Up to 200,000 people marched through the main streets of Porto Alegre, Brazil, to begin the fifth World Social Forum (WSF) on Wednesday of last week.
The size and enthusiasm of the demonstration was visible proof of the growth of the movement against neo-liberalism and war in the last five years.
Once again there was a coming together of a mass of diverse groups and single issue campaigns — indigenous peoples from Ecuador and Bolivia, trade unionists from Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires, opponents of the destruction of the environment by greenhouse gases, African movements against the debt, women’s organisations, gay and lesbian groups, and many more.
There is much to debate in Latin America. The continent has seen mass action from below overthrow three neo-liberal governments — in Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina — and prevent a right wing coup against the reforms of Hugo Chavez’s government in Venezuela. In Brazil, president Lula’s Workers’ Party government has gone back on promises it made before its election just over two years ago, attacking pension rights and backing the employers in a bitter strike of bank workers. Finally, the fake election in Iraq took place during the forum.
Unfortunately, when it came to these issues there was a marked contrast with the atmosphere at the last World Social Forum in Mumbai, India, a year ago. That began with speakers like Arundhati Roy denouncing the US Empire and its wars on Iraq, and on the world poor. But the main organisers in Porto Alegre are close to the Lula government, and organised so as to prevent such generalisation.
The meetings were allocated in such a way that those active in certain issues and campaigns were to a large extent cut off from those active in others.
The first big meeting at the forum starred Lula as the main speaker. He was meant to be launching the campaign in Brazil against world poverty. But most of his speech was devoted to defending his government against criticism from the left. He then flew off to the World Economic Forum in Davos to mix with the very billionaires, financiers and government leaders who are responsible for world poverty.
The Brazilian sociologist, Emir Sadar, who helped initiate the World Social Forum, spoke out against “the fragmentation of the themes and debates. While the Forum emphasises secondary issues, there is not important debate over the the most important issue at present — the struggle against the war and imperial hegemony in the world.”
It was clear that the great majority of grassroots and young activists did grasp these were the central questions. Walking through the Forum, again and again you could see the red flags, the Che Guevara T-shirts, the placards and banners denouncing Bush’s assault on Iraq, the leaflets from the Korean group All Together calling for support for the world day of action against the war.
Everywhere there was an enthusiastic response to chants of “Nao a la guerre” (No to War), “Bush, Blair Assassinos” and “Viva, viva, Palestine”. And the forum of the social movements, which meets alongside the WSF, joined in the call for worldwide demonstrations on 19 March issued from the European Social Forum in London, the recent anti-war conferences in India and Lebanon. Protests are now planned in 23 countries on this day.
Chris Harman is the editor of International Socialism journal