Politics, Growing Pains at Brazil’s World Social Forum

By Érica Junghans

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — Despite the election of Workers Party candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to Brazil’s presidency, organizers of the third World Social Forum are experiencing some political discomfort.

Conceived as an alternative to the World Economic Forum — held since 1971 in wintry Davos, Switzerland — the first World Social Forum took place in 2001 during Porto Alegre’s torrid summer in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul.

It has since become a defining event for a multitude of international organizations opposed to the global ascent of neo-liberal market economics.

The advent of a leftist government in Brazil has provoked an optimistic mood among the many movements and organizations attending the forum, which runs from January 23-28 in parallel to the Davos event.

But some participants have expressed dismay that President da Silva has decided to attend both forums.

He will be speaking at the World Social Forum on January 24, and then depart for the World Economic Forum to mingle with business leaders, mega-investors, bankers and government officials from the world’s richest countries.

According to Luiz Fernando Furlan, a longtime Davos attendee and Brazil’s minister of development, industry and foreign trade, President da Silva’s presence at Davos might bring to the table “those matters that developing countries have been trying to put on the agenda.”

Sergio Haddad, president of the Brazilian Association of Non-Governmental Organizations and an original sponsor of the Porto Alegre event, said that da Silva should not go to Davos, and criticized the World Economic Forum for trying to “refine a bankrupt model of globalization.”

Some observers note that da Silva — well-known as a former strike and mass demonstration leader — may be politically embarrassed by the fact that his trip to Davos will put him on the other side of the police cordon designed to protect high-ranking guests from ubiquitous anti-globalization protestors.

Both events are idealistically described by organizers as places for debating ideas for building a better world.

While the Switzerland conclave focuses on capitalist and market-driven issues and methods, the World Social Forum pursues “globalization in solidarity,” with a focus on human rights, environmentalism and egalitarian economics.

Over the course of the week, Porto Alegre will host dozens of happenings, forums, seminars and gatherings representing the range of the world’s political left.

Delegates will address a variety of major themes, including sustainable development, media and culture, world democracy, and non-military solutions to the Iraq and Israel-Palestinian crises.

Any number of demonstrations are scheduled, including protests against a U.S. invasion of Iraq and against the Free Trade Area of the Americas.

The forum is expected to draw approximately 100,000 attendees from 121 countries and almost 5,000 organizations — a melting pot of activist groups, unions, community representatives, business leaders, workers, artists and politicians.

The biggest group of attending delegates, other than Brazilians, will be roughly 1,000 Americans, including the actor Danny Glover, former Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate Medea Benjamin, and the Nobel Prize-winning linguist Noam Chomsky.

Other guests of note include the French agricultural activist José Bové, Oronto Douglas, a Nigerian lawyer and an associate of the executed human rights advocate Ken Saro-Wiwa, and Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian farmer being sued for patent infrigement by the Monsanto corporation. His crops were pollinated by the company’s genetically modified plants growing in a neighbor’s fields.

Critics have said that the event is an ineffectual forum for debate that lacks consensus and that fails to present clear strategies and solid alternatives to the methods of institutions like the World Trade Organization and the World Bank.

Other dissenters, who object to the presence of government- and corporate-funded advocacy organizations, are promoting “revolutionary” assemblies and anarchist demonstrations throughout the week.

The Workers Party was until recently the dominant political force in Rio Grande do Sul and a major sponsor of the forum.

But the same election that gave da Silva the presidency saw the Workers Party lose the governorship of Rio Grande do Sul to Germano Rigotto of the moderate Brazilian Democratic Movement Party.

Rigotto was initially opposed to the event, and World Social Forum organizers were considering new homes for the event in 2004, including the city of Hyarabad, India, which hosted 20,000 delegates to the Asia Social Forum last month.

But the influx of 100,000 visitors to Porto Alegre is a tempting financial incentive. Rigotto has now stated that the forum is welcome to return next year.



The World Social Forum


The World Economic Forum



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