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Porto Alegre 2002: A Tale of Two Forums

James Petras has worked with the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement for the last eleven years in addition to his work with the unemployed workers movement in Argentina. He is coauthor, with Henry Veltmeyer, of Globalization Unmasked: Imperialism in the 21st Century (Zed Books, 2001), which won the 2002 Kenny Prize in Marxist & Labour/Left Studies. He is also author of a collection of short stories, Andando por el mundo (Altamira Publishing Group, 2001).

In large part, the increased mass media coverage and the more favorable reporting (except in the United States) were due to the presence of political notables embracing centrist positions (leading members of the French Socialist Party, representatives from the United Nations and World Bank, and leaders from the moderate/social democratic sector of the Brazilian Workers Party, etc.). The political advances and achievements of SF2002 noted in the Western European media were accompanied by a particular bias in the reporting. Most of the journalists and editors favorably quoted and featured the “serious ideas” of the more moderate notables and political leaders meeting at the Catholic University. Rarely were mass leaders and activists from popular movements quoted or shown in photographs. For example, the Financial Times (February 5, 2002, p. 8) caricatured the differences between radicals and reformists: “Behind the theatrical expressions of protest, the forum was marked by a serious exchange of ideas and proposals, such as reforms of the WTO’s intellectual property rights agreements. Most participants said they were not against globalization but for an equitable form of it with a broader international participation in decision-making.”

The mass media, by and large, ignored the hundreds of parallel meetings organized by activist groups and the informal and formal discussions by radical and revolutionary women, youth, peasant, and Indian organizations at the campsites. While the mass media cited the presence of World Bank, U.N., and other officials as “adding to the forum’s legitimacy,” for most activists from the third world, it was the presence of strong contingents of militants from Argentina, fresh from toppling the neoliberal regime, who gave the forum its legitimacy.

While many of the leaders cited the “diversity” of the SF, 67 percent of the participants were Brazilian, while Italian, Spanish, French, and Argentine participants comprised another 23 percent. What was more significant than the diversity of nationalities (which the above percentages indicate was quite limited) was the sociopolitical differences among the Brazilian and European participants.

A Tale of Two Forums

The final unity statement issued by numerous social movements expressed a level of consensus against foreign debt payment, opposition to the U.S. war in Afghanistan, and solidarity with the Palestinians. The calendar of mobilizations for 2002 also reflected the influence of the activists. The programmatic demands, however, reflected the minimalist approach of the more reformist non-governmental organizations(NGOs) and notable personalities. In reality, SF2002 was divided between reformers and radicals, a division which found expression among the diverse organizations and individuals present. This division was evident in the physical location of the discussions, in the style of presentation, and the composition of the audiences.

Most of what has been written about the SF is based on what took place at the Catholic University (PUC). The events at the PUC were not representative of the SF, at least in the eyes of many movement activists. Organizers pointed out that approximately one-fifth of the SF participants were at the PUC—generally those above forty years of age and largely middle-class professionals. Outside the PUC, the other four-fifths were involved in more politicized spaces, which included debates and discussions about the struggle for socialism.

At the Catholic University, mostly academics, intellectuals, and NGOers discussed among themselves. Not many peasant leaders, urban activists, or trade unionists participated. Moreover, the academics did little to communicate effectively with the few grassroots activists present, and their presentations mostly failed to articulate the ongoing political concerns of the militants. At the parallel meetings and workshops in the encampments, there was greater debate and exchange between activists and speakers, more fluid exchange of ideas, and greater effort to articulate the experiences of grassroots militants.

The Forum was sharply polarized. On one side were the reformers— the NGOers, academics, the majority of the organizers of the Forum, ATTAC (Tobin tax advocates from France), and leaders from the social-democratic wing of the Brazilian Workers Party. On the other side were the radicals from the Brazilian Rural Landless Workers Movement (MST), activist intellectuals, piqueteros (picketers who blockade roads) from Argentina, representatives of left-wing parties, trade unions, urban movements, and solidarity groups. There were significant differences in the social composition of the meetings and the public demonstrations.

At the opening march, run by the reformist officials, the marchers were from a diverse array of groups. The unofficial march of 50,000 against the Latin American Free Trade Agreement was organized by the radical groups and included a large contingent of Brazilian workers, peasants, and homeless, as well as militant internationalists from struggles in Argentina, Bolivia, and other countries.

What was striking about both demonstrations was the preponderance of contingents, banners, and flags representing left-wing and radical movements, and the minimum visibility of the reformist and NGO contingents: there were few banners from the Brazilian Workers Party, the Central Labor Confederation (CUT) of Brazil, and the global ATTAC groups. The differences in the powers of convocation were significant. Nevertheless, the featured speakers at both events were politicians from the Brazilian Workers Party, who are up for election this year.

The Forum was also divided about the direction in which it should be moving. The reformers, citing clauses of the Social Forum’s constitution, justified their exclusion of the Zapatistas, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, and other popular insurgencies as “political movements,” while, on the other hand, featuring leading political figures from the Brazilian Workers Party, the French Socialist Party, etc. Moreover, the exclusion by the officials of SF2002 of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, a very prominent Argentine social movement, was protested by the MST, who sent the Madres an invitation and an air ticket to the organization’s president, Hebe Bonafini. The reform–radical division was most evident in their definitions of the key struggle and proposals. The reformers still spoke the language of opposing globalization, adding an opposition to U.S. militarization. The radicals increasingly linked the expansion of the multinational corporations to the imperial states and increasingly spoke the language of anti-imperialism. This was not a merely rhetorical distinction but one that is deeply embedded in the orientation and strategic perspectives of the competing alignments.

While the reformists spoke the language of continuing mobilizations, their main thrust was toward lobbying and elite negotiations with the World Bank and other international financial institutions to secure promises of “humanizing globalization.” Many of the reformers talk and write of “another globalization,” one that implies adding human rights clauses, and a place at the table among the imperial powers and their bankers and CEOs. In contrast, the radicals see the mobilizations as leading to the creation of new organizations of popular power, based on the mass organization of urban neighborhoods, workers, unemployed peasants, and class-based women’s, Indian, and black movements. Their orientation is to create new class-based international movements, like Via Campesina, that seek to implement radical transformations of property rights and social relations of production. The reformists, referring to “civil society” are disinterested in “state power” they are content to pressure the existing imperialist powers to secure greater regulation, limitations on speculative capital (i.e. the Tobin tax), and greater trade liberalization to help agro-export elites in the third world secure greater market niches in the North. The radicals refer concretely to class-based organizations that focus on gender, race, and ecology, and they recognize that while reforms are essential, they have not been enduring, nor have they been implemented by the imperialist or local client states. The radicals point to the need for a new state power, based on representative grassroots assemblies and social movements capable of socializing the means of production and democratizing social relations—totally displacing the current corporate elite and their international financial institution benefactors. The radicals reject the demands for places at the table of the World Bank as a cooptive strategy in which the financial and structural ties to the imperial states and multi-national coporations make co-participation a dead-end that enriches only the NGOs at the expense of the people.

In their search for the lowest common denominator for “anti-globalization unity,” the reformers included notables and political representatives whose political parties support the U.S. massacre of Afghanistan and who give support (“with reservations”) to Bush’s worldwide military offensive. The radicals described their presence as incompatible with the basic principles of the Forum, and some anarchists engaged in a pie-in-your-face incident to make their point. Within the radical camp, the disciplined social movements, particularly the MST, were the dominant force in preventing provocateurs and anarchists from engaging in vandalism and in mobilizing thousands of militant rank and file activists in a massive but peaceful political show of force.

While many commentators noted the diversity of the groups and demands, few questioned the representativeness of those present. Many of the participating European and U.S. NGOs are paper organizations, and the majority of third world NGOers are members of small groups of professionals with few if any organized supporters and little power of convocation. On the other hand, there were a small number of representatives from mass movements in Africa, particularly South Africa, and Asia who represent hundreds of thousands of grassroots activists. Yet it was the well-known intellectual notables from the NGOs which crowded the platforms and informed the public about the movements in their regions. The over-representation of grouplets and notables, at the expense of the militants, certainly drew the mass media, but it did not enhance the interchange of ideas and the transmission of experiences among those in the front line of the struggle. The official plenary sessions and testimonials were heavily biased in favor of NGOers and intellectuals, while the parallel workshops and seminars were the occasional site of fruitful exchange among activists from substantial movements engaged in the significant battles against imperialism (“globalization”).

In the discussion of “alternatives,” the official organizers emphasized “reformed” imperialism and “regulated” capitalism, while the radical social movements opened a debate that put on the table the discussion of socialism. The final declaration of the social movements reflected a compromise between the reformers and radicals. There was a radical diagnosis of the world problems and a full calendar of international mobilizations throughout 2002, but the final demands mostly reflected the reformers’ penchant for piecemeal changes, leaving out any strategic demands for a participatory socialism and the defeat of imperialism.


With imperialist war clouds on the horizon, a deepening world recession, and Washington actively building its neo-mercantilist empire from Latin America to the South Central Asian oil fields, there is little space for reformist politics. As President Bush has stated, it’s either adapt to empire or perish. The right-turn of the organizers of Social Forum 2002, their minimalist program, and the emphasis on moderate notables are not likely to build resistance to the U.S. imperial offensive. The new imperialism is polarizing the world in a way that fits the analysis of the radicals. The scope and depth of U.S. militarization cannot be confronted by sporadic protests by networks of NGOs without organized popular support. The radical social movements building powerful local, national, and regional anti-capitalist movements and engaging in direct action at the sites of state power are far more effective than the international globe-trotting NGOers.

The SF2003 will have a year to reflect on the emerging historical realities and we can hope they will build upon the vast support evident at SF2002 for a deeper more radical agenda. To do otherwise will lead to a new slogan, “Another Social Forum is Possible.”

2002, Volume 53, Issue 11 (April)
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