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The Super Rich at Davos Are the Voice of the Past
Published on Friday, February 9, 2001 in the International Herald Tribune
The Super Rich at Davos Are the Voice of the Past
by Walden Bello
 
PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil -- "Hemingway said that the rich are different from you and me. How can anyone expect the people in Davos to understand the crisis that globalization has visited on the lives of people like those of us here in Porto Alegre"? That was going to be my opening line.
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But when I arrived at the studio for the televised trans-Atlantic debate with George Soros, the financier, and other representatives of the elite in Davos, Switzerland, a visibly shaken Florian Rochat of the Swiss delegation was waiting for me. The Swiss are known for being impassive, but Florian was trembling. "They are arresting protesters in Davos" he told me. "They're killing democracy in our country. Our friends there are asking you to support them in calling for the shutting down of the World Economic Forum."
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That request drove out any lingering desire to be "nice" in the coming exchange, which had been billed by its producers as a "Dialogue between Davos and Porto Alegre." The ambitious, $1 million production involving four satellite hookups, aimed to explore if there was common ground between the annual elite gathering in Davos and the newly launched World Social Forum in this southern Brazilian city.
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Since I had been in Davos last year, the producers requested that I make the opening statement for the Porto Alegre side. I obliged with the following: "We would like to begin by condemning the arrests of peaceful demonstrators to shield the global elite at Davos from protests.
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"I was in Davos last year, and believe me, Davos is not worth a second visit. I am here in Porto Alegre this year, and let me say that Porto Alegre is the future while Davos is the past. Hemingway wrote that the rich are different from you and me, and indeed, we live on two different planets: Davos, the planet of the super rich, Porto Alegre, the planet of the poor, the marginalized, the concerned. Here in Porto Alegre, we are discussing how to save the planet. There in Davos, the global elite is discussing how to maintain its hegemony over the rest of us."
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The press termed the next 90 minutes not as a debate but as an emotional exchange of personal insults. But I and the other panelists were simply reflecting the non-conciliatory mood toward the Davos crowd of most of the 12,000 people who flocked to Porto Alegre.
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Porto Alegre focused not only on drawing up strategies of resistance to globalization but also on elaborating alternative paradigms of economic, ecological and social development.
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Militant action was not absent, with José Bové, the celebrated French anti-McDonalds activist, and the Brazilian Movement of the Landless leading the destruction of two hectares of land planted with transgenic soybean crops by the biotechnological firm Monsanto.
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Porto Alegre achieved its goal of being a counterpoint to Davos. The combination of celebration, hard discussion, and militant solidarity that flowed from it contrasted with the negative images coming out of Davos, the center of Switzerland's biggest security operation since World War II.
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Perhaps the outcome of the duel between Davos and Porto Alegre was best summed up by George Soros: "The excessive precautions were a victory for those who wanted to disrupt Davos. It was an overreaction. It helped to radicalize the situation."
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On his performance in the televised debate with Porto Alegre, Mr. Soros commented: "It showed it is not easy to dialogue." Then he added, "I don't particularly like to be abused. My masochism has its limits." Observed the Financial Times: "Such uncomfortable experiences seem temporarily to have scrambled his ability to deliver pithy sound bites."
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But Mr. Soros was not alone in flubbing his lines. Soon after my opening statement, Bernard Cassen of Le Monde Diplomatique leaned over and told me: "Walden, it wasn't Hemingway who said the rich are different from you and me. It was Scott Fitzgerald."
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The writer, executive director of the Bangkok-based Focus on the Global South and professor of sociology and public administration at the University of the Philippines, contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.

© 2001 the International Herald Tribune

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