World Social Forum: Appraisal and Outlook of the Forum from Latin America | ALAI

by Gustavo Codas

The first great spontaneous, popular rebellion at a national level against neo-liberal globalization was the Caracas Uprising of 1989. In 1992, a group of Venezuelan military rebels, led by Hugo Chavez, sought to give it a political expression.

In 1990, in the midst of the confusion provoked by the final crisis of bureaucratic socialism, on the initiative of the Workers Party (PT) of Lula and with the support of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) of Fidel Castro, the first Sao Paulo Forum was held with the participation of a broad spectrum of progressive and left-wing parties from all across Latin America, to debate political strategies for coming out of the back-wash in which they found themselves in the struggle against neo-conservatism. The first action against the mainstream articulated at an international level was the campaign for the 500 years of indigenous, black and popular resistance which a variety of Latin American organizations deployed around the commemorations of 1992.

The first political response to neo-liberal globalization at a national level with world-wide repercussions was the Zapatista indigenous uprising of January 1, 1994. The most marginalized and excluded sector, the most socially “backward” in the hemisphere, the poor native peoples of Mexico, rose up against the most “modern” expression of the neo-liberal offensive, NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The first great demonstration against the effects of neo-liberalism in the North was the general strike of 1995 which shook France and challenged the stagnation of the formerly powerful European trade unionism which had built the welfare state and now, impotent, watched it collapse.

The first lasting electoral victory of an alternative political project to neo-liberalism was that of Chavez en 1998. Previous cases such as that of Aristide in 1991, in Haiti, did not resist the pressures from the right and from imperialism and failed or were diverted from their course.

In 1996, at the Inter-Galactic Gathering called by the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, the most diverse social and political actors from the North and the South of the world converged on the same space for the first time, all with the common denominator of being willing to confront neo-liberalism.

In 1999, at demonstrations against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle, United States, overcoming mutual distrust, both the “new” movements and many of the “traditional” social organizations from all over the world joined together in the first demonstration with international representatives with a broad, political-ideological diversity, but all opposed to neo-liberal globalization.

Just prior to 1997, the Hemispheric Social Alliance (HSA) emerges in which new and traditional movements from all across the hemisphere join in questioning the FTAA, the Free Trade Area of the Americas, the leading project of US imperialism for the continent.

All these processes and events occurred in a world context dominated by the global, neo-liberal drive – a drive that was political, economic and cultural. This is to say, they were struggles against the flow, against the mainstream, but under an environment broadly favorable to neo-liberal capitalism and the social and political forces associated with it. When the People’s Summit was organized by the HSA in Quebec, Canada, in April 2001, in parallel to the official summit of Presidents, only one head of state of the 34 present expressed his discontent with the FTAA and his affinity with the protest movements: Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

In this context, still on the defensive in relation to neo-liberal, no-option thinking and the end-of-history ideological wave, at the World Social Forum (WSF) of January 2001 in Porto Alegre, there was an attempt to put together a venue for bringing such diverse actors together. It was hoped they would find synergy.. That they would exchange diagnoses. That they would come to know each other’s programs. That they would decide upon joint action in each case it was wanted. It was like a point of support for many agendas: the WSF was important for that moment when struggles were scattered across too many points of the planet to be interconnected, associated, or internationalized.

Within that perspective, the first Forum incorporated the Social Movements Assembly (SMA) which from the outset took on a strong leading role in the search for agendas of common action. It was an initiative of the organizations of the international Via Campesina, of militant trade unions from various countries and the World March of Women, amongst others. The success of this approach became visible when, at the European Social Forum in November 2002, in Florence, Italy, and the WSF of January 2003 in Porto Alegre, the SMA agreed to promote the day of global action against the war of the United States against Iraq, which mobilized millions of people all around the world. Finally, neo-liberal globalization met with a high-level response, and the call of the farmers’ international to “Globalize the Struggle!” was fulfilled.

Today the global and regional situation of capitalism and of the forces ranged against it is different. And this challenges not only the WSF but also other expressions of international and regional movements that have opposed neo-liberalism over all these years. And thus the HSA is also being re-discussed, having played such an important role in defeating the FTAA in the continental campaign which culminated in victory at Mar del Plata in 2005.

Since the electoral victory of Chavez in 1998, a large part of Latin America has seen presidential electoral victories for progressive forces. Although there were also two victorious coups for the right, in Honduras, 2010, and in Paraguay, 2012. In the countries with progressive governments, the social movements confront different challenges from the head-on opposition to neo-liberal political projects; but the fact is that those movements often times have different and even contradictory points of view with the progressive governments on key issues.

Those experiences of progressive governments are very diverse. Their lowest common denominator is their opposition to US imperialist domination. That is a basic area of convergence for those governments with social movements. But what happens in the various cases where, on the rest of the agenda, there are different postures and even counter-positions? And we should recognize that this occurs not just in the more timid progressive experiences (such as those of the Southern Cone, which in spite of their relatively low-profile programmes, were vital to stopping FTAA in 2005), but also in processes which are clearly revolutionary. Or, is this not the case with the conflict of the government of Evo Morales with some indigenous sectors in relation to TIPNIS in Bolivia (without getting into a discussion of who is right)?

The decade of the 1990’s was marked by the sensation of victory for US unilateralism inaugurated by the first war in Iraq. But, now, a few years on, the tectonic plates of world power have moved. The U.S. has not lost its status of first economic, geo-political, and military power, but several other poles dispute it regionally (the clearest is China) and are looking to inter-relate at a world level. On the part of the progressive governments there is little doubt about the need to play this game, on the terms on which it is set up: that various poles are emerging against the uni-polarity of the U.S. Is it possible to think through world geo-politics starting from the movements or will we only think through the general demands of represented sectors? Does the internationalism of social movements have something to say in relation to the design of world, inter-state power?

The neo-liberal recipes went into their final ideological crisis during the capitalist collapse of 2008. But, in many cases they continue being applied, above all in the North, even without the support of any legitimacy. They still operate on the ideological terrain opened up in the decade of the 1980’s by the recently deceased M. Thatcher, she who claimed “there is no alternative” (TINA) to neo-liberalism. Because if there are alternative ideas, in general political forces capable of promoting alternative programs have not emerged. It is no longer enough to criticize neo-liberal capitalism, we need to set out a counter-proposal and organize a majority political force with that program.

The social movements and the NGO’s (those which in the Forum are misnamed “civil society”, as separate and in counter-position to the political parties and governments on the left) are characterized by fragmentation. The left-wing or progressive political parties which survived stand out for the backwardness of their programs. Where will the response come from? Only in Greece can we see the apparent crystallizing of a combination of protests with the construction of a counter-hegemonic political and social force which is promoting a program for overcoming the crisis. This example is important, but scarcely sufficient to face up to the generalized European crisis.

The political forces of religious Muslim inspiration set themselves up some time ago as one of the world’s principal anti-imperialist poles; yet they have huge differences of world view with the greater part of western social movements. Is it possible to build bridges? With what methodology? With what objectives? In fact, events have passed all of us by. The Arab, anti-dictatorship revolutions and the movements of the indignant and others in Europe and the United States have had their own dynamics outside the WSF or the interconnections which were created or strengthened starting from the WSF. This is to say, no international or regional grouping or space has launched them or oriented them or shielded them.

The two political processes which have most sought to overcome the limits of the old democratic neo-colonialist regimes, the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela and the pluri-national revolution in Bolivia, are political initiatives which depend on governments spurred on by the capitalist siege on those experiences. And although powerful social mobilizations have taken place there, they have not fostered social movements which express the new moment and drive it forward.

It is not possible for all that diversity to be included in a single process or space. For some long time still, we will have to continue with the diversity of initiatives, and that could be good, if we work through it correctly.

We need each one of those experiences to achieve common conquests, aspects on which there is already convergence, possible syntheses. It is necessary to keep the dialogue open, with the comprehension that today there is no guiding party, there is no world lighthouse, there is no party of the world revolution dictating anti-mainstream formulas, and if there are good critical theories of the dying civilization, there is as yet no synthesis of what might be the alternatives.

In the WSF, “civil society” has criticized the top-down culture of political parties and governments on the 20th Century Left. There was good cause in the criticism, but a self-critical vision was lacking on its own limitations. The administrators of the WSF – its international council, its organizing committees – prioritized their institutionalization and the control of “their brand” over trying to interpret the changing currents of the world. And amongst those currents were some which preceded its creation, others in its first years and some which from some four years ago at a global level, present unprecedented opportunities. The WSF sometimes and in some circumstances has known how to be flexible, and if those who administer it had synchronized more with these times, it would offer today a space where all that complexity could meet in friendship, without conditions, overcoming dogmas of the Forum itself, seeking political syntheses which permit the construction of forces with the capacity to dispute power and with a political perspective capable of overcoming the failed experiences of the previous century.

The world of counter-hegemonic struggles and of attempts at alternatives in the 21st century is broad, very diverse all around the planet and without owners. Better that it be thus. It probably does not fit in just one space, no matter how open and flexible it might be. In this new context, if the Forum process is to be something more than an important antecedent, it has to be open, and rather than try to absorb or curtail energies with pre-established criteria, it has to define a new method which helps to liberate them.
(Translation: Don Lee).

– Gustavo Codas is a Paraguayan journalist and economist, Master of International Relations.

This text is part of ALAI’s Spanish language magazine América Latina en Movimiento No. 484,

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