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World Social Forum: 1968's Heirs Seek to Pull Together
Published on Friday, February 2, 2001 by Inter Press Service
World Social Forum
1968's Heirs Seek to Pull Together
by Mario Osava
RIO DE JANEIRO - The World Social Forum is a child of 1968. The struggles that exploded in the 1960s produced the myriad organisations that are now trying to surmount the challenges posed by their own diversity, as delegates return home after the six-day meeting in Porto Alegre, in southern Brazil.

Many of the 4,702 registered participants in the Forum led the battles of 30 and 40 years ago, whether in peace campaigns against the Vietnam War or as guerrillas fighting military dictatorships, as feminist activists or as defenders of minorities, fighting against racism or in favour of sexual freedom.

The most visible example was Ahmed Ben Bella, a leader in the bloody war for Algeria's independence, who paid tribute to Ernesto 'Che' Guevara and defended revolution during his participation in the Porto Alegre panel discussions.

The World Social Forum, which ran Jan 25-30, served as the site for an encounter between the former Algerian president and Ladislas Dowbor, one of 40 Brazilian political prisoners released in June 1970 and sent to Algeria in exchange for the release of the German ambassador, taken hostage by guerrillas in Rio de Janeiro.

At the time, Ben Bella was himself a prisoner, after being overthrown in a military coup five years earlier. Dowbor is now a professor of economics at the Catholic University of Sao Paulo.

The various struggles of the 1960s occurred in parallel but were often mutually exclusive. The student rebellion in Paris was a long way from the guerrillas fighting in Latin America, most of whom, aligned with Cuba, could not understand the European students' rejection of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

The revolutions they pursued followed divergent roads. Some fought for the dictatorship of the proletariat while others fought for democracy, sexual freedom, gender equality, recognition of civil rights for blacks in the United States, or the survival of indigenous peoples worldwide.

The era also marked the beginning of environmental movements, campaigns to reform psychiatric hospitals and to integrate people with mental or physical handicaps into larger society.

Amid defeats or partial advances, the idea of diversity triumphed as a universal value - respect for differences, opposition to the conformity of industrial society and to the reduction of variety, whether natural or cultural. Equality was no longer confused with uniformity.

The natural consequence was a dispersal of the progressive forces into isolated movements, reflected in the proliferation of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), each dedicated to specific actions or issues, such as feminism, human rights, street children, or cancellation of the foreign debt.

With the World Social Forum, it seems that cycle is ending and a process of convergence is getting underway.

Environmentalists, feminists, union leaders, peasant farmers, blacks and indigenous peoples, pacifists or guerrilla supporters, democrats and revolutionaries, utopia-seekers of all degrees, gathered in an effort to combine forces.

The emblem of the World Social Forum is a mosaic, a whole that preserves the identity of its parts, respects diversity, but points in the direction of ''another possible world.''

The Porto Alegre meeting is commemorated in the ongoing construction of a mosaic made up of inscribed stones contributed by groups from around the world.

The common enemy - widely considered indispensable for maintaining unity - is now ''neoliberal globalisation,'' instead of imperialism, the enemy during past decades.

The hegemonic power to fight is still found in the United States, but has another face. The targets of today's activists are the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the major transnational corporations.

It is, however, once again a struggle against the imposed economic models. Now it involves just one - the neoliberal model - as opposed to the two that dominated the Cold War years. Diversity faces new threats.

Today, money is the primary weapon used in subjugating the people. Less and less often is it military force, which in the 1960s unsuccessfully attempted to do conquer the people of Vietnam, but easily did so in Prague and the Dominican Republic.

Foreign debt, financial speculation, free trade, monopoly of knowledge through patents, and the privatisation of public services are seen as instruments of domination, of aggravating national and global inequalities and imbalances.

The concentration of power - whether economic, political, social or cultural - is the mother of all conflicts because it inevitably generates struggles for redistribution, stated Samuel Pinheiro Guimaraes, professor at the University of the State of Rio de Janeiro and one of the intellectuals invited to the World Social Forum.

Along those lines, Walden Bello, the Filipino leader of the Bangkok-based NGO Focus on the Global South, prescribes the decentralisation of global economic regulation by eliminating the IMF, World Bank and WTO.

He argues that centralised power does not adjust itself to different economic realities and is doomed to disappear, just like the Soviet Union, a centralised economy.

Nostalgia and new indignations coexist in the World Social Forum, an event organisers describe as an ongoing process. Colombia could turn into another Vietnam, said many who reject US military and financial aid to the Colombian government for fighting the drug trade and the guerrilla groups that control a large portion of the country.

Words and concepts are still confusing in this new phase. The Forum is global and an internationalist movement by nature, but many cry ''down with globalisation!'' obligating others to clarify that they are not opposed to ''globalisation'' but that they want the process based on ''solidarity, not neoliberalism.''

Many World Social Forums, to be held annually, will likely be needed to prove that it is indeed possible to unite groups this diverse and numerous in an effective movement, one that could represent the rebirth of the left.

The overarching challenge is to design global alternatives that are feasible, less utopic, though without renouncing the radical transformation of the world that the rebels of the 1968 sought, and which their current heirs also seem to want.

Copyright 2001 IPS


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