homes and our land."
According to union leaders, the most pressing issue is a plan by the aluminum companies—which are dominated by the Brazilian mining firm CVRD; Hydro, a Norwegian-owned company that is centered in Germany; and the U.S. aluminum-manufacturing giant Alcoa—to dramatically ramp up production. That expansion means building dams to power the energy-intensive refineries.
Dams have long been a concern of the environmental community because of the ecological devastation and community displacement they cause, but the anti-dam agenda was not an easy sell for Glenn Switkes, the Sao Paulo-based representative of the International Rivers Network, a U.S. environmental organization. While Switkes was pushing for limits on the mining operations, jobs and health concerns were at the top of the Brazilian workers' agenda. After listening to his presentation on the dangers of dams, the union leaders said he should speak directly to the villages, where they said the mining companies had already made many attractive promises.
Martina Sproll, a German trade union organizer, who is coordinating meetings between German and Brazilian union officials "Meetings like this are great, but this is a speck in terms of what we need to do to reach the grass roots. It's a problem for lots of international organizations," said Switkes, whose job is made easier by the fact that he speaks fluent Portuguese.
For the activists, union members, intellectuals, and other grass-roots groups, Porto Alegre is a chance to form their own version of a multinational corporation or international agency. While companies have been operating across borders and disciplines for decades, such cooperation between nongovernmental organizations is a relatively new phenomenon, said Rick Rowden, the Washington, D.C., representatives of Action Aid, a European-African aid and advocacy agency with operations in 40 countries.
"In the 1990s, a lot of cross-linking began to occur. People who had been working on various issues for decades began to see how their issues were interrelated," said Rowden, citing as an example the broad-spectrum movements that rose up against the International Monetary Fund because its policies affected labor, education, health, and environment.
Eich, the German trade unionist, said that the alliances being formed at the forum can have powerful and lasting impacts. "For the Brazilian unions dealing with a German company, they are limited in how much pressure they can apply. But if the German unions also apply the pressure, it can have a lot of impact."
Subject: Changing the World One Cause at a Time
Monday, Jan. 31, 2005, at 2:10 PM PT Porto Alegre, BRAZIL—The World Social Forum is packing its bags today. Delegates, talking time is over, now go home and save the world.
So, what did they learn? Had this fifth global meeting of leftists, progressives, civil society activists—call them what you like—really "broken [apart] the lie that neoliberal domination is inevitable, and that it is 'normal' to have war, inequality, patriarchy, castes, racism, imperialism, and the destruction of the environment," as the organizing committee's press release claimed?
Don't laugh off this statement too quickly. The intent was to educate people that there are alternatives to the status quo. There's nothing wrong with that goal. Isn't that the aim of every political gathering, whether it be a neighborhood PTA meeting or a national political convention (no offense to the World Social Forum, which certainly had a lot more content than the latter).
So, how successful was it? If you base your judgment on whether it gave birth to a unified political movement, it fell short. But if you were looking not for a revolution but to prepare to fight some battles, or even to try to figure out what the battles were, there was plenty to grab onto.
One of the final debates to erupt at the forum was whether it should be more focused. Seventeen prominent intellectuals issued an open letter calling for the forum to get back to its roots. When it began, five years ago, the focus was on globalization and free trade. Back then, forum participants protested—literally—that the meetings were too hierarchical, and so last year the organizers decide to abdicate their oversight role and let the planning be more "organic," opening the forum meetings to whomever wanted to present. "The World Social Forum is a reflection of the state of civil society," said Shalmali Gultal, a development and poverty researcher and one of the forum's organizers. "It doesn't necessarily need to have a sharp focus."
Sounds good, in theory. In practice, nonlinear organization meant lots of wasted time. It was typical that when I would go looking for tent K604 to sit in on a meeting about child trafficking, tent K604 was no longer located between tents K603 and K605; rather, it had been renamed K609 and now housed a meeting about justice and African women.
On the other hand, the opening up of the forum meant more people like Chisemphere and Veloso, who were actually doing hands-on work in various fields, and less insider babbling by academics and professionals. It's probably safest to have a few of each.
So, what did I learn at the forum? Changing the world is like cleaning up a messy apartment. If you stare at all the scattered junk too long, you will never get anything done. Best to start with one corner and work from there.
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