Fifth World Social Forum

Against the Current, No. 116, May/June 2005

Chloe Tribich & John McGough

THE FIFTH WORLD Social Forum convened this year from January 26th through 31st in Porto Alegre, Brazil in the wake of the Bush inauguration and intensifying violence in Iraq, but also some victories for progressive movements in the global south and particularly Latin America.

Nearly 50,000 delegates from over 120 countries presented and attended 2,500 discussions ranging in theme from the expected (“Voices from the U.S. Antiwar Movement”) to the academic (“Construction of Didactic Pedagogical material on the Gender Thematic”) to spirituality workshops focusing on aromatherapy.

Given the Forum’s enormity and physical and programmatic decentralization, it was impossible for any one delegate to get a full sense of all the discussions and proposals.  Inevitably, we have left out many of the Forum’s vital issues from this article: corporate media and independent journalism, gender and sexuality, and trade unionism, to name a few.

What we’ve included are brief discussions of two of the most spirited and relevant debates: the future and tactics of the international antiwar movement and challenges confronting Latin American social movements.

Despite the unwieldy range of political orientations of participating organizations, several salient themes dominated. For one, social movements continually highlighted the extent to which the Bush administration has put them on crisis footing.  Almost all the serious political organizations framed their key challenge as the Bush administration, and the policies for which he has become the primary symbol.

The focus on the Bush seemed to permeate various levels of culture and public life — at least one kiosk at the forum was dedicated exclusively to “fuck Bush” paraphernalia, while local papers editorialized regularly and bitterly against the Bush administration’s posturing against Iran and the ongoing carnage in Iraq.

Antiwar activists met in almost constant session in one of the largest tents, and various groups proposed prioritizing U.S. defeat in Iraq for global left movements. The level of sophistication of these discussions varied. Some advocated unconditional support for the Iraqi resistance, with little discussion of what support of Islamists might mean for the secular left; others presented more reflective perspectives that took into account the varied character of the Iraqi resistance.

Meanwhile, South Korean antiwar activists led the loudest call for international mobilization against the war on March 19th and 20th. United For Peace and Justice (UFPJ) and U.S. antiwar groups were represented on several anti-war panels, but were less visible on the WSF “street”— in the various marches, spontaneous puppet shows, tents and kiosks that formed the veins and blood of the WSF.

Nevertheless, “Voices from the U.S. Antiwar Movement,” one of the most popular panels that was translated into several languages, detailed several useful and inspiring examples of local antiwar actions, discussed targeted military recruitment of youth of color, and dissent from within the armed forces. The panel drew thunderous applause and a standing ovation from a largely Latin American crowd.

The Lesser Evil Problem

Many groups discussed a challenge that Bush presents to both northern and southern antiwar movements: Both reformist politicians and viciously repressive regimes are now able to secure popular support on the basis of their opposition to Bush.

Just as the philosophy of “lesser-evilism” prompted progressive support for a neoliberal, pro-war Democratic party candidate in the recent U.S. election, it also inflates the power of state nationalism in the global South, in ways that are sometimes adverse to social justice goals.

A crude example of this sort of nationalism was one of the largest banners at the WSF, which read “Viva Brasil,” with a huge red X through “USA” below. Similarly, a Zimbabwean activist described how the nearly clandestine social movements in his country struggle against a repressive regime that nevertheless receives support because it denunces Bush and neocolonialism.

The struggle of oppressed nations against various forms of U.S-led imperialism — whether direct military intervention (e.g. Colombia) or liberal restructuring and privatization programs (everywhere else) — remains a central task of social movements, especially those in the “South.” Yet as the Forum made clear, it is uncertain how these struggles will develop given the temptations to fall into the lesser-evilist solutions of weak nationalism and reformism.

Lula vs. Chavez?

Perhaps unintentionally, the scheduling of two major speaking events — featuring Brazilian president Lula on the first day of the Forum and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela on the last — intensified the already existing debate about the politics of Brazil’s Workers Party (PT) government and Venezuela’s “Bolivarian Revolution.”

Lula and the pro-government Brazilian trade union leaders received a mixed response, while an overflowing crowd of mostly Brazilian youth cheered wildly as Chavez described literacy and public health improvements in Venezuela, and the planned redistribution of 3% of the country’s land to rural workers.

Lula’s lukewarm reception at the forum and recent PT electoral defeats across Brazil suggest that his government’s first two years in office — which have included agreements to increase the IMF debt payments, delays and cutbacks to land reform and pensions,  expulsion of PT leftists, and now attempts to centralize and control trade unions and open the university system to privatization — have not met with the approval of social and labor movements in Brazil.

During the forum, P-SoL — a new party of the socialist left initiated by expelled PT legislators — held its second national meeting attended by over 2,000 supporters.
P-SoL is continuing its campaign for recognition as a legal party, and was recently active in supporting the bank employees strike in Brazil. P-SoL decided at the national meeting to hold a series of political discussions about left regroupment and nominated P-SoL cofounder Helena Heloisa to run against Lula in 2006.

Similarly in Uruguay, where the 30 year old left-progressive coalition Frente Amplio recently won the presidential and legislative elections, social movements are already facing off with the government-elect.

Uruguayan environmental activists, including famed writer Eduardo Galeano, penned a declaration at the World Social Forum asking president-elect Tabare Vasquez and his government to stop construction of a cellulose plant on the Rio Uruguay by a Finnish company. The activists claim the plant will impose an environmentally damaging monoculture on the region, displace communities, and deepen economic inequality.

The future finance minister’s response to the letter, according to an article in the Uruguayan weekly Busqueda, was that it was “precisely because this progressive government impels change that we have to receive [this investment] with open arms, because this is change, because this is to create jobs in a country that had enormous difficulties doing that.” (10 Feb. 2005, 6)

Hopeful Signs

Meanwhile, Uruguayan dailies quote business leaders and members of traditional parties confident that the assumption of governance will pacify the Frente Amplio, that the “Frente after the elections is different than the Frente before the elections.”

It is important to note, however, that the recent elections marked the first time in Uruguayan history that a non-traditional party has taken power.  That, along with the successful grassroots campaign against water privatization — the Uruguayan constitution is now the only one in the world that guarantees access to potable water as a human right — is another element in the hopeful shift of South American politics.

As in Brazil, many Latin American movements struggle to confront the budget cuts, economic structural adjustment and military expansion ordered at the hands of self-identified leftist or progressive parties.

This is especially difficult when, as in the case of Lula and the PT, the governing party once played a key role in developing the base of the social movements. However, the resistance registered in developments such as P-SoL and the enormous anti-privatization victory in Uruguay offer reasons to be optimistic about the future of social movements in Latin America.

What Will the WSF Achieve?

No doubt this gathering represented an achievement in the development of stronger international solidarity among social movements. It was an important venue in which to surface debates, such as the ones enumerated above, that would only be possible with diverse international participation.

However, the intentionally decentered and ideologically open character of the event — in addition to simply leaving individuals without a full sense of the debates and discussions — made it impossible to use the full power of 50,000 activists to formulate goals or plans.

The closest attempt at a unified action was the closing day march, which ended with the creation of a patch-work collage of 352 proposals. Unfortunately, there was no widely distributed publication or announcement to formalize or prioritize these proposals.

The lack of any general meeting left little sense of linking struggles or increasing momentum behind the clear priorities, like ending the Iraq war.  Such a large gathering would present obvious logistical hurdles, but would have greatly increased comprehension and formalization of priorities and plans.

As it was, it seemed as if the various movements were somewhat left on their own, even after four days of serious and fruitful engagement. It remains to be seen whether this international gathering of over 50,000 activists will serve to push the agenda of social justice movements towards real achievements.

ATC 116, May-June 2005