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Dispatch from Pôrto Alegre

by Norman Madarasz

Thousands, many barefooted, marched tightly joined in suffering and hope. Six sailors held a floral filled boat on top of which stood proudly a Virgin Mary-in appearance only. On Saturday, amid the second World Social Forum, citizens of P?rto Alegre celebrated Nossa Se?ora dos Navegantes do Sul, the procession for I?manja: Queen of the water, Mother of the Seas.

Capital of the southernmost Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, P?rto Alegre is now on the international political map. Activists, intellectuals and artists from different practices, ideas and worlds met here for the second World Social Forum, held between January 30th and February 4th . The world of syncretic religion, the active African Orixa strain in Brazil’s version of Catholicism may have lain on the outskirts, its spirit infused its politics. Syncretism strayed long ago from European Church dominance in this country with world’s largest Catholic congregation. The Pope, it is said, does not enjoy visiting Brazil. Nor do the leaders of Davos.

The World Social Forum 2002 has been an unmitigated success. It brought together over 50 000 representatives and delegates globally. The city of P?rto Alegre (1,2 million) received them in a spirit of public protest and celebration now only distant memories in North America. Throughout the weekend streets greeted throngs of demonstrators, doubling those who set out to this progressive South American city last year. Hundreds of workshops funneled into dozens of plenary sessions often with themes, ideas and projects rubbing shoulders that have never felt contact before. The politics of social justice have become syncretic.

With the celebrating now at a close, what really amounts to success for social justice still remains to be defined. The general mood is that smiles of joy will vanquish W’s smirk of cynicism. The assembly call, “another world is possible”, emphasizes the consensus felt in critically rejecting a globalization based on neo-liberal economic principles. Relieved, delegates confirmed that, with the exception of the English-speaking North, 9-11 has not dispersed the drive. Still, as Davos came to New York, it seems unlikely that P?rto Alegre will reach Burlington, Vermont.

Negri and Hardt argue in their recent Empire that revolutionary success is to be evaluated in the country that has exalted the idea like no other. The Forum can easily claim success for not having taken place in the U.S. As opposed to last year, thousands of American and hundreds of Canadian delegates (mainly from French-speaking Qu?bec) attended the Forum. The feedback they received regarding the militaristic turn of the U.S. has forgone politeness. During the Clinton-era, many Southern countries implemented neo-liberal economic policies, entering into trade agreements and promoting strong currencies as a result. Now, after the State of the Union address and State bankruptcy of Argentina, the U.S. model has unwittingly proved itself untenable and, worse, filled with undaunted risks for the majority of the world’s population.

American delegates focused on the urgent need to work toward blocking Fast Track legislation in the U.S. Congress on the Free Trade of the Americas Agreement (FTAA). This proposal to act was generally accepted by their Southern counterparts. Over the weekend it led to two important demonstrations. Both occasioned calls for peace toward the Bush administration, while demonstrators were being clubbed in New York City. As the FTAA became a priority for the Bush government in the wake of the May 2001 Qu?bec summit, Forum delegates all agreed that a major step in countering neo-liberalism has to take place in the U.S. Were there even a chance for demonstrations to get off the ground, bitterness is likely to meet them. Back in Qu?bec, Argentina stood proudly alongside Chile, El Salvador, Mexico, Canada and the U.S. as part of the agreement focus group. With the overthrow of President De La R?a, Argentina has been reasserting to Brazil its commitment to the MERCOSUL (Free Trade Agreement of South America). It has done so at significant human and financial cost. The question is: will the North American middle class budge at all when faced with this picture?

This brings to light one of the main drawbacks of the Forum’s effects. Save for the alternative and loosely Democratic press, there has been a near media blackout in the English-speaking North about the Forum. It has had to compete on the language front, also, not just because of the dozens of languages spoken among its delegates. The fact is that in no other time has English been spoken by so many around the world. By contrast, English for Northerners has become a screen filtering foreign moves to seek more equitable and sustained economic partnership.

The particularities of Lusophone Brazil remain little known in the North. With a population of 171m, it is the second largest economy of the Americas after the U.S and Canada. Delivering the message in English on Brazil’s interests may play second fiddle to delivering the message per se. Still, by being oblivious to the languages of others, key elements get lost in translation-or are simply left unheard.

As a national event, the World Social Forum has provided a window on the country’s vast geopolitical landscape for the work of the PT (left-wing Workers’ Party). A long-standing PT town, P?rto Alegre operates according to participatory democratic guidelines as regards budget allocation and spending policies, among other things. Luis Ignacio ‘Lula’ Da Silva, PT candidate for the upcoming presidential elections, was prominent in opening the Forum. Contrasting the two rival world gatherings, Lula declared: “In the North, they’re discussing how to accumulate wealth. We’re debating ways on how to best distribute the same wealth.”

The left-wing PT is a socialist party on the lines of Polish Solidarity. Both share similar histories as they moved from trade union to political party. Lula is a veteran from the assembly lines of the huge multination autoplants in S?o Paulo State, where he was head of the Metal Workers’ Union. Also a veteran of presidential elections, the tally of his vote hovering around 35%, he has lost three times to right-wing alliances in the lead-up to run-off elections. Conveniently, Brazil’s vastly powerful Globo TV network and its cable affiliate, Globo News, have given generous spots to the Forum, even surpassing in broadcast time news from NYC. Aware of the right’s media power play, Lula nonetheless seeks to be reassuring when highlighting the tense choice awaiting the Brazilian electorate later this year. Here, as in Colombia, Argentina and Peru, yet another socialist alternative has emerged.

Following years of prosperity, Brazil has recovered with relative success from the currency crisis of 1998. It has moved toward implementing social justice in leaps and bounds following 25 years of military dictatorship and the massive embezzlement scandal that forced President Fernando Collar to step down ten years ago. Receiving high-marks from Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, out-going President Fernando Henrique Cardoso has played off numerous right-wing factions in his alliance to bring the country to where it is today. It is debatable whether the president’s vision can be pressed forward by any party other than the PT.

Media exposure of the World Social Forum host country has contrasted internationally. Adepts of chance can believe what they want about Newsweek’s January 26, 2002 cover story, which has smitten Brasilia’s objectives with the vast land reform program. The article’s patronizing tone and vicious condemnation was too strong to be coincidental. Without even a mention of the IMF and debt crisis, its author Mac Margolis portrays ‘Fernando Henrique’ as a puppet of the powerful. Owing to the articles reckless snap shot, which is real time unfolds under the IMF’s wary eyes, it made sure North-American main media would see even less point in covering the Forum. By contrast, Le Monde, El Pais, and Jornal do Brazil gave generous space to dealing with the events on a day-to-day basis.

Meanwhile in New York, Brazil government ministers were fighting their own battles. These should not merely be dismissed as bickering amongst the rich. The two situations are not identical and they ought to be compared. The unspoken word, the expression for which not enough has been said even in P?rto Alegre, whose effect is massive poverty spreading rabidly in the South, is how to sway the G7 middle classes toward wealth sharing. With pockets tightly sealed by the threads of their credit line, the middle classes are the major obstacle. In sound economic terms, this has less to do with paying UN and UNESCO dues than with giving the South the industrial space needed to develop and keep its own manufactures: wealth, resources and profits to boot.

The buzzword here is a variation on sustainable development, though emphasizing more than ever geoproportional circulation of production resources, social services and education. Multilateral institutions emerging from Bretton Woods in the shadow of the UN have shown their vested interest in stifling economic miracles in the South. As tax sensitive as the Northern middle classes appear, they can no longer claim to ignore the international r?gime they are funding. Dozens of conferences addressed these topics. But industrial development and the kind of multilateral legislation the South needs to develop, as well as the sacrifices required by the North as it compels its leaders to share the wealth of the world, are among darker, more intangible topics. Without one, there cannot be the other.

Recent litigation at the WTO between Brazil’s regional jet builder, Embraer, and Canada’s Bombardier is a case in point. It has exposed Canada’s now aggressive posture regarding what it views as its right to unshared wealth. Canadians will doubtless recall International Trade Minister Pierre Peddigrew’s pleading with demonstrators in Seattle about the benefits guaranteed for Southern countries once they agree to trade rules and register at the WTO. For the following two years, the Canadian government, lobbied by Bombardier, bitterly fought to make Brazil pay for the hidden subsidies it awarded to Embraer. In the end, the WTO decided that if anyone was subsidizing its industry it was Canada. Its government has granted low-interest loans to two American airlines as a trade-off for buying Bombardier aircraft. Whether an exception or the rule, the WTO’s history of settling litigation behind closed doors remains one of the major sticking points for the democratic spirit expressed in P?rto Alegre.

With the facts behind neo-liberalism an affront to social justice, its propaganda is even more offensive. Brazil’s industries, as other countries’, clearly need the open market Americans promise and compel their trade rivals to apply. But when trading time comes round, US and Canadian governments have done little more than shut doors. An offshoot of American business practice is to encourage increased ‘dollarization’ of Latin-American economies. This was the case with Argentina who, until last year, was regularly cited by the IMF as one of their “success stories” with respect to how loan issuance was propelling a stumbling economy to stand afoot again. We all know now what truth lay behind those statements, oddly echoing Enron’s and Nortel’s own previsions. Which is why apart from the American attack of Afghanistan and Israeli butchery of the occupied Palestinian territories, Argentina was on everyone’s lips. The paneleros, or pan beaters, were there to remind conference goers that their cacophony brought two presidents crashing down in the last month and a half-the fate of a third now hangs delicately in the balance.

Out numbering the World Economic Forum 25-fold, few were surprised with the failed rapprochement between the rival forums. Monday morning saw Social Forum spokesperson C?ndido Grybowsky link up via telephone with Andr? Schneider, GM of the New York/Davos Forum. Barely ten minutes into the chat, conversation broke down. “It’s shameful to boast of how they’re helping developing countries by sending $US 25m in medication, when that sum equals what Brazil spends per month on treating AIDS,” riled Grybowsky.

What Schneider and his crew have shown is that 9-11 will be exploited by the powerful to extend the groundwork that even a cynic can see leaves the field ripe for further disasters and increased violence. The wiser elements in his camp may be smart enough to notice that syncretic politics and geopolitical industrial legislation are safeguards to their own profits and stability. But the long-term has never been Davos’ forte as a pragmatic option. It is precisely in that direction and time span that the spirit flown in P?rto Alegre will spread further. Onward to India in 2004, with another stopover in Ga?cho country in 2003.

Norman Madarasz is an independent philosopher. He has translated Alain Badiou’s Manifesto for Philosophy, available at SUNY Press. He can be reached at: n_madarasz@hotmail.com.

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