PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil — From its opening march of 200,000 people — chanting slogans, singing, and carrying banners for an end to war, poverty and inequality — to the nightly rhythms of Brazilian samba, the fifth World Social Forum was an explosive mix of politics and culture that defies adequate description.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez got a hero’s welcome at an overflow rally at Gigantinho, the city’s main sports stadium, Jan. 30. The audience of over 20,000 cheered as Chavez denounced President Bush for conducting foreign policy with bombs and condemned U.S. efforts to dominate the global economy.
Over five days, some 120,000 participants from over 100 countries, of all ages and hues, streamed into hundreds of panels held in large tents on the banks of the Guaiba River, often in sweltering temperatures, to hear debates on the impact of global trade, ending Third World debt, defending the rights of women, eradicating poverty, opposing racism and stopping the U.S. war in Iraq.
Each night, well into the early hours of the morning, tens of thousands gathered around specially designed and sometimes improvised stages to enjoy pulsing music, theater, and dance from all corners of the planet.
The opening march Jan. 26 was a gigantic, four-hour spectacle of political enthusiasm, with a sea of people flooding the city’s main avenue carrying colorful flags and banners with slogans like “U.S. out of Iraq,” “Our nation is not for sale,” “Stop privatization,” “Say no to the World Bank and the IMF,” and “Another world is possible,” the signature theme of the forum. Chants and songs echoed off the surrounding buildings.
A particularly spirited and large contingent from the Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB) and its allied youth and student groups hoisted scores of red flags and marched alongside a flag-draped sound truck with fiery orators on top and rhythmic music throbbing from huge speakers below.
The PCdoB orators hit hard against imperialism and Bush’s war on Iraq. They called for stepped-up solidarity with the people of Iraq, Palestine, Venezuela and Cuba, and with neighboring countries like Argentina and Uruguay that have recently moved to the left.
During the march, Mizue Taoka of Tokyo, a leader of the Japan Confederation of Railway Workers’ Unions, was distributing fliers for a panel titled “Strategy of trade unions against globalization.”
She said, “In Japan today one of the biggest problems is job insecurity. There has been a privatization drive, and now there are many contract workers who have no benefits. Unemployment in Tokyo and nationally is around 5 percent, a high figure for us. Last year, 30,000 people committed suicide, many because they couldn’t find work.”
Taoka was upbeat about the forum. “I’ve already met railway workers from many other countries in the world, and I hope to build up solidarity through our panel promoting a new International Center for Labor Solidarity, involving workers from Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Australia, and New Zealand.”
Victor Santana, 53, a local economics teacher, expressed skepticism about “free trade” agreements pushed by the Bush administration. He said, “While neoliberalism may benefit some people, it hasn’t benefited cities like Porto Alegre.”
“Unemployment is up, and informal employment is very widespread,” Santana said. “The general conditions facing the people are not good.”
Valerio Lopez, 42, a worker from Porto Alegre who is a member of the agricultural workers union CONAM, said, “Our union grapples with problems like severe unemployment, underemployment and hunger, and we have a a big housing problem.”
Brazil’s 175 million people have inherited the burden of centuries of colonial domination by the Portuguese and more recently the neocolonial domination of the U.S.
Today, under the left-center government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a former metalworker, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank continue to squeeze Brazil with onerous interest payments on its debts.
Lula spoke about this legacy of exploitation and poverty at a rally of 12,000 people packed into the Gigantinho stadium for the launch of a Global Call to Action against Poverty (GCAP).
“We need to build another force so we can change the world’s economic and social geography,” he said.
The GCAP, initiated by ActionAid International, urges countries of the industrialized North to dismantle farm subsidies, stop privatization, provide greater food and medical aid to poorer nations, comply with earlier pledges to set aside 0.7 percent of their gross domestic product for development aid, and otherwise increase their efforts to achieve the UN’s Millennium Development Goals by 2015.
At the huge opening march, Paulo, 22, a student from Brasilia, said the forum “brings the people of Central and Latin America together in their struggle against North American imperialism. It builds unity.”