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WSF in Belem

Looking back at the Forum

Saturday 28 March 2009, by Orion Cruz

As hundreds of prominent figures in the global financial and political sectors convened in Davos, Switzerland to attend the World Economic Forum’s annual gala, beginning on January 27, over 100,000 individuals traveled to Belém, Brazil for the rival eighth annual World Social Forum (WSF). The overlap is not coincidental; the WSF was founded on policies that could not contrast more with the traditional neo-liberal agenda fueling the World Economic Forum.

The WSF provided its participants with the opportunity to engage in reflective thinking, and a democratic exchange of ideas. These activities were all aimed at formulating proposals to address what the attendees believed to be the inherent flaws afflicting the current capitalist system, that many present believed birthed the current world economic crisis. Numerous Latin American leaders accepted the invitation to participate in the summit. The resulting discussions provided an ample forum to scrutinize such issues as the “Criminalization of Social Movements and Human Rights Defenders” and “Joint Strategies around Impacts of Extractive Industries on Development in Latin America.” Their purpose was to promote the safeguarding of human rights, and the fulfillment of a commitment to build a sustainable society that is attuned to a more thoughtful relationship between humankind and the Earth.

The World Social Forum: The Gathering of the Distressed

In 2001, the inaugural WSF commenced in Porto Alegre, Brazil. According to an Inter Press Service interview with Portuguese Nobel literature laureate José Saramago, skeptics had speculated that a successful forum, one which was able to transform ideas and dialogue into tangible results, would ultimately fail to take place due to the lack of clear overall objectives.

Fortunately, the preliminary WSF in 2001 proved to be a significant first step in fulfilling the forum’s purpose to “make another world possible,” as it fused the voices of various civil society organizations and developed a stronger outreach. The result was one that was larger in scope and which was forged in international advocacy. Nonetheless, in order to maintain a creative, yet broadly inspired and successful opportunity for engagement, the forum’s founders developed a Charter of Principles. This document declared the purpose and orientation of the WSF, as well as welcomed the participation of individual movements and organizations devoted to social improvements.

Also, the WSF Charter is explicit in classifying the body as an open assembly, which rebuts the misperception that it is an intellectually homogenous regional organization pursuing its own interests. The WSF’s set of fourteen fundamental principles is a means to sustain its peaceful initiative while facilitating the forum in a respectful, objective, and effective manner, so as not to tarnish its original intention.

Participatory democracy researcher and past forum attendee Josh Lerner observed that the “speeches, personal testimonies, and mass rallies” delivered “feelings of solidarity and excitement.” The WSF has contributed to the rise of prominent leaders such as Evo Morales, who began his own presidential campaign in Bolivia after gaining support for the concept of sovereignty and autonomy of his own, as well as the region’s other indigenous peoples during an earlier WSF conference. As the case of Morales demonstrates, WSF has achieved what it was meant to accomplish. It has succeeded in becoming a motivational conclave which inspires onlookers to continue their efforts to achieve universal parity in social justice, a doctrine they believe that Western capitalism now largely ignores.

A Return to Brazil

Considering Belém’s stature as a major commercial center located in the vast Amazon River basin, the city strives to be seen as the cultural and economic heart of northern Brazil. Its 1.4 million inhabitants lent their support to the Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analysis (IBASE), a primary organizer of the WSF, to draft the facilities of Belém’s two large universities as the centerpiece for the 2009 conference, said IBASE Director-General Candido Grzybowski. However, it could be argued that holding the WSF in Belém actually may have turned out to be a poor decision.

If so, this was primarily due to the inadequate infrastructure existing in the city, which proved just barely sufficient to accommodate such a large influx of visitors. This flaw in the composition of the forum became apparent right from the start when many participants were unable to attend a number of the events due to the inadequacy of the transportation grid. More often than not, the roads leading to the forum could be found swamped with massive amounts of traffic that prevented buses and taxis from moving at bearable speeds. Moreover, once participants arrived, they found it quite challenging to make it to the lecture hall for which they were searching, because there were so many being used and the campuses are situated a good distance from one another. The result of this was that accompanying the excitement of the WSF were equal degrees of frustration, tardiness, and absence, not only on the part of the crowds, but also, on occasion, key lecturers and organizers.

Nevertheless, following the decision by the forum’s founding organizations at the 2007 WSF in Nairobi, to transition from an annual conference to a biennial event, the 2009 forum was momentous in that it coincided with the worst global economic crisis in history, a circumstance previous WSF conferences claimed to foresee.

Belém was also chosen, in part, for its unique geography. Serving as the eastern gateway to the Amazon, the city symbolizes the forum’s tenacious efforts at greater conservation initiatives aimed at preserving the world’s natural resources. Indeed, this WSF enormously stressed the importance of the Amazonian biosphere. Perhaps imprudently, however, there were very few efforts made to demonstrate that aside from the physical location of the gathering, this was supposedly a “green” event. Trash was everywhere, and recycling efforts were barely discernable after the forum’s inaugural festivities were held.

The Lula Factor

Brazilian President Lula da Silva was one of the original craftsmen of the WSF. His government contributed approximately U.S.$50 million to this year’s event. In a move that signified the relative importance of the forum, Lula opted to attend the WSF rather than participate at Davos as had been universally assumed. Instead, Brazil’s Minister of External Relations, Celso Amorim, and the President of the Banco Central do Brasil, Henrique Meirelles, represented the regional superpower at the World Economic Forum.

Lula’s decision to attend the WSF should not have come as a complete surprise. His roots lie deep within social movements dating as far back as the late 1970s. Although a founder of the WSF, Lula’s presence at Belém rather than at Davos cannot be entirely attributed to the conference’s return to Brazil. Instead, Lula saw the forum as a podium to condemn traditional capitalist countries such as the U.S. He claimed, “now the crisis is theirs, not ours,” attesting to the current economic crisis that resulted from grossly lax banking regulations in the market economies.

Lula’s decision to speak at the WSF contributed to the forum’s legitimacy and surely sent a message to the world that alternatives to the current economic model being promoted by the international lending agencies – the IMF and World Bank – are seriously being sought. That message also carried with it a relatively new significance, since Brazil has emerged as a regional superpower at a time when Latin America is expanding its ties with the outer world like never before in its history.

Problem Solving

The WSF has created an opportunity for various private and public organizations to meet and discuss their concerns, and seek tentative solutions. Attendees at Belém typically were individuals seeking social and economic improvement for themselves and their communities. Many, if not most of the discussions heard there focused primarily on educating participants about the world’s multiplicity of problems, particularly about how the application of the neoliberal development model has often mechanically led to inconceivably gross corporate profits at the expense of average citizens and their fundamental human rights. Advancements in poverty eradication and gender equality were among the other imperative subjects discussed. By way of example, the importance of such debates can be seen in the case of Colombia’s alarmingly high number of internally displaced peoples.

Colombia’s Shortcomings

Alvaro Uribe’s administration in Colombia has been repeatedly criticized by human rights organizations, which have challenged it for its negligent response to ensuring the safety and security of struggling tiny and isolated communities in that country, such as the Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó in the northwest region. The exploitation of natural resources and agricultural developments, along with the internal conflict that had engulfed the country for over forty years, has left entire communities displaced. In an analysis released by COHA this past year, the organization found that there are “20 million Colombians who are suffering from hunger, increased human rights abuses, lack of access to healthcare, accelerated environmental degradation, increased inequality, and a deeply flawed educational system.” These are the common injustices minorities become subjected to under state repression, as well as the absence of fundamental access to economic, social, and cultural rights.

It is important to understand the past and the development of contemporary circumstances in order to establish a clear direction for the future. The dialogues at Belém, however, failed, according to some, to place enough emphasis on the future. For well-informed attendees therefore, the forums may have lacked attention to proportionality, in this respect attributing to some confusion in understanding the vast global issues at stake. Many of the forum’s almost overwhelming number of discussions, lectures, and debates were, however, carried out in small groups and provided the opportunity for those who had questions or may have felt something was missing to find answers to their inquiries.

21st Century Socialism: Socialism of the Future

Under the terms of Article IX of the WSF Charter of Principles, Presidents Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Evo Morales of Bolivia, Fernando Lugo of Paraguay, and Rafael Correa of Ecuador jointly addressed the attendees in a vigorous dialogue titled The “Proper Integration of Our America,” a discussion prepared by La Via Campesina. This session synthesized the progress that Chávez’s 21st Century Socialism - often referred to as the Bolivarian Revolution - has made over classical socialism. While maintaining the philosophical supremacy of human labor over capital, the modern model accepts that traditional class struggles do not always provide a satisfying explanation for all social phenomena.

Highlighting some of the major characteristics of 21st Century Socialism, the aforementioned presidents were quick to denounce classical socialism for its inability to produce the efficient development, ethnic equality, and intergenerational equity which the system promised. The Russian model of socialism, for the most part, lacked a process that would accurately record the demands of the people and in many ways was merely a construct trying to challenge U.S. policies across-the-board, rather than create and implement them for the common good. Most significant, however, is “classical socialism’s” failure to raise all of the serious questions to confront the reigning capitalist development model at its roots.

Unlike the Soviet version, Chávez and his colleagues’ leftist vision for the world, which is rapidly emerging from Latin America, is that of an entirely parliamentary democratic brand; it is a manifestation of people’s desire for liberation from the neo-liberal capitalist model of development, and, rather than copying an existing worn-out model for the future, a new community is authoring it. Instead of attempting to “develop” an alternative way through what is commonly seen as endless economic growth rooted in unwarranted U.S. optimism, this new Latin American socialism is forming a strong ecological awareness as well as a desire to counter the dependency policies born from traditional U.S. hegemony in the region. The people, from this chavista perspective, are creating something new and trying to free themselves from an antiquated system that has so far failed the majority of them.

Lula and his colleagues utilized the WSF to take issue with the Western version of the capitalist system. The lack of regulations that precipitated the current global economic crisis has been a crucial component of left-oriented arguments against the neo-liberal system. Irish artist and social activist Tony Kenny maintained that, “The systems formulated in Davos are collapsing, disintegrating and beginning to rot. So there has been this clearing away, this brush fire within the financial system that has been built over the last 100 years.” Magdalena Leon, a member of the Latin American Network of Women Transforming the Economy, also argued against the inefficiency and marginality of the capitalist system, emphasizing the immediate obligation to implement an alternative structure. Leon argued that now more than ever, under the current economic circumstances, measures should be taken to create the change and institutions the world so desperately needs; failure to act promptly would allow the current financial system, which is viewed as being of a “neocolonial nature,” to revitalize itself and shed its irrelevance and chronic obsolescence.

Prelude to Mobilization Efforts

“A new world is being born. Utopia is here in South America,” Chávez affirmed in what Lula jokingly insisted was the Venezuelan President’s shortest speech in ten years (approximately 15 minutes). During his brief address, Chávez promoted the Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of our America (ALBA). He also awarded recognition and praise to Cuba’s Fidel Castro for his dedication to the Socialist cause, which he sustained for half a century in spite of his country’s trade isolation from the U.S. From Chávez’s perspective, Cuba’s ability to endure despite rigid and unremitting punative sanctions being applied from the U.S. has helped build up the confidence necessary among Latin America’s multiplying number of left-leaning administrations to come together and articulate the need for a new world with new values.

Orion Cruz, COHA Research Fellow and WSF attendee, observed that Morales’ and Correa’s speeches were particularly emphatic regarding the environmental crises that the world is currently facing, as well as the necessity of meeting the ecological challenges that lie before us. Both leaders were similarly passionate in their description of the severity of such environmental issues and the way in which they connected to neoliberal economic policies. Morales’ speech, however, distinguished itself from Correa’s, because it came from the perspective that there is much to be learned from the world’s indigenous populations about how to live in harmony with Pachamama.

President Correa, who has recently emphasized the importance of committing to regional efforts to maintain “Mother Earth,” argued that the preservation of the world’s resources is “a necessity recognized even by technological experts.” He supported his position by pointing to Ecuador’s decision not to exploit some of its untapped oil reserves. This was somewhat ironic, however, because despite the fact that Correa is known to be more environmentally conscious than many other regional leaders, and that Ecuador’s new constitution allows for the extension of new rights for the country’s natural ecosystems, Correa’s administration continues to subscribe to policies which inflict great harm to the country’s environment. Oil and mining interests, for example, the former of which has admitted to dumping more than 18 billion gallons of toxic waste water into Ecuador’s Amazon waterways, are still being forcefully protected from public protests. The violent police and army suppression of a number of demonstrations, mostly initiated by the country’s indigenous and mestizo populations seeking to move beyond the extractive economic model, has done irreparable damage to relationships with some of the country’s strongest and most environmentally conscious social movements, including the National Indigenous Confederation of Ecuador (CONAIE).

With regard to the many positive and hopeful environmentally-oriented statements made by these South American leaders, there is still much to clarify. For example, investing in alternative energy and fuel sources such as hydroelectricity, as in the case of the Itaipu Dam in the Paraná River, would allow the region to achieve the energy demands essential for economic growth, yet be looked upon with favor by many of those involved as environmentally responsible. However, if that energy independence were achieved, would there be a price at which it would be harnessed? In fact, hydroelectric dams are renowned for their disastrous environmental repercussions, which often include sizeable amounts of greenhouse gas emissions (occasionally producing more carbon dioxide and methane than power stations reliant on fossil fuels), the damaging of riverine and land ecosystems, as well as massive flooding of the surrounding areas during construction. The Itaipu dam is a compelling illustration of this environmental catastrophe, with the construction of its reservoir requiring that 1,350 square kilometers of the surrounding ecosystem be flooded. As Latin America’s new generation of leaders, and events like the WSF gain traction and legitimacy, there are huge promises for the environment, but it will take serious and sustained pressure from activists to achieve real action.

Putting words into Action

Despite the WSF often being dismissed as a fading leftist’s fantasy, the 2009 convention marks the year that the gathering evolved into a high-minded and highly relevant vehicle. For many of those who attended Belém, the economic crisis was viewed as an enormous opportunity to bring down the current system and replace it with something new, forceful and transformative. There was a general acceptance throughout the forum that change was on the way, but no ascertainable certainty about the kind of change it would be. Instead, there was a focus on discussion about the sort of change that the people wanted to see, which overall was oriented away from the occasional amoralities of a free market system. At the minimum, it was identified that there is a dire need for economic and environmental practices to be restructured, which cannot be predictably achieved by means of the current laissez faire system.

Although the interests represented at the WSF came together with the intention to initiate a movement for social and environmental transformation worldwide, their ability to turn ideas into hard planning will, in part, be measured by the demonstrations at the opening of the upcoming G-20 summit in London. Regardless of the outcome, they will help delineate the world’s future economic woes. President Lula will be introducing a newly formulated manifesto for the development of more responsible financial institutions that more accurately reflect the development and growth of international institutions, aimed at gradually replacing or supplanting the World Bank, the IMF and the World Trade Organization. The degree to which the G-20 countries acknowledge the Belém activists’ appeals will help predict the extent of the role their left-leaning ideas might play in cooperating with most developed economies in order to construct a new type of socially-oriented and just global economy.

If Belém and the protests during the G-20 Summit in London have successfully made a point, civil society groups believe their efforts will result in significant improvements. Although their pursuits may have to be far-reaching to make an imprint, Latin America’s voices have intensified as the hemisphere has emerged as the largest international supplier of raw materials. Feelings of solidarity and a sense of confidence have come out from the WSF, and while they have previously been stymied, this time they were being created within a somewhat more conducive global context. Even if the demonstrations do not amount to everything desired, under the current economic circumstances, the forum’s left-leaning advocates are standing on a much better practical footing than they have been in the past.

The Summit of the Americas

The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago will host the Fifth Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain. Convening in April, this assembly will be focusing on human prosperity, energy security, climate change and sustainable development throughout the Americas. Among the voices being heard there, the various governments of the Western Hemisphere are prepared to address much of this agenda, as was outlined during the dialogues at the WSF.

The United States must be expected to support many of the objectives that emerged from Belém and follow through on some of them with a sense of urgency. It is, however, by no means certain that this will not require heavy negotiation. The Summit of the Americas may, in effect, turn out to be the initial dialogue that the Obama administration will want and need in order to engage in meaningful dialogue with left-leaning governments on such an agenda.

Given the Summit’s fractious history and the discontent expressed at the WSF, it would be foolish for Obama not to take seriously the opportunity of building a regional consensus which would be primarily beneficial to the countries to the south of the U.S. This would be especially prudent of Washington, since it has lost considerable influence in the region and now must commit itself to renovate its regional standing. At this point, it seems that many people, nongovernmental organizations, social movements and leaders within Latin America are dedicating themselves to economic, political and social change, but what is still to be decided is what will be Obama’s reaction. In any case, Latin America must decide whether to attempt to change the economic, political and social calibrations regardless of Washington’s support, or risk its new-found autonomy.