Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 272 | Marzo 2004



A Central American at the World Social Forum

The author, a Guatemalan Jesuit priest and anthropologist, shared with envío some of his “very personal impressions” following his participation in the World Social Forum, held this year in Mumbai, India, on January 16-21.

Ricardo Falla

I didn’t know exactly what I was going to. I imagined that it would be like the congresses organized by the Latin American Studies Association (LASA), where hundreds of Latin American academic experts meet every year and a half in the United States or somewhere in Latin America. There are always fifty or sixty panels, workshops and seminars going on in different rooms of a hotel, in which the main aim is not so much to discuss ideas as to make personal contacts. In such events you never see all the participants in one single space, even in the inauguration or closing ceremony.

I also thought that all those who had been invited to make a presentation at the forum would take it in written form, so I spent some time drafting something on the specific topic I had been asked to discuss: civil society, indigenous peoples and peace-building. As I and the two other Latin American priests who had been invited for that same seminar have some experience with indigenous or Afro-American peoples in war zones, we would, it was assumed, know something about constructing peace. I also thought that about 3-4,000 people would go to the forum and it seemed incomprehensible to me that the Jesuits in India, who had invited me, could possibly take 1,500 people, as they announced in the communications sent to us via Internet from India and Rome.

In for a big surprise

Nothing at all was as I had imagined. The World Social Forum (WSF) in Mumbai (Bombay) was gigantic, an unbelievable multitude. Even the Mumbai press described it as “mammoth.” Some calculated 100,000 people, others 150,000. The Forum’s own web page announced that over 80,000 had actually registered. Where would so many people fit? Evidently, not in one hotel or even several.

The location the organizers chose was an enormous vacant lot occupied by constructions similar to a Central American maquila (sweatshop assembly plant) park. Although currently called an exposition center, this place was previously a jeep factory. And during the forum it was a major symbol of capitalism in ruins, as rivers of people went dancing, singing and shouting slogans down the streets and esplanades separating those enormous abandoned constructions.
In addition to outfitting these vast shed structures, smaller “conference rooms” had also been thrown up, with walls and roofs made of bolts of cloth nailed to bamboo poles. There were perhaps 120 of these rustic rooms, in which seminars or workshops were simultaneously being held. While the smallest fitted 150 seated people, there were 300 in others, and even more in the largest ones. Three rounds of seminars or conferences were scheduled for each day (from 9 am to noon, 1 to 4 pm and 5 to 8 pm), so if all the rooms were in use, it meant that some 360 seminars were held each day on the most varied topics: assembly plants—maquilas—in the globalized world, the Butanese refugees, the Dalit (“untouchables”) of India, the Iraq war, globalization and Cancún, the future of the World Social Forum, the rights of children, the right to express one’s sexual orientation... Although the given theme was addressed precisely and in depth in some seminars, so that attending them gave the listener new insights, others were very rhetorical. It seems to me that this happened particularly in those seminars in which so many people attended that dialogue became impossible. In such circumstances, communication gets reduced to speeches.

The forum was not an academic platform, but rather an arena for the free expression of identities at a global level, in which the intellectual quality of the seminars was very uneven. Unlike what I had imagined, the style was fundamentally an expressive one. Virtually no one took a written draft. Everyone talked extemporaneously about what they were living on a daily basis. By this, I don’t mean to suggest that the forum lacked a powerful intellectual fiber. It definitely had it, but it was very loose, still to be decanted, defined. Because this style is opposed to definitions and supposedly to polished works, it allowed the expression of varied identities in a context of total freedom. Although ideas were discussed in the seminars, the forum’s principle was diversity and flow. The basic style was: Say what you think and feel. I will respect you for it, won’t judge or condemn you, although that doesn’t necessarily mean that I agree with you.

A global space for free expression

The variety of expressions was evident both in the words spoken in the seminars and in the streets of the exhibition center where we were lodged and where the typical dress of India’s indigenous and tribal peoples was on display. Those of us from Latin America had thought that India was all “Indian.” But no, it too has autochthonous tribes that predate the Hindu and Muslim invasions. These secularly downtrodden communities presented themselves to the forum’s worldwide audiences with dances, drums, adornments, dress… exploding onto the scene. Similarly, groups could be found on any street corner carrying the rainbow symbol with the “judge not” slogan; gays and lesbians predominated—another of the identities crushed by our prejudices based on the patriarchal family’s canonic structure—but they were Oriental faces, not those of white North Americans. There were also Tibetans, wearing long vestments and carrying quill pens, who asked us to sign a half-block long protest sheet. And of course, people were denouncing the war in Iraq in a thousand different ways.

Within this enormous diversity, a common current was evident in the Forum’s motto: “Another world is possible.” This cry has emerged in response to the economic globalization forced on the majority of the world’s peoples by the powerful of the earth. If globalization has been imposed without the world being allowed to voice an opinion, the voices are now beginning to be heard of the “other-worldists”—as the French press has begun calling those of us who feel the rash need to protest, to resist and to cherish the hope that another world, another society, another family, another church, etc. can be created. I was quite taken by the fact that the motto is not “A new world is possible,” as if everything traditional, rural and autochthonous would have to disappear before the invasion of something “new.” The motto “Another world is possible” is a cry against uniformity, against capitalist ethnocentrism, against individualism and consumerism. The bedrock of the World Social Forum is respect for differences, for others, men or women. And the community assuming that cry is also assuming a collective identity, which is rising up as a “huge tidal wave of global mutual identification” against the force of economic globalization, to borrow an expression from sociologist Manual Castells.

The origins of the World Social Forum

How did the World Social Forum get started? One of its organizers, Brazilian sociologist Francisco Whitaker, told the story in an article he wrote in 2000, as preparations were being made for the first forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. “Early in 1998, the proposal for a Multilateral Agreement on Investments (MAI) was made public. It was to be signed by the world’s wealthiest countries, then ‘proposed to’—in practice, imposed on—the rest of the countries in the world. The agreement had been discussed in secret in the OECD, the intention being for it to become a kind of World Constitution for Capital, which would give capital all the rights and almost no duties, especially in the Third World countries, where the ‘investments’ would be made.

The French newspaper Le Monde Diplomatique published a first exposé prepared in the United States by the Public Citizens movement led by Ralph Nader, in an article signed by Lori Wallach, a lawyer with the movement. The outcry at the absurdities contained in the agreement led to the emergence of a social protest movement that caused France to withdraw from the negotiations in late 1998 and finally prevented the agreement from being signed.”

As Whitaker explains, this type of globalization, wholly controlled by the interests of capital, began to trigger a number of different forms of opposition from people everywhere. Those that gained most fame by virtue of their media impact were the protests in Seattle against the WTO, in Washington against the IMF and the World Bank and in Prague against government representatives who cut short their meeting one day ahead of schedule. The WTO’s Cancún debacle last year had not yet occurred at the time he compiled this list.

“Now, for a good twenty years,” Whitaker continues, “the owners of the world had been meeting in a forum they called the World Economic Forum, held in Davos, a small, luxury ski resort in Switzerland. In addition to the regional meetings it has also begun to organize, this group… currently gathers together all those able to pay $20,000 to hear and talk to the leading thinkers at the service of capital, as well as hear guest critics of globalization… [It] is where the theory of world domination by capital is constructed and steadily put into practice within the parameters of neoliberalism.

“Well, in light of all that was going on, a few Brazilians decided it would be possible to launch a new stage of resistance to this school of thought prevailing all over the world. Over and beyond the demonstrations and mass protests, it seemed possible to offer specific proposals, to seek concrete responses to the challenges of building ‘another world,’ where the economy would serve people and not the other way round. Economists and other academics opposed to neoliberalism were already holding what they called Anti-Davos meetings in Europe. Now, though, the intention was to go beyond that. With the participation of all the organizations already networking in the mass protests, the idea was to arrange another kind of meeting on a world scale—the World Social Forum—directed to social concerns. To give a symbolic dimension to the start of this new period, the meeting would take place on the same days the powerful of the world were to meet in Davos.

“…We decided to take [this great idea] to Bernard Cassen, director of Le Monde Diplomatique, who is also president of ATTAC [Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens] in France, to see how well the idea would be received outside of Brazil.

“Cassen was enthusiastic and made the proposal to hold the Forum in Brazil. He felt it had to be in the ‘Third World’ because that would also have a symbolic effect, and Brazil was one of the countries better able host a Forum like this. It was also his idea to host it in Porto Alegre, capital of a state that is steadily becoming known all over the world for its democratic experiences and efforts against neoliberalism. Cassen then threw out a counter-challenge: if we could organize the Forum, we would have the support not only of his newspaper, but also of the organizations around the world that are positioning themselves against domination by capital...

“…In late June, at Cassen’s suggestion, a delegation traveled to Geneva where a large part of the organizations linking up around the world in demonstrations against neoliberalism were meeting in an alternative “summit” parallel to the UN’s ‘Copenhagen + 5’ Summit. Room was made for us to present our proposal, which was very well received….”
Whitaker ends this brief history by describing the nuts and bolts of the program for the first forum, which strove to ensure the attendance of participants from all over the world, with quotas set for each continent and each type of activity. “The program provides for two kinds of dynamics: morning panels—four running simultaneously on all four days, with four participants each chosen from among leading names in the fight against the One Truth; and workshops in the early afternoon coordinated by the participants themselves to exchange experiences and generate discussions; then in the late afternoon there are meetings for networking. Also planned are sessions for testimonies from people involved in different kinds of struggle, and an extensive parallel program in Porto Alegre city for all those unable to participate directly in the Forum, which is open only to people appointed and registered by social organizations.

“The Forum is not deliberative in nature and time will not be wasted discussing the commas in a final document. It will be the beginning of a process of thinking together at the world level on the four thematic areas dealt with in the morning panels: production of wealth and social reproduction; access to wealth and sustainability; empowering civil society and the public realm; and political power and ethics in the new society.

Questions were formulated for each of these thematic areas, to which we have to find answers, and there is a series of issues we have to consider for each question. The intention is for us to think together, also on a “globalized” basis, to make room—in greater depth each year—for the search for alternatives to the dominant model. In fact, World Social Forum 2001 will be only the first step, albeit an entirely new one that is increasingly finding an echo the world over. Our hope is that this echo will secure the beginning of a new period in the struggle against human submission to the interests of capital.”

“Prosperity and Security?”

The motto for the 2004 Davos Forum, held a few days after the Mumbai Forum, was “Prosperity and Security.” I arrived in India having read in one of the newspapers given out on the plane that India was in an impressive economic boom, with 7% economic growth. But when we emerged onto the streets of Mumbai we were impressed by the poverty we glimpsed everywhere: thousands of cardboard huts lined up along freeways and under bridges, beggars with malnourished children besetting us, jobless people everywhere, multitudes of destitute people, unlike anything we had ever seen anywhere in Central America. Some Indian states have a thousand inhabitants per square kilometer. Where is the prosperity that is supposedly coming to India? Will these poor people ever experience the security being talking about in Davos? During the forum I saw that India’s press was discussing this same contradiction. Joseph Stiglitz, quite conversant with the neoliberal policies that he himself promoted as head of the World Bank but now with us at the World Social Forum, was quoted as saying, “There must be a radical rethinking of the way globalization has been managed.”

The Forum’s strengths and weaknesses

Together with my inseparable friend, a Mexican Jesuit, I sat in on a WSF seminar on the Internet and Political Activism. The Internet is pure globalization, we were told. Should it thus be denounced along with economic globalization? Not at all, stressed the young Catalan presenters, pointing out that the forum we were participating in wouldn’t have been possible without the Internet. The great waves against globalization are possible precisely because of globalization itself. In fact, not only does globalization make the great waves against possible, it is actually generating them.

Perhaps this is where both the strengths and weaknesses of the World Social Forum can be perceived. The strength lies in the fact that it is successfully pulling together and shaping this ground swell, which was previously hidden or at best dispersed. Even the multitudinous protests organized in various world capitals against the invasion of Iraq and in favor of peace remained dispersed. But these forces came together in the World Social Forum, not virtually but geographically, not “on line” but “off line.” And being together off line is irreplaceable.

The forum’s strength, however, is not just based on its magnitude. It does make a difference that 100-150,000 people gathered together in Mumbai, but it is only quantitative difference, not a qualitative one. The strength consists of the organizational peculiarity of that multitude, which stresses “diversity.” And it does so not just because diversity is beautiful, or a source of cultural wealth or a treasure of humanity, etcetera, etcetera, but because it is precisely the condition that makes it possible to organize into a network. The only reason to create a network is if the nodes that mutually support it have exchangeable goods. If all are equal, why create a network?

Here is where it seems to me that the World Social Forum has a very current lesson to offer unions, social organizations, religious orders, churches: it teaches us to organize horizontally in a network rather than vertically. Vertical organization has been sidelined by networking. Henry Ford built cars with vertical organization. He made all the parts for his cars in his factories. It was the same way they must have worked in the abandoned jeep factory in which we were camped in Mumbai. Things are no longer done that way; the parts are now made and combined in a network covering different countries. Doing it that way brings another concept of power into play, not the defined and static one derived vertically, but power in motion, power that is invisible, unattainable and unassailable. It’s a bit like the Holy Spirit of the Pentecostals, which is everywhere, can be felt, comes and goes, moves and moves me, throws me down and picks me up…

And if that’s how it is, as it seems to be (after all, the Pentecostals are an expression not unrelated to globalization), then it is necessary to be always a step ahead of the game, because what’s here today is gone tomorrow, whoever’s in the limelight today will have been forgotten tomorrow, and yesterday’s heroes are quickly replaced. This evidently multiplies the number of things that are of no use and requires us to be constantly on the lookout for signs of this “other world.” It is an ongoing search—also in network—to figure out in what node the power is concentrated and through what holes in the net it is escaping. This search is indispensable right now if we are ever to “empower” the poor, to use that hackneyed but fitting word.

A tendency toward ritualized repetition
and unconnected diversity?

But this also represents the World Social Forum’s weakness. It’s in vogue right now, and we assume it will always stay that way. We’re beginning to copy its organizational form, holding continental, regional and thematic forums, such as the Forum of the Americas that will take place in July. All these partial forums hope to link up and culminate in the World Forum. The hope is that it will be possible to hold a Central American Social Forum, a Guatemalan Social Forum and so on when the vogue catches on even more. These are very laudable, interesting initiatives, and let’s hope they work. But the weakness or risk implicit in trying to copy this novel expression is that it could just become a repetitive formula, a ritualization that only adds up to imitation without experience, without an embracing process that allows it to reach its own essence, its own strength, which consists precisely in fluidity, creativity and freshness. If that happens, its power will end up seeping away.

It was curious that while the forum’s inauguration, on the afternoon of January 16, was full of enthusiasm, the closing ceremony, on the afternoon of January 21, consisted of a couple of hours of speeches with no substance or vibrancy, and some exhausted participants began to leave. I felt as if this stultifying two-hour period was like the death of this formula foretold. But when it was finally over, Brazilian singer Gilberto Gil, the minister of culture in Lula’s government, came on stage with his guitar and electrified the multitudes again. As night fell people began to dance, and at one point a ragged beggar appeared among us. Some Indians wanted to shoo him away, but a number of women defended him. Allowed to remain, he began dancing with everyone with such happiness and purity that we were moved to tears. The Forum’s stammering mystery seemed to be summed up by this very dark-skinned young boy with white eyes.

Together with the tendency toward ritualized repetition, another weakness of the Forum is its unconnected diversity, or diversity linked only through a network. One of India’s Jesuits pointed this out on the afternoon of the evaluation. Such a vigorous expression of diversity leads one to focus on the tribal group, or the untouchables to borrow his Indian analogy: it’s the seduction of what is different. Although there’s a network connection with NGOs, for example, even at global levels, there is a danger of losing sight of the broader unity. This is true of India, a national conglomeration so diverse that it is truly admirable that it has remained united and not exploded into pieces with the heat of the ethnic, religious and national identities that inhabit it.

Shifting this concern to grassroots organization, it could lead to overlooking the common demands that unify thousands of people —even if often only abstractly—in a struggle that must be collective. The expression of identity is not enough. It must be given a body and translated into common actions, and that means competing with vertical powers. The forum didn’t have a final declaration. I don’t know if that’s because the organizers couldn’t agree on one or, simply because, as Whitaker’s article stated, “Time will not be wasted in discussing the commas in a final document.” In other words, maybe it’s not the forum’s style to tie down such diverse expressions in an abstract declaration. The absence of one, however, was the source of criticism, including a Le Monde article titled, “The other-worldists and the risk of inaction”: “After Bombay, there are many other motives to make one very doubtful about the future of a process that in an effort to celebrate diversity and possible syncretism among struggles of all kinds acquires the appearance of a boat adrift.”

These comments are made in the spirit of the forum, particularly as originally described by Whitaker, to find that kernel of inspiration that has been bringing so many peoples together for the past four years to pit their voices and experiences against those of overbearing globalization. Another world is possible: this is our hope. Another church is possible, as a Jesuit from Malaysia argued when it was pointed out that the Catholic Church has become harder and more complicit in so many parts of the world. But where will it be possible? This is the challenge thrown out to us by this great event. The next step is the Social Forum of the Americas, to be held in Quito in July 2004, where it is expected that the continent’s indigenous identities, especially those of the Ecuadorian, Peruvian and Bolivian highlands, will be expressed forcefully. After that will be the next World Social Forum, which will return to its birthplace, Porto Alegre, Brazil, in January 2005.

The future forums, particularly the next one, face multiple challenges. The militant Indian writer Arundhati Roy described the Mumbai forum as “marvelous but insufficient,” because “we urgently need to discuss resistance strategies.” She reminded us that Gandhi’s Salt March was not just political theater: “When in a simple act of defiance thousands of Indians marched down to the sea and made their own salt, they broke the tax laws on salt. It was a direct blow to the economic underpinnings of the British Empire. That was real.” It was a very real action with very real economic and political consequences. Thus the challenge of the next forum, perhaps the main one, is to reach beyond being a spectacle and a wonderful photo opportunity, moving past good intentions to consensual actions, hammering out a minimum agenda with the goal of achieving something so that peaceful resistance doesn’t atrophy. This was the challenge thrown out to us by this Indian writer, one of the most prominent stars of the gathering in Mumbai: “Our movement needs a major global victory. It isn’t enough to be right. Sometimes it is important to win something, if only to prove our determination. But to win something we need to be in agreement about something, perhaps about a minimum agenda.”

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