CARACAS - Politics, especially party politics, on which
representative democracy is based, is in crisis. But not even the social
movements brought together under the umbrella of the World Social Forum
(WSF) are doing enough to respond to the demands of the societies in which
they are active.
This debate has cut through the discussions on other issues addressed by the
seminars, workshops and panels at the sixth WSF, which opened on Tuesday and
ends Sunday in Caracas.
Activists wear masks depicting Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (R) and Vice President Dick Cheney during a protest against the Iraq war at the venue of the annual World Social Forum in Caracas, January 26, 2006. (Francesco Spotorno/Reuters)
This year's annual WSF civil society gathering was polycentric, with a Forum
held in Bamako, Mali last week and another scheduled for late March in the
city of Karachi in southern Pakistan.
"This is a political forum. The participating organizations take a political
approach to the world and to their presence in it," social science professor
Edgardo Lander, a member of the Venezuelan WSF organizing committee, told
As seen in Latin America, "politics is in crisis, and that has to do with
the lack of representation of the people by their elected officials, who
tend to represent themselves more than the interests of society in this
region," said Pedro Santana with the Colombian organization Vía Ciudadana.
"It is in response to that crisis of representativity that social movements
emerge, like feminism, environmentalism, ethnic movements, or groups that
fight discrimination," said Santana.
In some cases, "these movements voice their grievances and demand solutions
directly from the state itself, since the political class ignores them," he
Juan Carlos Monedero with the Complutense Institute of International
Studies, in Spain, said "the divorce between political parties and social
movements is similar to the one between reform and revolution, and bogged
down transformational thinking throughout the entire 20th century."
In Monedero's view, "political parties are a necessary evil, and social
movements arise for noble purposes but are short-lived and corruptible."
"Today, political parties behave like cartels, although the name sounds
ugly, because there are rules of the game, and those who do not stick to
them are pushed out," he added.
Monedero pointed to the loss of the traditional functions of political
parties, which he said no longer play a role of helping to build political
and social values, and do not inform the citizens, but use the media as a
tool to maintain support for the cartel.
As an example of the complexity of the exercise of democracy, he noted that
while only 25 percent of voters took part in Venezuela's December
legislative elections, a regional annual poll known as the Latinobarómetro
found that Venezuela is the country with the highest level of confidence in
the democratic system, with 70 percent of respondents saying they trusted
In the view of Roberto Savio, founder and president emeritus of the Inter
Press Service (IPS) international news agency and a member of the WSF
international committee, "In Latin America there is a divide between
political institutions and civil society, and to close it, civil society
must focus on concrete agendas."
This is because, in his view, "the region experiences a swing of the
pendulum from the right to the left approximately every ten years, and
different policies are established in each decade. Civil society should take
advantage of the present years," in which there is a clear inclination
towards social concerns.
According to Lilian Celiberti of the Uruguayan women's rights organization
Articulación Femenista Marco Sur, "the political parties have a
responsibility to incorporate the demands and struggles of social movements,
and it is important for governments to create mechanisms for participation
that can translate these demands into public policies."
In addition to the relationship between civil society and political parties,
the participants in the Caracas session of the WSF - some 70,000 people
representing 2,200 organizations - have also devoted considerable discussion
to the politicization of this annual event, and its potential conversion
into a launching pad for political action.
Addressing around 15,000 Forum participants on Thursday night, host country
president Hugo Chávez declared that "it would be tragic if the WSF became
merely folkloric or just another tourist gathering. I don't understand why
this is still being debated and no conclusion has been reached. In the face
of the challenges from the empire, there is no time to waste."
Santana noted that "one sector of the WSF believes that this is a civil
society initiative that should not be confused with political society and
must reaffirm its autonomy, but without refusing to take part in the
dialogue critical for implementing the changes discussed in this meeting
Others, however, maintain that the Forum "should remain pure and
uncontaminated, because they perceive any association with politics as
sinful, and maintain that social movements are the actors historically
destined to bring about changes."
Then there are those who take a middle-ground approach, and advocate
maintaining the autonomy of the Forum while developing "an open and
clear-cut policy on the relationship between the WSF and social movements on
one hand and political society and governments on the other."
Yet another current has emerged in support of transforming the WSF into a
full-fledged political movement.
Savio recalled that the Forum "was born with the notion of serving as an
open space for sharing, comparing, learning and creating networks among
"This has worked, but I believe we need to redefine it, so that it is less
dispersed and there is more discussion around the thematic areas of debate,"
"Every day it becomes more urgent to take action on issues. The last five
years (since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States) have
not been conducive to the causes of peace, justice and international
cooperation," he stressed.
"There has been a strengthening of the domination by the ruling systems, and
a weakening of the United Nations. Globalization has been discredited in
cultural terms, yet maintains elements of power, and on an international
level, it is relations of force that prevail," Savio added.
Between the two extremes of politicization and "purity", Savio advocated a
more moderate approach, calling on "the organizations that come to the
Forum, and the ones that don't come, to adopt concrete propositions on
specific issues and an agenda of concrete actions."
Copyright © 2006 IPS - Inter Press Service