Porto Allegre Diary II


Porto Alegre. “Can you imagine if the left in the US looked like this?” one American activist said wistfully, watching as the opening march of the World Social Forum snaked its way through the city streets on Thursday. His envy was understandable: the parade of political parties, civil society organizations, marching bands and dancers that clogged downtown Porto Alegre for hours was a vivid, shimmying spectacle, a continent away from the dreariness that plagues most gatherings of the US left. Also absent: the tense standoffs between demonstrators and police that have marked nearly every recent globalization gathering. Local police were merely observers at this political carnival.

So what makes the Latin American left so different from its US counterpart? Median age, for starters. The youth–or “juventude” as their signs and flags read–were everywhere. They marched by country, cause and political party. They danced and drummed for communism, socialism, anarchism and everything in between. And while a small contingent of the now-infamous “Black Bloc” appeared late in the parade, it was only an obvious lack of tropical clothing that distinguished them at all.

Then there’s the rhythm thing. Even the clunkiest slogans somehow roll off the tongue when chanted in Portuguese to a samba beat (“Stop Bush US Imperialist Aggressor” was particularly catchy.)

Like previous gatherings held here, this one was about globalization, a loose gathering of folk united by a shared belief that “another world is possible,” the close to official slogan of the anti-globo movement. But what kind of world? The range of often conflicting visions was obvious. For many on the far left, it’s a socialist world, or at very least “Death to Capitalism,” as one popular sign read. For the NGO’s and issue groups, it’s a world in which capitalism is better managed, trade is fair and financial transactions taxed.

The distance between the two constituencies is immense, bridged here only by the savvy street vendors who managed to sell cerveixa, Caipirinhas and Che garb to both. The split between the revolutionaries and the reformistas is fundamental; they do not speak the same language. One group of marchers had a novel solution: Esperanto. They carried signs–in Portuguese rather than Esperanto–imploring us to speak the universal language.

If the critics of globalization who massed here are divided about the world they want, there was a single issue that united nearly everyone: the US war against Iraq. The war was the thing, opposed by all of the various political groupings, and by delegations from from some 125 countries. And while rumors of a large anti-American demonstration in the center of Porto Alegre swept through a gathering of US delegates earlier in the day, the warnings proved groundless. The US representatives carried placards opposing war too. Tacked to a telephone poll near the docks, a single sign condeming “Yankees, Jews and Nazis,” hung limply. But no one seemed to notice, not even the delegation of Argentine jews that marched through the streets urging peace, and waving the Israeli flag.

Enough about the marchers. What did ordinary Porto Alegrenses think of the spectacle? For a country that routinely shuts down for four days of carnival every February, this was no big deal: a fully-clothed preview of next month’s ritual. Still, curious onlookers were everywhere. Workers, done for the day, lined the streets, and residents watched from their balconies, some showering the crowd with homemade confetti. A group of cafeteria workers pointed and waved to the marchers from their restaurant window.

And what of the Brazilian elite, notorious for their resistance to any social and political change? They gave up the center of Porto Alegre long ago, taking to the hills that surround the city where they live behind wrought iron gates. “We will make them hear us,” said one marcher, an AIDS activist from Rio. “Even if they can’t see us, they’ll hear.”

Note: To sustain high spirits during a lengthy political gathering, a hefty shot of Cachaca, the Brazilian cane liquor is essential.

Caipirinha 1 lime quartered 1 tablespoon of sugar 1 shot of Cachaca (Brazilian cane liquor) * cup of ice cubes with water

Place the lime and sugar in the bottom of a glass. Using the handle of a wooden spoon , crush and mash the limes. Add liquor and ice. Stir well.

JENNIFER BERKSHIRE can be reached at: jenniferberkshire@hotmail.com

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