In Time of War, Hope Triumphs in Porto Alegre

World Social ForumPorto Alegre--When tens of thousands of protesters streamed through the center of this city in Southern Brazil last week, denouncing George W. Bush and his war on Iraq, it was the second major anti-war gathering in the Americas in as many weeks. The World Social Forum in Porto Alegre was supposed to be about globalization, but talk of war dominated everything.

"Can there be any progress, civil, social or economic, while the American military project continues?" mused one European delegate. It wasn't just the anti-globalization crowd that found itself preoccupied by military matters. The few tycoons who showed up for this year's World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland spent most of their time wringing their hands over the prospect of war.

Despite being separated by thousands of miles -- and a not insignificant distance on the thermometer -- the anti-war protests in Washington and Porto Alegre weren't all that different. Both took place in contexts of economic uncertainty, looming austerity and an air of inevitability about the war itself. Both were notable for the huge presence of ordinary citizens who had made lengthy trips to march against war.

The majority of people who came to Porto Alegre -- more than 100,000, say World Social Forum organizers - -were neither seasoned veterans of the anti-globalization circuit nor political movers and shakers.

"I came here from Foz do Iguacu," a teacher told me over lunch one day, referring to the dramatic falls near the Argentina border, mentioned by the Bush administration as a possible next frontier in the war against terror. "It's a long trip. Fifteen hours," he said, counting them out on his hands.

But while the two marches may have looked alike -- demonic effigies of George W. Bush are as popular in Brazil as they are in Washington -- that's where their similarities ended. The Jan. 18 demonstration in the US sprang out of a uniformly bleak political context, peopled mostly by protesters whose only organizational affiliation was a church group, a school club or a small network of friends and coworkers. The Porto Alegre protest, more shimmying spectacle than tribunal, was powered by deep organization -- trade unions have a powerful presence here -- and above all a sense of hope. After all, this is the same country that recently elected to the presidency Workers' Party candidate Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva.

A few days after the march, Lula spoke to an audience of tens of thousands of fans at the amphitheater in Porto Alegre. There are people in the crowd today who don't speak our language, he said, referring to WSF delegates who had traveled from some 130 countries to come to Brazil. For them I have a simple message, he said. "Look into my eyes."

I thought of Lula's statement on Tuesday night while watching George Bush's State of the Union address. I imagined Bush extending the same offer and wondered who would take him up on it. And what, I wondered, would they see in there?

For the people in Porto Alegre who marched against war that day, Lula's victory is the proof that organization and militant mobilization can work. The Workers' Party, or the PT, is everywhere here, from the flags that flutter about the city to the number 13 (the PT's spot on the electoral list) with which Porto Alegrenses adorn their clothes and cars. In the US, there is simply no equivalent. The Americans who traveled from Cleveland, Chicago and beyond to protest their president do not yet have an organized alternative with which to contest him. Should they join with the rancid Workers' World Party? Jump aboard the Lieberman campaign?

Another World Is Possible--But What World?

World Social ForumThe war was the glue that held this, the third World Social Forum, together. "Another World is Possible" may be the official slogan (trademark pending) of the anti-globalization movement, but there is little agreement over what that world should be like. The range of conflicting visions was on vivid display in Porto Alegre; the gulf is as wide as ever between the reform crowd, which seeks fair trade and better managed capitalism vs. the revolutionaries, who want to tear the whole thing down and start over.

Lula essentially walked right into that divide with his decision to go from the people's forum directly to the annual ruling class reunion in Davos. "He's making a terrible mistake by going to Davos," Chris Nineham from the UK group Globalize Resistance said in a talk on the global anti-war movement. "It will lead to disappointment and to the kind of compromises that let people down."

The United Socialist Workers Party, or PSTU, a left split-off from the PT, was firmly on the side of keeping Lula in Porto Alegre. They staged regularly rallies during the forum, imploring Lula not to go, and they were the first to arrive at his speech, armed with huge banners and flags. As the crowd waited for the president to arrive, the PSTU kept up an ominous drum beat and alternated between chants condemning Bush, Sharon and Lula. But as the president began to speak, the PSTU contingent was as rapt as everyone else in the crowd.

When Lula announced from the stage that he couldn't stay, that he was, in fact, on his way to Davos, the audience fell silent. The PT flags stilled, and the soccer chants, "Lula, Lula, le-oh-le-oh-le," stopped as well. They would not have invited me to Davos if it weren't for you, Lula told them. "I'll say to them what I'd say to my comrades, that it's impossible to continue to live in a world where some people eat five times a day and others just once in five days."

But there is another conflict looming, one that won't be smoothed over as easily as this: Brazil's position on the Free Trade Area of the Americas Agreement, known here by its Portuguese acronym, ALCA. Activists in North and South America who hope that Lula's administration will simply walk away from the trade deal are likely to be sorely disappointed. On the campaign trail, Lula and other PT candidates criticized the FTAA as it had been negotiated by the Brazil's last president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso. But their intention all along has been to fight for the best trade deal for Brazil, not to appease the anti-globalization movement.

"I keep hearing talk that another FTAA is possible," Canadian labor activist Michelle Robidoux told me. "If that's where things are headed, people are going to be devastated. Canadians have seen what has happened as a result of NAFTA."

Like many at the forum, Robidoux seriously doubts that capitalism as we know it can be reformed. She and a friend were peddling red "anti-capitalista" buttons, spelled out in the Coca-Cola logo. "I believe that another world is possible," she said. "It just can't be capitalist."

One, Two, Many Social Forums

Since the anti-globalization movement burst into Northern consciousness in 1999, some of its novelty has worn off. The 'globo-trotters' who make their way from forum to forum (Genoa? It must be July), clad in movement swag, are already cliché. While they were out in force in Porto Alegre -- I sat behind Jose Bove on the flight to Sao Paulo -- the World Social Forum was about much more than movement stars.

What was on display here was the kind of spark and energy produced when huge numbers of people come together around an idea. Young, old, in-between, they turned out in force to learn about what globalization would mean for them. They crammed into theaters to hear live, streamed testimony from newly freed death-row inmates in Illinois. They stood in line to get into classrooms in order to hear about the US movement against the war in Iraq.

It may sound vague ("simpleminded" was the description that one American lent to the event); far more time was devoted to talking about demands than in figuring out how to make them. But for once, the statement "another world is possible" seemed like more than trite globo-talk; we were watching it unfold here. As in the US, much of public life in Brazil has been eroded by privatization, income inequality and a relentless process of malling. There are few places where ordinary Brazilians of all walks of life can simply go to mingle together.

"Public life has moved behind walls and gates," explained my friend Gianpaolo, a sociologist who grew up in Porto Alegre and now lives in the US. For five days, though, Brazilians and the people who had traveled from countries all over the world to join them took that world back.

One of the most contentious debates this year was over where the 4th WSF should take place, indeed, whether it could take place anywhere in the world but Brazil. And while there was general consensus coming into the meeting that the 2004 event would be moved to India, the Brazilians, the real power behind the WSF organizing structure, have been loathe to let it go. So too the merchants of Porto Alegre, who have made a killing during each of the last three Januarys. In the end, a compromise was reached: WSF 2004 will take place somewhere in India then return to Porto Alegre in 2005. Hyderabad, India played host to a successful Asian Social Forum in 2002.

Moving the event is important, says Njoki Njoroge Njehu, director of 50 Years is Enough.

"This shows that the World Social Forum isn't just a Brazil thing, but part of a global movement. The choice of India is important because of the strength of the social movements there."

But wherever civil society comes together to oppose globalization, says Njehu, people have an opportunity to experience solidarity. "Whether they're fighting water privatization in Bolivia, electricity cut-offs in South Africa, or demanding community control in the US, they're not alone. There are other people involved in the same struggles. Amongst all of the people here, if I call out for help, someone will answer."

Jennifer Berkshire is a freelance journalist in Boston who writes about globalization and immigration. Parts of this article first appeared on Contact her at

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