Thursday, March 09, 2006

Global Gathering - The Social Forum of the Americas

The planning committee of the World Social Forum (WSF) 2005 decided that 2006 would be a year of "polycentric" (decentralized) meetings around the world. Gatherings were to be held in Africa, South America, Pakistan, and Thailand. Michael Albert and I, representing Z, attended the Social Forum of the Americas in Caracas from January 24-29, 2006—he was there to speak at a few of the sessions, I was there to film several events.

The World Social Forum—with the theme "another world is possible" --was first held in January 2001 as an alternative to the World Economic Forum, which is sponsored by such global capitalist institutions as the World Bank and the IMF. Since 2001, the WSF has been attended each year by close to 100,000 progressives who come to participate in "an open meeting place where social movements, networks, NGOs, and other civil society organizations opposed to neoliberalism and a world dominated by capital or by any form of imperialism come together to pursue their thinking, to debate ideas democratically, to formulate proposals, share their experiences freely, and network for effective action" (from the WSF Charter).

Approximately 80,000 were registered for the event in Caracas— with the largest delegations coming from Venezuela, Brazil, and Colombia. The six day event began with a wild ride from the airport over roads through mist-covered mountains surrounding Caracas. A key bridge was out on the main road so what was usually a thirty minute trip took anywhere from an hour and a half to five hours. We made it to the downtown Hilton Hotel where we were staying in just over two hair-raising hours. At the hotel, the lobby was filled with arrivals checking in and reuniting with old friends. We ran into friends from prior Social Forums, many of whom now write for Z, as well as a few graduates from Z Media Institute.

The first day began with a 4:00 PM march of tens of thousands through the streets of Caracas. The march is an especially important event because the sessions are held in many different venues, often spread across the host city, so the march is almost the only chance to get a sense of the size and mood of the participants. The Caracas march was lively and noisy. It was also anti-Bush (as were most of the sessions). The banners were mainly from organizations, unions, and left parties and reflected those groups’ particular issues and cultural clothing and colors, lending diversity to the event. However, it would be nice one day to see some unifying positive slogans, beyond "another world is possible."

The next five days were filled with a total of 2,000 sessions that began at 8:30 AM and continued until 9:00 PM. Activities by topic were:

Power, politics, and struggles for social emancipation: 493
Imperial strategies and peoples’ resistance: 314
Alternatives to the predatory model of civilization: 272
Diversities, identities, and worldviews in movement: 132
Work, exploitation, and reproduction of life: 183
Communication, culture, and education: 389
A quick survey of the 20 or so panels being held at the Hilton indicated that attendance was generally fewer than 100 people per session. We figured that number was pretty much the case at the 20 or so other venues. We did hear of sessions with a few thousand, but they were rare. While the numbers seemed small to us, relative to some of the sessions at the World Social Forums in Porto Alegre, Brazil and Mumbai, India, we observed a great deal of enthusiasm among the majority of attendees.

Meanwhile hundreds of participants were wandering halls and streets, enjoying just being there and talking with like-minded people. Interestingly, this distribution between sessions, private meetings, and just hanging out is reflected in a survey taken at the WSF 2005, which showed that 49.8 percent of participants in the Social Forum movement were there to exchange experiences with other participants; 47.8 percent wanted to contribute to a better society; 42.4 percent came for democratic debate; and 20.6 percent came to formulate proposals for alternatives to the neoliberal model.

On the morning of the fourth day, word of mouth indicated that Hugo Chavez was going to speak that evening, even though the program listed him as apearing two days later. We were hustled onto a bus of "important guests" for a 30-minute ride to an indoor stadium. There we were split into more "important guests" who were taken to a room to wait for a quick meeting with Chavez and the "less important guests" (us) who were taken to a special section on the stadium floor.

For the next three hours, we filmed the crowd in the stadium as they cheered, drummed, chanted, and danced. Finally, there was some entertainment, followed by the arrival on stage of the "more important guests" (including Che Guevara's daughter and Cindy Sheehan). After some additional security checks, Chavez arrived.

While the hierarchical "important guest" business was annoying, Hugo Chavez was impressive. He spoke to the crowd as if chatting with old friends. He boldly urged solidarity with Cuba, which, until Chavez, had been isolated--even condemned--by Latin Americans, right and left.

He quoted and/or referred to Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, and Noam Chomsky, among others (we're told he's a avid reader). It was amusing to compare his reading material with what we imagined our president’s was. He made a hopeful and inspiring case for a unified Latin America--a Bolivarian Revolution--that could serve as a progressive model throughout the world, as well as a challenge to U.S. domination.

He revealed that he had met with a few of the WSF organizers behind the scenes (some of whom were onstage). In that meeting he had told them that it was fine to have discussions, but if the Forum didn't result in conclusions and actions, then it was a waste of time.

The debate between those who want to keep the WSF a forum and those who want it to move toward a global movement organization with common goals and strategies has been going on since 2003. Answers to the aforementioned questionnaire are revealing in this respect. When asked where they considered themselves on the political map, 60.1 percent thought of themselves as left, 19.8 percent were center-left, 4.5 percent were center, 0.6 percent center right, and 1.6 percent was right (13.4 percent had no opinion).

When asked what process should be used for building "the other possible world," 90.4 percent said the road should include "strengthening the mobilization of civil society on a global, continental, national, and local level"; 72.3 percent said the path should include “the democratization of governments”; 59.3 percent said it should include direct action; 59.2 percent said it should include "the democratization of multilateral organizations (UN, WTO, World Bank, IMF)"; and 13.5 percent believed it should include "direct action with the use of force."

The direction the WSF should take is a difficult issue, but it's not clear why organizing a movement and continuing a forum structure can’t both be done. We've suggested in these pages that a portion of the WSF could be dedicated to discussion and decision-making leading to the founding of a movement organization or network that could aggressively promote common visions and values for "another world."

Regardless of what happens, it is extremely important for activists from the U.S. to become part of this growing global left. It would show the rest of the world that there is a left in the U.S. that is resisting the empire from within. It would remind those of us who feel isolated, and often discouraged, that there are other people in the world who want a revolution in values and institutions.