Under a strong summer sun and a broad political proclamation that "Another world is possible," tens of thousands of activists from around the world are arriving here for the second annual World Social Forum. The host, like last year, is Brazil's southernmost major city, capital of the state of Rio Grande de Sul. The city and state governments, which are both facilitating and underwriting some of the Forum's cost,have won international acclaim for their progressive policies, providing extensive social services and a high quality of life.
The massive, democratic public gathering between January 31 and February 6 is timed to coincide with the closed-door meeting of the World Economic Forum, taking place for the first time in New York City. This 30-year-old annual ritual at which politicians and corporate executives from the world's wealthiest countries discuss the state of the world economy, usually takes place amid pomp and secrecy in Davos, Switzerland.
Every incoming plane into Porto Alegre is overbooked, all hotels, hostels, and empty apartments are full, makeshift campsites are sprouting in city parks, and the crowds in cafes converse in a mix of languages. Ironically, this time of year the city and nearby beaches are usually jammed with holiday makers from neighboring Argentina, but given that country's recent economic collapse, Argentine tourists are absent. Argentina itself, however is a hot topic on the Social Forum's agenda.
Over the next six days, upwards of 50,000 people will take part in hundreds of workshops, plenary sessions, major speeches by luminaries such as Noam Chomsky and Rigoberto Menchu, and public rallies aimed at both critiquing the ills of the corporate-led global economy and outlining alternative policies and structures.
According to Alejandro Bendaña, director of the Centro de Estudios Internacionales in Nicaragua and a leader of the Jubilee South movement demanding cancellation of much of the debt owed by poor countries, the Forum will focus on "three A's": Argentina, Afghanistan and Alternatives. "The difference between this Social Forum and the pastone is that there is a deliberate attempt to be more than what someone called "a Supermarket of ideas," or just a big debating platform. We've got to go from debating to alternatives."
The number of participants at this year's Forum is expected to swellto four to five times that of last year's gathering, including far larger numbers of trade unionists from Europe, Latin America, Canada, and the U.S., as well as thousands of grassroots activists and representatives of NGOs from across the United States.
According to Sarah Anderson, one of few U.S. participants at last year's Forum, "It is very important that in the wake of September 11, large numbers of Americans show their solidarity with those involved in progressive struggles around the world." Anderson, who is Director of the Global Economy project at the Institute for Policy Studies, says, "We are gathering not only to protest the ills of corporate-led globalization but also to showcase an array of alternatives."
The Social Forum workshops, listed in a program the size of a thick tabloid newspaper, are divided into four major themes:
1) protection of wealth and social reproduction;
2) access to wealth and sustainability;
3) civil society and the public arena; and
4) political power and ethics in the new society.
There will be a major rally to protest the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, which the Bush administration is aggressively pursuing in the wake of the passage of "fast track" legislation, as well as a "tribunal" on the international debt, organized by the Jubilee movement.
While the mood of the gathering is upbeat, it takes place against the backdrop of unease among progressives in Brazil, following the mysterious assassination of the popular mayor of Santo Andre, who was also a top leader of Brazil's Workers Party. No one has been arrested for the murder of Celso Daniel, and rumors abound as to whether police and criminal elements tied to the extreme right were responsible. The Workers Party, which is enjoying an upsurge in popularity, has a chance of winning the next national elections in October.
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