Porto Alegre: A Competing Vision

Porto Alegre, Brazil ­ As the sixth and final full day of the World Social Forum dawns here on southern tip of Brazil, delegates prepare for a now-familiar routine of dawn to dusk forums, side meetings over meals, and impromptu protests in the foyer of the main campus building. Today’s events culminate with a mass march opposing the FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas), the United States’ main proposal for integrating the hemisphere under a single trade and investment regime.

While tangible outcomes from the second annual World Social Forum still remain illusory, one thing is clear: the popular movement against corporate-led globalization is alive and well. Estimates that 60,000 people would attend, either as official delegates or unofficial-but-welcome gatecrashers, seem accurate. The press of human flesh as forum-goers try to make their way around the campus of the Pontifical University campus and to half a dozen satellite meeting centers is worse than the New York City subway at rush hour. The crowds are often six or more deep at the several hundred stalls selling books, T-shirts, posters, banners, music, and Brazilian handicrafts. But the crowds are relatively orderly, the mood upbeat, and the police presence almost invisible. Forum participants have been welcomed by local politicians and billboard and TV ads, and the food court at the nearby mall even offers discount meals to conference-goers.

The only near-riot came when several thousand people were turned away from the auditorium where Noam Chomsky was speaking. The sound systems in auxiliary rooms largely failed, leading to angry shouts and chants by those locked out. Paul Nousa from Chile, echoing the sentiments of many young people in the crowd, said that while he doesn’t understand everything Chomsky talks about, he is eager to see “the great man” because he represents an intellectual rebellion. “He does not see things as others do,” explained Nousa in an interview. “He is not afraid to insult the United States and other so-called world powers. He is the idol of our generation. I will fight to see him in person.”

Those who did manage to hear Chomsky were not disappointed. Speaking on the topic of “A World Without Wars,” Chomsky traced the history of modern wars to the rise of the nation-state in Europe and warned, “Either we have a world without war or we have no world.” He strongly criticized Washington’s “war on terrorism” for increasing the risks of worldwide destruction.

Declaring the World Social Forum the most exciting development in recent times, Chomsky said “a sane and just form of globalization is what the anti-globalization movement is all about.” He urged the audience to “reject with scorn” accusations that they are against globalization itself.

Among the other luminaries to put in an appearance was UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson, who told a press conference that “in many countries the situation in human rights has worsened since the 11th of September.” Robinson said that although the UN Security Council resolution petitioning all nations to help hunt down the terrorists responsible for the September 11 attacks was “urgently needed,” one result has been that “a significant number of countries are using this to crack down on dissent and political debate.”

Robinson added that to effectively combat terrorism “we must honestly look at the roots–and part of those roots are in terrible inequality and terrible poverty.” Asked if she rejects the neoliberal form of globalization being promoted at the World Economic Forum in New York, Robinson said, “I am not at all happy with the current manifestation of globalization that is market-led.”

Among the smorgasbord of topics discussed in some 700 workshops, the campaign against the FTAA has emerged as the clearest agenda item. Over the past five years, activists from throughout the Americas have formed coalitions to lobby for either scrapping or drastically revising the terms of the trade pact. These efforts are now moving into high gear, following the approval late last year by the House of Representatives of “fast track” legislation giving President Bush greater authority to negotiate trade deals. Approved by the margin of a single vote in the House, the bill is now being considered by the U.S. Senate. The Bush administration has stated its intent to have FTAA accepted throughout Latin America by 2005, and Brazil is emerging as the country most likely to officially challenge the United States.

In a document released here, the Hemispheric Social Alliance (HSA), comprised of NGOs, labor unions, peasant, indigenous, and women groups, and other popular organizations and policy groups in countries from Canada down to Chile, spells out its platform for alternatives to the FTAA. The document, Competing Visions for the Americas (www.asc-hsa.org), critiques the nine official FTAA negotiating areas as well as four important topics ignored by the negotiators: labor, environment, human rights, and gender.

The document states that, although the official FTAA agreement, released in 2001, is almost entirely “bracketed” (meaning final language has not yet been accepted), “the general thrust of the negotiations is clear.” Its purpose is to expand “the dominant free market approach to globalization that elevates the interests of large corporations above those of society as a whole.”

The document includes a table contrasting the FTAA proposals and the HSA’s policy alternatives. The nine-page chart states, for instance, under the section on investment that the FTAA (like NAFTA) proposes to give foreign investors special rights to sue governments through unaccountable arbitration panels that meet in secret. In contrast, the HSA proposes that disputes be “handled by courts in the host country where citizens affected by decisions can participate.”

While another section of the FTAA would ban controls on capital flows, the alternatives document proposes “an international tax on foreign exchange transactions to slow down currency speculation and generate a social and economic development fund to be administered by a UN agency in consultation with civil society.” It also proposes that individual governments have the ability to regulate flows of “hot” or speculative money.

Through a series of public forums and closed-door strategy sessions, the HSA has proposed a calendar of activities and actions over the next year, including holding “popular consultations” in individual countries and organizing protests at the next meeting of trade ministers in Ecuador next October and the next presidential summit, scheduled for Argentina in 2003. It was also agreed that the headquarters of the HSA would be moved from Mexico to Brazil.

The majority of the workshops at the World Social Forum focused on various aspects of the global financial, trade, and investment institutions. At a workshop on alternatives to globalization, Lori Wallach, a feisty, Harvard-trained lawyer and director of the U.S.-based Global Trade Watch, told a packed crowd, “The WTO (World Trade Organization), its causing a lot of pain. It needs to shrink or sink.” She declared that “we need to restore checks and balances, create some space for national governments, and strengthen regional trade rules.”

In a similar vein, Martin Khor, of the Third World Network in Malaysia, outlined a series of trade and investment reforms to avert or manage economic crises such as that in Argentina. Khor said reforms should include allowing countries to stop hedge funds and other speculative investments–which currently account for 97% of all financial flows–and institute capital controls to regulate how and when foreign investors can repatriate profits, reduce interest rates, or increase government spending. Khor added “change won’t come about as long as the G-7 [the world's wealthiest countries] controls the IMF” and that other countries should be allowed to buy equity in the IMF.

Another panelist, Waldon Bello from Focus on the Global South in Thailand, charged that the Bush administration has “taken advantage of September 11 to mount a full-scale offensive” to carry out its economic, political, and military agendas. However, “history has recently granted us two big boons: the collapse of both Enron and Argentina.” Enron exposes that “corruption and (economic) liberalizations go together,” while Argentina reveals the weakness of the model. Argentina, declared Bello, “was the poster boy of neoliberalism” because it sold off its banks faster than many other countries and pegged the peso to the dollar.

While Bello conceded that after September 11, “the focus on antiglobalization did suffer a loss of momentum,” he concluded “the mood as we come to Porto Alegre is slightly different. People are beginning to feel again that another world is possible.