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When Davos Meets Porto Alegre: A Memoir


Walden Bello*

Porto

Alegre, Brazil

"Hemingway said that the rich are different from you and me. How can anyone

expect the people in Davos to understand the crisis that globalization has

visited on the lives of people like those of us here in Porto Alegre?" That

was going to be my opening line.

When

I arrived at the university studio for the televised trans-Atlantic debate with

George Soros, the financier, and other representatives of the global elite

gathered in Davos, Switzerland, a visibly shaken Florian Rochat of the Swiss

delegation was waiting for me. Swiss are known for being impassive, but Florian

was visibly shaken. "They are arresting protestors in Davos and other

places in Switzerland," he told me. "They’re killing democracy in our

country. Our friends there are asking you to support them in calling for the

shutting down of the World Economic Forum."

That

request drove out any lingering desire to be "nice" in the coming

exchange, which had been billed by its producers as a "Dialogue between

Davos and Porto Alegre." The ambitious, one-million dollar plus production

involving four satellite hookups, aimed to explore if there was a common ground

between the annual elite gathering in Davos and the newly launched World Social

Forum (WSF) in this southern Brazilian city. Millions of people globally were

waiting for the transmission.

Since

I had been in Davos last year, the producers requested that I make the opening

statement for the Porto Alegre side. I obliged with the following: "We

would like to begin by condemning the arrests of peaceful demonstrators to

shield the global elite at Davos from protests. We would also like to register

our consternation that while we in Porto Alegre have painstakingly come up with

a diverse panel of speakers, you in Davos have come up with four white males to

face us. But perhaps you are trying to make a political statement.

"I

was in Davos last year, and believe me, Davos is not worth a second visit. I am

here in Porto Alegre this year, and let me say that Porto Alegre is the future

while Davos is the past. Hemingway wrote that the rich are different from you

and me, and indeed, we live on two different planets: Davos, the planet of the

superrich, Porto Alegre, the planet of the poor, the marginalized, the

concerned. Here in Porto Alegre, we are discussing how to save the planet. There

in Davos, the global elite is discussing how to maintain its hegemony over the

rest of us. In fact, the best gift that the 2000 corporate executives at Davos

can give to the world is for them to board a spaceship and blast off for outer

space. The rest of us will definitely be much better off without them."

The

press termed the next 1-1/2 hours not as a debate but as an emotional exchange

that, as the Financial Times put it, "sometimes degenerated into personal

insults." But I and the other panelists-among them, Oded Grajew of Brazil’s

Instituto Ethos, Bernard Cassen of Le Monde Diplomatique, Diane Matte of Women’s

Global March, Njoki Njehu of 50 Years Is Enough, Rafael Alegria of Via Campesina,

Aminata Traole, former Minister of Culture of Mali, Fred Azcarate of Jobs with

Justice, Trevor Ngbane of South Africa, Francois Houtart of Belgium, and Hebe de

Bonafini of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo-were simply reflecting the

non-conciliatory mood towards the Davos crowd of most of the 12,000 people who

flocked to Porto Alegre.

For

this constituency, a significant number of whom watched the debate at a huge

auditorium at the Catholic University, globalization was a deadly business, and

many undoubtedly shared the feelings of Hebe de Bonafini when she screamed at

Soros across the Atlantic divide, "Mr. Soros, you are a hypocrite. How many

children’s deaths have you been responsible for?" That Soros in the course

of the debate made some utterances regarding the need to control the negative

impacts of globalization hardly endeared him to this crowd, who saw him mainly

as a finance speculator who had made billions of dollars at the expense of third

world economies.

The

holding of the week-long World Social Forum was nothing short of a miracle.

Proposed by the Workers’ Party of Brazil (PT) and a coalition of Brazilian civil

society organizations, supported with significant funding by donors such as

Novib, the Dutch agency, and provided with strong international support by the

French monthly Le Monde Diplomatique and Attac, the European anti-globalization

alliance, the event was put together in less than eight months’ time. The idea

of holding an alternative to the annual retreat of the global corporate elite in

Davos simply took off. While there were some glitches here and there, the event

was resoundingly successful, despite the massive challenge of coordinating 16

plenary sessions, over 400 workshops, and numerous side events.

A

major reason for the WSF’s success is that it had the organizational support of

the government of the city of Porto Alegre and the government of the state of

Rio Grande do Sul, both of which are controlled by the PT. Porto Alegre has, in

fact, achieved the reputation of being a city that is run both efficiently and

with sensitivity to social and environmental considerations. The city is said to

be at the top of the quality of life index for Brazil.

The

sharing in Porto Allegre focused not only on drawing up strategies of resistance

to globalization but also on elaborating alternative paradigms of economic,

ecological, and social development. Militant action was not absent, with Jose

Bove, the celebrated French anti-McDonalds’ activist, and the Brazilian MST

(Movement of the Landless), leading the destruction of two hectares of land

planted with transgenic soybean crops by the biotechnological firm Monsanto.

Porto

Alegre achieved its goal of being a counterpoint to Davos. The combination of

celebration, hard discussion, and militant solidarity that flowed from it

contrasted with the negative images coming out of Davos. The Swiss town was the

center of Switzerland’s biggest security operation since the Second World War.

The Swiss police pulled out all the stops to prevent protesters from reaching

the Alpine resort, and fired water cannons and tear gas on demonstrators in

Zurich, arresting many of them. Even conservative Swiss newspapers condemned the

police operation as a threat to political liberties in Switzerland.

Perhaps

the outcome of the duel between Davos and Porto Alegre was best summed up by

George Soros: "The excessive precautions were a victory for those who

wanted to disrupt Davos. It was an overreaction. It helped to radicalize the

situation."

On

his performance in the televised debate with Porto Alegre, Soros commented:

"It showed it is not easy to dialogue.I don’t particularly like to be

abused. My masochism has its limits." Observed the Financial Times:

"Such uncomfortable experiences seem temporarily to have scrambled his

ability to deliver pithy soundbites."

But

Soros was not alone in flubbing his lines. Soon after my opening statement,

Bernard Cassen of Le Monde Diplomatique leaned over and told me: "Walden,

it wasn’t Hemingway who said the rich are different from you and me. It was

Scott Fitzgerald."

*Dr.

Walden Bello is executive director of the Bangkok-based Focus on the Global

South and professor of sociology and public administration at the University

of the Philippines.

 

 

 

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