March Issue 2005
Voice of Dissent
Tens of thousands of social activists, unionists, and revolutionaries converged from across the globe, marched through the heart of the southern port city of Brazil vowing to resist capitalism, envisioning another world, at the end of the World Social Forum (Jan 26-31). Young Andre found a way to combine his subversive zeal with enterprise — he cashed in on the great guerilla leader from Cuba, Che Guevara, selling hairbands and T-Shirts with the comrade’s picture on them to the leftists at the forum.
Even Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, who recently survived a Washington-backed coup, proudly wore a Che T-Shirt at the closing ceremony. If Che is immortal for leftists and oppressed Latin Americans, Chavez is the present hero of revolutionaries in Brazil as he has challenged US supremacy.
More than a 100,000people from Africa to the Americas, and Australia to Europe and Asia, attended the forum to counter what they call the hegemony of the super powers over third world countries, exercised through the IMF and World Bank. Reminiscent of Manto’s stories and the stereotypes of Indian art cinema, they all toted handwoven cotton bags.
Thousands of students from the west preferred to live in makeshift colourful tents along the banks of the river Guiba that runs through this city. The area itself was dubbed “World Social Territory.”
“Che brought about a revolution and created history and we are trying to re-write it,” says Michael Greg, a young participant. Social activists began protesting against the World Economic Forum at Seattle in 1999 and came up with the idea of a separate forum.
From 2001 onwards, the World Social Forum has coincided with the World Economic Forum held in Davos. While the World Economic Forum advocates free trade, social activists oppose it, arguing that this would only serve to increase the gulf between the rich and poor. The activists advocate fair trade policies and the cancellation of multilateral debt.
The participation of social activists has increased each year, with current estimates at 120,000 in Porte Alegre. An estimated nine million dollars were spent on the forum. Over 5,000 organisations and social movements participated while 2,000 seminars and workshops were held on topics ranging from health, environment, education and poverty to militarisation of societies, free trade and foreign debt.
The activists protested against the US for its role in Iraq while Bush was presented as the Hitler of the modern era. Indians criticised the role of the then ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the time of the Gujarat riots and Palestinian women narrated the horrible experiences of families living under the shadow of Israeli gunships in the Palestinian-administered areas in Ramallah and the Gaza strip
Palestinian activists say unemployment has risen by 78 per cent in the Gaza strip since the start of the latest intifada, and will increase further because of the wall constructed by Israeli security forces to stop Palestinians from crossing into Israeli territory. They say around 4,500 people have been killed, 20 per cent of them children; 550,000 people have been injured and 250,000 have permanent disabilities.
The Israelis have now uprooted over 100 million olive trees, the main source of livelihood for thousands of Palestinian families, on the pretext that children would hide behind them and throw stones at the Israeli forces. This will leave poverty-stricken families to die of starvation.
Palestinian women face manifold problems. They go through tremendous mental trauma after losing children, caring for the disabled and injured, coping with the loss of husbands and other members of their families. They watch husbands, fathers and others beaten by security forces and constantly harassed by the Israeli army at checkpoints.
The Palestinians drew the world’s attention to Israel’s madrassas — their public schooling system and academia. They said almost all settlers are a product of the public school system, where they are taught that it is their duty to expand Israeli territory and purge the region of Arabs. They believe their messiah will come back to them only when ‘unclean elements’ are driven out and the Zionists rule the land.
The Palestinians called for an international boycott of Israeli academia which they term a pillar of the occupation, as well as of all products made in Israel.
“I have no tears left to cry with. Others dream of what their children will grow up to be. I pray all day that my children live, because I know that in all probability they will die,”says emotionally charged Miriam Ilwaan. “They accuse us of training suicide bombers, but Israel security forces are themselves the biggest recruiters of suicide bombers.”
“No other nation on earth has struggled against oppression the way we have. We do not choose to fight, we choose to live. To choose to live, we have to fight, even if it takes another 100 years,” says another Palestinian activist, Hanaan Mukatib.
The activists challenged the New World Order in which US imperialism was seen as intricately connected to capitalism and condemned as an evil force perpetuating poverty.
Brazilian President, Lula De Salva, who rose to become president from being a factory worker, launched a campaign to end poverty from the world and demanded that world leaders join the fight against this “curse to humanity.”
“Undoubtedly the forum has provided a platform for people to raise their voice, but most people coming here agree with each other ideologically. The WSP needs to broaden its horizon,” says Shibesh Chandra Regmi, a leading social activist from Nepal. “What matters is whether the message is conveyed to the poor and oppressed people rather than the rest of us debating their issues.”
There was a heated debate on whether or not the World Social Forum should transform itself into a partisan movement or be an open space. Many argue that the World Social Forum should adopt a political stand and become more action-oriented.
The 19 high-profile activists, most of whom are founders of the WSF and International Committee (IC) members, presented the World Social Forum with a blueprint aimed at changing the contours of the forum.
“It’s not possible to continue to speak of ‘another world is possible’ if we do not make concrete proposals on how to reach this other world,” the document said.
The points include debt cancellation, adoption of the Tobin tax on financial money transfers, dismantling of tax havens, the promotion of equitable forms of trade, a guarantee on the sovereignty of a country’s right to not only be able to produce affordable food for citizens, but also to police its food supply; the implementation of anti-discrimination polices against minorities and females, and the democratisation of international organisations, which would also include moving the United Nations headquarters far south of its current New York location.
Among the signatories are Argentinian writer and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel, Portuguese sociologist Bonventura de Souza Santos, French editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, Bernard Cassen, Egyptian economist Samir Amin, U.S. sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein and Pakistani writer Tariq Ali.
“Being an open space is no longer enough. We must de-romanticise ourselves and professionalise this movement so that it remains relevant,” said scholar-activist Walden Bello, who is also the executive director of the Focus on the Global South, adding that over the last two years the WSF had encountered problems maintaining its momentum. As a partisan movement, Bello suggested that the WSF should come up with resolutions, such as a declaration calling for the dissolution of the World Trade Organisation, World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. “As long as these centralised dinosaurs control the global economy, we in the South will not have the space to breathe,” he said. “How can we defeat globalisation and neo-liberalism if we don’t have strategies?”
Portuguese Nobelfor Laureate for literature JosÃ© Saramago called for turning the World Social Forum (WSF) into “an instrument for action” based on concrete proposals and ideas with broad support, rather than a place of annual pilgrimage by the Left to engage in debates on “utopias.”
Critics of the proposal for the WSF to become a partisan movement argued that if the Forum took a political stance, it would be much more open to attack. According to Chico Whitaker, WSF organising committee member, the WSF cannot be a partisan movement as the forum’s strength lies in its “being an open space where people can meet.” “The WSF is not a movement with common objectives,” Whitaker said. The WSF should not come up with strategies, as the forum does not aim at providing solutions. “Strategies should be formulated by the organisations themselves, not the WSF.”
With loud calls for translating ideas and talk into result-oriented actions, thousands of activists said goodbye to the World Social Forum, slogans of changing the world still ringing in the air. Andre, a roadside poster and bookseller who works hard to sell his Che posters and motorcycle diaries, says, “I am a revolutionary but realistic as well. That is why I sell these posters. Old comrades say every revolution stems from idealism but if these revolutionaries want to change the world they need to be practical as well. We live in the 21st century and not in Che’s romantic days.”