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Identity Crisis

Text and Photos by Vinicius Souza and Maria Eugênia Sá, Jungle Drums, São Paulo, Brazil, April 30, 2005

Lula’s appearance at the World Social Forum revealed the crisis facing the government, activist movements and the W.S.F. itself. But, as in the case of the Japanese ideogram, crisis also means opportunity, and swept up in an atmosphere of Woodstock and Revolution, young people are grouping together to change the world.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s fleeting participation at the Fifth World Social Forum couldn’t have been more symbolic of his past two years in government and the impact his administration has had on grass-roots movements, young activists, intellectuals, the middle class, Brazil’s hierarchical infrastructure and the image people have of the country around the world. And that’s without touching on the crisis that the Forum itself is going through.

During his last visit to the W.S.F. in 2003, Lula was a recently sworn in leader riding on a wave of public support. He made an enthralling speech to tens of thousands of stirred people in the open air, with the sun setting along the riverbank. Two years later, the president needed a squad of bodyguards to quell the rabble, as young people crowded round booing and shouting out “traitor.” A small claque tried to drown out the heckling with applause during the 30-minute-long speech. The newspaper headlines seemed more interested in the new presidential jet than in the address itself.

“I was pretty high at the last forum, celebrating the P.T.’s victory. I was full of hope, and I can remember the crowd chanting ‘EIGHT YEARS, EIGHT YEARS!’”, recalls student leader Tica, who took part in the International Women’s March. “This year I wasn’t at all interested in hearing Lula’s speech. We can see what’s going on, how the government’s planning on perpetuating it’s time in office. The only way out is to fight on and forget the government.”

Exit Lula Enter Chavez

In reality, Lula said a lot more than this in 2003. After confirming that he had been elected without the support of the press or the international financial system, he declared that: “even if I do go on to make mistakes, the single most important obligation I have to you all is to never go back on any of the ideals that got me elected president of Brazil.”

That definitely doesn’t coincide with the opinions of the hundreds of members of the P.T. (Partido dos Trabalhadores — Labor Party) and dozens of members of the government who either left the party or were thrown out. And the majority of these people were historic allies of Lula’s and social activists. The 2004 local elections reinforced the message, with the P.T. losing important seats such as Sao Paulo and Porto Alegre itself, where the party had been in power for the past 16 years. And things became even clearer after the warm reception Hugo Chavez received on arrival at the Forum, where he criticized Bush and defended Latin American integration through teamwork and non-competitiveness. He is clearly superseding Lula as the left-wing leader of the Americas.

Playing Up to the Swiss

Ignorant of all this, Lula left Porto Alegre and headed straight to Davos, in Switzerland, to attend the World Economic Forum. There, he said the same old thing about fighting world hunger, only this time he was applauded by Bono Vox, Bill Clinton, Sharon Stone and Bill Gates. At the end of the day, who’s going to admit that they’re in favor of world hunger, anyway? Brazil’s international image couldn’t be better, across the board.

If on the one hand, in Davos, the government’s orthodox economic program (including surplus tax to pay off external debts and an increase in interest rates to stave off inflation) has garnered praise from “exempt” institutions such as the I.M.F. and the World Bank, on the other hand, Lula’s firm stance against the war in Iraq, his strengthening of the ties linking Brazil to other developing countries such as India, China and South Africa and his push for Latin-American integration were some of the aspects of Brazil’s foreign policy that were met with veiled disapproval by the I.M.F., the exception being the deployment of troops in Haiti under the auspices of the United Nations, to maintain the United States sponsored military coup.

All of these subjects were being discussed in the dozen or so tents and open areas at the W.S.F. However, it appears that the disappointment felt by many young people is being handled with caution. “We have to bear in mind the historical process that led to the Left’s ascendance here in Brazil. Just because the government hasn’t turned out as we’d hoped doesn’t mean that we’re going to take a giant step backwards and hand the country back to the right-wing parties that got us into this situation in the first place”, explains Thais, a nursing student from Brasilia. She says that, away from the spotlight, the public health sector has actually come on quite a lot thanks to social activists and movements linked to the P.T., and that many important social projects were only put into practice after the elections.

Debates and Activities

Of the 155,000-odd participants at the 2005 World Social Forum, around 40,000 took part in the Youth Camp spread over Harmony Park, one of the W.S.F.’s eleven thematic spaces, and the banks of the River Guaiba. The enormous, hot and unsightly white tents dotting the “official event” were generally empty due to organizational problems or a lack of hype surrounding self-promoted lectures. And at the big events that featured celebrity speakers or focused on hotly debated topics such as the Iraqi resistance and the problems of armed conflict in the Middle East, it was impossible to get a seat and people ended up leaning up against the canvas from outside to try and hear what was being said.

At the Youth Camp, the thematic spaces were housed in “ecological constructions”: mud huts spread out between the park’s trees. There, people managed to get around the lack of organization. The Che Guevara Health and Culture Space, for example, was one of the camp’s epicenters, with photo exhibitions and activities all day long, every day. At the same time, vaccination campaigns were being carried out, condoms were distributed, medical attention was given to people with sunstroke, and free massage and fitotherapy sessions were on offer. Other areas, like the Sexual Diversity and Hip-Hop Spaces, had an intense line-up on offer with shows and debates going on all night long.

Dancing the Night Away

What’s more, the performances on offer were a show apart. The event’s organizing committee had set up 14 stages scattered throughout the so-called World Social Territory. On the first night, local bands, Gilberto Gil and Manu Chao played on the main stage, giving a “taste” of what was to come. Afterwards, Gil went on to play on a smaller stage for a few dozen lucky onlookers. Other bands and rhythms invaded the event’s other stages and tents over the following nights. Rock, reggae, blues, hip-hop, rap, samba, drumming, Latin, African and Oriental music.

In one evening you could watch a contemporary dance performance accompanied by sitars on one stage; come across old hippies playing guitar and bongos, sitting around a bonfire; pass by a tent full of militant social activists trying to dance along to a frenetic techno beat; Rastafarians shaking their locks and shouting “Jah”; and finish off the night dancing to Venezuelan band Palmeras Kanibales’ infectious mix of salsa and rock. Venezuela really is “flavor of the month” at the moment!

New Phase

This year marked the end of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre. In 2007, the event is set to take place in Africa. Next year, the International Council decided that the forum should be decentralized, occurring simultaneously in several different parts of the world. The exact locations should be announced in April after the next council meeting, but Hugo Chavez has pipped everyone to the post by making it clear that he wants Caracas to be a potential candidate. The fifth W.S.F. was the largest ever: 200,000 people took part in the opening march, there were 6,880 journalists, representatives from 135 countries, 2,500 activities, 2,800 volunteers and 352 proposals drawn up during discussions and assemblies.

However, anyone who took part in more than one W.S.F. will feel that one chapter is being closed just as another one opens. The Porto Alegre Manifesto is proof of this. Nineteen W.S.F. heavyweights, including several founders of the W.S.F. and two Nobel prize winners, have released a 12-point Manifesto (which can be accessed in Portuguese, Spanish, French and English at www.ipsterraviva.net), advocating the creation of a global hunger tax, the dismantling of tax havens, debt cancellation for poor countries, the imposition of a moratorium on drinking water and the transfer of the United Nations’ headquarters to a country in the southern hemisphere. Although the document hasn’t been “officially” endorsed by the W.S.F., it was the way in which these activists could refute accusations that the forum is an “ideological market” that doesn’t lead anywhere.

Far from these discussions, several groups and movements made the most of the event by making contact with international institutions and figureheads and strengthening their own reputation, like the M.S.T. (Landless Workers’ Movement), for example, who were invited by Hugo Chavez to travel to Venezuela and help with the neighboring country’s radical agrarian reform. Two other impressive examples include the World March of Women, which has drown from a small group set up four years ago seeking the eradication of violence against women to become a movement involving thousands of people across the planet with a demonstration set to take place this year in 53 different countries, and the Aldeia da Paz (Peace Village), which started off as a small gathering of people and has gone on to form a camp with over 500 participants who study oriental philosophy, burn incense, eat macrobiotic food, follow Hari Krishna, channel energy and propose the adoption of the 13 month Mayan calendar — both of which are direct representatives of Woodstock and the age of Aquarius in Porto Alegre.

After ten days spent underneath the blazing Southern Brazilian sun, amongst some of the world’s craziest characters, going on demonstrations for the most diverse causes, living among a Babylon of different languages, surrounded by girls juggling burning torches, seeing unforgettable shows and wading through a constant cloud of marijuana smoke, we were burnt out. But on the freighted bus back to the University of Sao Paulo, the conversations remained eclectic, ranging from the quality of Uruguayan beer to muggings at the Youth Camp, pirate episodes of the Simpsons on DVD, bets on which country Bush will invade next, current Columbian bands, who was going to publish the group’s digital photos, and also what’s going on with the different activist groups, demonstration timetables, the start of the academic year. Entertainment, art, revolution.

Originally published March 2005.

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