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
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
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