Tuesday, March 07, 2006

ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE: The World Social Forum 2006 in Caracas Venezuela by Stephen Sinsley

The World Social Forum 2006 in Caracas Venezuela
by Stephen Sinsley
I have been following the World Social Forum from a distance since its inception in 2001, but given the major social changes occurring in this year’s host country, I decided to participate in this year’s forum and see the changes in Venezuela up close.

We live in what Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano described as an “upside down world.” We live in “upside down times.” Nevertheless, many magical things are stirring in Latin America — things that couldn’t even have been dreamt of under the U.S. supported dictatorships of just 20 or 30 years ago. There is a movement afoot. High hopes and dreams that stretch from the Pampas of Argentina to the plains of Uruguay, Chile, Brazil, Bolivia, and now from Washington’s current nemesis Venezuela. A dream — Bolivar’s dream is stirring in the hearts of hundreds of millions to the South and the WSF highlighted this hope.

The first World Social Forum was held in Porto Alegre in the south of Brazil in 2001, and it was there that the it's Charter of Principals was adopted to provide a framework for the forum (see http://milfuegos.blogspot.com/2006/02/world-social-forum-charter-of.html ). The forums in 2002 and 2003 saw the movement grow rapidly, as the WSF came to symbolize the strength of the anti-globalization movement and became a rallying point for worldwide protest against the American invasion of Iraq. The WSF has thus far taken place four times in Porto Alegre, Brazil (2001, 2002, 2003, 2005); once in Mumbai, India in 2004; and, this year, 2006, in a "polycentric" manner and in three parts of the world: first in Bamako, Mali (January 19-23), then in Caracas, Venezuela (January 24-29), and finally in Karachi, Pakistan (March 25-28).

This year’s Forum in Caracas began on January 24 with a massive anti-imperialism march through the streets of this capital city. Over the next five days, delegates from 140 countries from around the world gathered in over 2200 workshops, panels, and sessions to discuss and debate a wide variety of issues in venues scattered throughout the city. Officially there were 80,000 registered delegates (with 20 - 30 thousand more unregistered participants) representing 2,500 organizations. Many participants complained, it is true, of the excessive distances between Forum sites, unlike Porto Alegre in 2005. Although the Caracas subway runs well and was free for all people sporting Forum badges, it was impossible to keep track of events in 10-12 widely dispersed sites of activity. The "nerve center" of the Forum was the Bellas Artes district, and in particular the Caracas Hilton (a fact that struck many as ironic) and the elegant Teresa Carreño theater. These sites and the nearby Parque Central boasted the best meeting rooms and the best-promoted Forum activities. In places as far-flung as the military airport of La Carlota or the Parque del Este, on the other hand, events, regardless of interest, were condemned to lesser attendance.

The largest delegation came from Brazil, with the next largest group being from the host country of Venezuela, followed by the neighboring country of Colombia. The United States provided the fourth largest group with about 2,000 delegates. U.S. participation in the forum has been small but growing, and this was the first year that the U.S. had a significant presence.

The Caracas forum was much more monolingual than the previous forums. In Porto Alegre, the official languages were the four main colonial languages in the Americas—Portuguese, Spanish, English and French. In Caracas, the lingua franca was Spanish, with most people from Venezuela and neighboring Andean countries speaking only that language and expecting conversations to be in Spanish. Furthermore, a growing U.S. presence also introduced a sizable, unfortunately, mono-lingual English audience who at times felt frustrated in the Spanish environment. Many indigenous speakers from throughout Latin America and North America–in a show of cultural pride–gave their talks or posed their questions first in their native languages, and then in either Spanish or English.

The leading slogan setting the tone for the forum and reflecting its central issues was: “No to war, no to imperialism, another world is possible, another America is possible.” The dominant discourse at the forum, rather than being about war and globalization, increasingly shifted to one of anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism. Reflecting this, volunteers greeting delegates at the airport sported shirts with the slogan “A better world is possible, if it is Socialist.” Another common slogan proclaimed “Another world is necessary, and with you it is possible.” One thing made crystal clear by the Forum, the other delegates, the Venezuelans on the street and by Hugo Chávez himself is the distinction between the U.S. government and it’s imperialist foreign policies– and the American people– themselves victims of these same policies. We all felt welcome, as brothers and sisters in the same struggle.

Alliance Sought with U.S. Movements
The World Social Forum was originally created to provide an open platform to discuss strategies of resistance to the model for globalization formulated at the annual World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland by large multinational corporations, national governments, the WTO, and the World Bank the latter organizations being thugs and enforcers for the former. In contrast, the WSF is in itself a transparent, open process that invites the participation of progressive social movements & networks, progressive non-governmental and non-profit groups, and other civil society organizations to gather under the banner, “Another World is Possible.”
While many in the U.S. corporate media and even among sectors of the Democratic opposition to the Bush administration, seek to portray Hugo Chávez as a determined "enemy" of the United States, it must be recognized that he, and many others on the Latin American left, are making a direct and open appeal to U.S. progressives to join their Latin American counterparts in forging alternatives to an oppressive world-system. What the vectors and dynamics of such North-South political cooperation might one day become cannot be predicted, but it occurred to many at this Forum that the potential for such cooperation is enormous.
The size and format of the Caracas WSF made it difficult to analyze an event that may have raised more questions than found answers. How can the WSF’s base act globally when the process is so deliberately diverse and most participants are preoccupied with their local and sectoral concerns? How can the elite of the movement, no matter how much they talk of solidarity with the oppressed, truly represent the very people who could never afford to attend such an event? How can a global movement dedicated to improving the lives of the marginalized of the world avoid the stark class, gender, and even racial imbalances that sometimes seemed evident? How can Venezuela progress when cheap oil fuels pollution and other problems?
Notwithstanding these dilemmas and concerns, visionaries seeking to make the world better seemed strengthened by the exhilarating experience of global solidarity in their local struggles for justice, peace, freedom, and the integrity of creation. Many participants, myself included, have returned to their homes renewed in their commitment to reverse the growing gap between the world’s rich and poor, to address the environmental crisis, to act on behalf of human rights of people, to care especially for children, and in many instances to bring a deep spirituality to bear on all these problems.

President Hugo Chavez stated, at the World Social Forum that currently there are two superpowers in the world today: one is the imperialist behemoth to the north, and the other, even more powerful — public opinion of the people of the world. We have much to learn from the Bolivarian Revolution, and we should take to heart Ralph Nader’s message that the “highest position in a democracy is that of the Citizen.” Power is in the people, and we all need to accept the challenge of working together to form “a more perfect union” before it is too late.

The word used time and again by US participants to describe the experience at this year’s WSF was hope. The opportunity to meet activists and social workers from 140 countries made us believe that Another World is Possible and that we want to be part of its construction. After the Forum ended I traveled for a week in the interior of Venezuela to see Chavez’s social programs—Misiones—and to talk to the people working in them. I truly believe these programs to be the best answer to the Forums hopes, embodying Bolivar’s dream of a democratic Latin America ruled by and for its people. Galeanos’s upside down world may just be one day standing on its feet again.