PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil—When the World Social Forum opened yesterday with a panel calling for the cancellation of billions of dollars in foreign debt to aid the countries devastated by the Dec. 26 tsunami, I must admit I felt a bit cynical. The panelists, mostly activists from the affected countries who were joined by Argentine Nobel Peace Prize-winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, argued convincingly that Third World nations were already crippled with interest on so-called foreign aid—$23.6 billion in 2003—and that simply canceling the debt would be far more helpful than saddling them with new emergency loans.
Still, when I asked the panelists if they had had any indication that the International Monetary Fund and other major lenders might suddenly agree to wipe out their debts, they acknowledged that they didn't expect it to happen any time soon. Nor had they sent any delegates to Davos, where the British government has announced it is going to push for debt relief.
"If the players in Davos really care about what the people think, it is their burden and their challenge to come to Porto Alegre," said Filipina delegate Lidy Napcii.
If this was going to be the tone of the conference—we are right, and it is up to the powers that be to realize it—I was worried. The bigwigs in Davos seem pretty happy right where they are. True, they have been trying to soften their image lately, with panels this year like "Will income disparities always be with us?" "Mobilizing a disenchanted workforce," and "Why rich countries can't buy happiness."
Davos, of course, is really about networking, and that seems to be the overriding theme of Porto Alegre as well. I've been calling it a meeting of the left, but that's imprecise because it suggests some kind of electoral agenda. Much of what is going to happen here is the trading of ideas and business cards. It's a way to know that you are not working in a vacuum, said Gururaja Budhya, who works at a women's rights organization in Shimoga Karnataka State, India. At last year's forum, which was held in Mumbai, India, Budhya says he "met people from different countries working on the same issues. I encountered activists from Thailand, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Europe. We kept in touch. It was empowering."
The program itself is a hodgepodge, composed of two 134-page volumes, plus an additional 12-page section of corrections. It was released only yesterday. As in years past, there will be dozens of meetings devoted to the dangers of globalization, the misdeeds of the World Bank and IMF, and how the left can best organize itself, all crisscrossed with varying shades of feminism, Marxism, environmentalism, and human rights activism. Other panels read like something you might see on the Learning Channel, such as a meeting on the "Unbearable Lightness of Equality," while another addresses the no doubt pressing issue of "the development of the grocery retail sector in the Italian market and its impact on the farming sector in the South."
The forum kicked off last night with a massive march that resembled a politicized Mardi Gras, with separate sections of the parade devoted to different causes. There were women's rights organizations in bright purple wigs, rain forest advocates carrying coffins, Indian trade unionists in traditional dress, and a bebopping delegation of middle-aged education advocates. The parade was massive, kilometers long, snaking through Porto Alegre as crowds cheered from sidewalks, bridges, and apartment windows.
The whole mishmash, tens of tens of thousands of people, converged in one of the city's central parks. Guys with Trotsky and Che T-shirts chatted with Brazilian tribesmen in traditional dress; others held banners with slogans like "Education Is Inclusion," "Davos No, Samba Yes," or one from antihunger group that simply had the image of a crossed fork and spoon.
It is difficult to describe the tone of the gathering—it was part political convention, part Woodstock, part Carnival, and like nothing I've ever encountered in America. As a reporter, I've covered political conventions, protests, and rock concerts for a decade, and I've developed the usual reporter's cynicism for all things done by large groups. I'm also a serious music snob.
The crowd sang songs about dignity and the forum theme "Another World Is Possible." The tone was not polemic. It was passionate and also optimistic. Groovy, even. It was strange—and very un-American (although not particularly anti-American).
When Gilberto Gil took the stage, the crowd went wild. This is who they had been waiting for. One of the country's most beloved musicians, he was jailed by the military dictatorship in the 1960s because his politics were too radical. Today, he is the minister of culture in the Lula government.
The next day, I ran into Gil at the forum and asked what he thought the significance of the event was. Would this big bunch of meetings involving all these different groups really change anything? Gil leaned back and smiled. He looked me in the eye and said: "I answer your question with a question. Do you think that change happens?" This was a guy who knew something about change.
Playing an acoustic guitar alone in front of a football-stadium-sized crowd is no easy feat, but Gil's rich voice and swinging playing had seemed to fill the huge park with ease.
When Gil hit the opening chords to John Lennon's "Imagine," I was surprised to find that I was no longer feeling cynical. I don't even like Lennon or the Beatles, but this was something different. I was smiling. I had even started to dance.