Report from Porto Alegre - Day 2


by Norman Stockwell

Independent Media Center
January 26, 2003

Today was the first full day of the third World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. While the beginning workshops were marred by some confusion over locations and start-times (in one case participants waited over two hours for the panelists to find their way to the venue for an 8:00am presentation), in general things flowed well. This is especially noteworthy since the forum has doubled in size each successive year, and prior to 2001, the city of Porto Alegre was not a regular haven for foreign visitors.

The state of Rio Grande do Sul and the city of Porto Alegre have, however, often been held up as models of alternative governance. Run for many years by elected members of the Brazilian Workers Party (or PT), both city and state governments (though the PT lost the governorship of Rio Grande do Sul in the last election) are exemplary in their use of participatory decision-making that truly involves citizen input. Programs from the support of non-chemical agriculture to the use of compact fluorescent lights in public and private enterprises (like huge traditional country-style restaurants), have shown that a government can lead and support its citizens toward a more sustainable lifestyle without creating undue burdens on those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

Brazil's new president, Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva addressed a huge crowd of as many as 75,000 today in the large public theatre that was built for the first World Social Forum. While Lula has attended all the forums, this was his first trip back to Porto Alegre as president of the country. Lula, a former trade union worker, who grew up in a poor family has repeatedly expressed his intention to increase social programs and better the life of the nearly ¼ of Brazil's population that live below the official poverty line.

In spite of his popularity among a majority of Brazilians (he won with a nearly two-thirds majority in a closely monitored election), Lula has had some harsh critics in the United States. Prominent Congressman Henry Hyde (R-IL) wrote a letter to US President George Bush calling Lula a part of "an axis of evil in the Americas," labeling Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro as the other two prongs. Hyde's letter, though written to Bush, somehow found its way into a large daily newspaper in Caracas that same week, where the US has been helping to foster anti-Chavez sentiment, and, just as Lula's campaign was going to the polls in Brazil. Many seasoned Latin America watchers noted the similarity to the US pressure on Nicaraguans to vote against Daniel Ortega in 1990, amplified by the December 1989 invasion of Panama.

But Lula, like any elected leader, has also faced criticism from his left. Many Brazilian activists severely chided Lula for his decision to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland this weekend. While Lula did make it clear that he would come to Porto Alegre first, before going to Davos, the critics held firm. But in his presentation today, President Lula made clear both the reasons for his choice and its implications for the meetings in Davos.

"This year's [World Social] Forum has given Porto Alegre a place of honor in history," he said to overwhelming cheers from the standing-room-only crowd. "We have forced the meetings in Davos to deal with social issues. And now I am going to Davos to make sure they deal with those issues, not to give credibility to [the meetings at] Davos."

Even after Lula had left Porto Alegre, perhaps even after his plane was aloft, celebrations at the Anfiteatro Por-do-Sol (or "amphitheatre for the sun") went on till well past midnight. The cultural presentations on stage in the Brazilian Summer were just one more reminder of the differences between this spirited, hopeful forum focused on people-based alternatives to globalization, and the snowy, austere meetings in a Swiss mountain resort surrounded by armed guards that Luiz Inacio da Silva would soon be addressing.

======= Norman Stockwell is a freelance journalist and Operations Coordinator for WORT-FM Community Radio in Madison, Wisconsin. He is currently in Porto Alegre working with AMARC, the World Association of Community Radio, to produce reports for the website .

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