Latin American Report on the World Social Forum (II):


The World Social Forum is taking place in Porto Alegre, capital of the State of Rio Grande do Sul (Brazil). The political process that made this encounter possible was the following: the Worker’s Party (PT, Partido de los Trabajadores) won the elections in this City, and undertook some limited municipal reforms. Then, 3 years ago, it also won in clean elections the government of the whole State, with its more than ten million inhabitants. This electoral victory enabled them to undertake a wider programme of reforms, which are described below. Bear in mind that we are talking of reforms, as that is what they are, but these reforms created a cultural climate that made possible the celebration of the World Social Forum, whose third edition – this is an important novelty that contradicts all previous versions – will take place here again in January/February in 2003. It is a relief to know that these gatherings, which are beneficial to all groups and individuals favouring an alternative to the neoliberal disorder have a date and place confirmed for their next meeting.

But let us return to the main topic of this note, which is the introduction of the reforms implemented by the government of the PT during their 3-year mandate in the most southern State of Brazil. According to the interpretation of the local PT – the strongest and most organic party in Brazil – there is a different historic background here, with a broader social integration and openness to neighbouring nations (Uruguay and Argentina); a greater tendency to civic participation (slavery and its submissive culture had very little force here); and a distant but present memory of the biggest reformist attempt carried out in colonial South America: that of the Jesuit Missions, with their features of a primitive and paternalistic communism, but also with their cultural contributions, their defence of local communities and their independence of non-regional political powers (Spaniards and Portuguese had to get together to put an end to that vast experience).

Whether these historical considerations are worth mentioning or not, the fact is that in the last 3 years Rio Grande do Sul has adopted a different course of productive and cultural organization to that of the rest of Brazil. The comparative results are incredible: Rio Grande is the only State that has opposed the widespread privatization programmes implemented in the rest of Brazil; it has been able to maintain the rate of infant mortality at 15 per thousand (against an average of 37 per thousand in the rest of Brazil); life expectancy for men and women is 5 years higher than in the rest of the country; illiteracy rates stand at 7% against 15%; per capita income is US $4,500 (against US $ 3,500); they have the lowest unemployment rate in the country and “only” 2 million (20%) of gaúchos (Rio Grande’s native people) live below the poverty line (against almost 50% in the rest of the country). These advances are the result of a broadly proclaimed policy – with some publicised insistence – aimed at achieving universal rights; decentralized social assistance; massive literacy programmes; family protection and support to rural families; support for first-time workers; local systems of production; incentives to small companies; and agrarian reforms. Against the current tide of global neoliberalism, the state economy has grown in Rio Grande, and the key to this group of reforms is the so-called “Presupuesto Participativo”, the  Participatory Budget.

The Participatory Budget is the medium, whereby disposition to decentralize power and promote an active civic participation materializes. The decisions are no longer taken in the Ministry of Economy but in 497 municipalities distributed throughout the whole State. In turn, civic participation in those grassroots’ discussions has grown from 190,000 people that participated in the first assemblies 3 years ago to 380,000 in 2001, which represents an increase of exactly 100%. These grassroots assemblies must be rigorously informed of the accounts and expenses incurred by the executive, which has created a wider understanding of how the supposedly infinitely complicated economy and finances work. Furthermore, a critical consciousness has grown, changes are naturally introduced in daily life and structures are being created to bring together State government and local assemblies through regional meetings. This practice has already been extended to about a hundred Brazilian cities and also to some isolated cities in the rest of the world, although in no other instance there is a State with 10-million people working together under these new rules.

    Achieved progress can be distinguished in accordance to areas of social activity. Education receives 35% of the State’s revenues, which is an unprecedented percentage in Brazil (and probably in the world), and it is strictly controlled by the municipalities. Twenty thousand new teachers have been recruited, 1,400 new classrooms and 135 new secondary education facilities have been incorporated, and a school transport system has been implemented for those who live far from the schools. Finally, the Rio Grande do Sul State University has been created, with reproductive effects in formulating a pedagogic theory: teaching is an integral political-pedagogic project that is in many ways guided by the teachings of Paulo Freire. Education serves as a platform to broaden the concept of citizenship. Courses of personal training have reached 420,000 people in 3 years, creating networks and communities which generate jobs, and include programmes studying minimum income for families, the legalization of land occupations by rural families and the highest grade of “documentation” – legal entity – authenticated in Brazil. From the more than 20 million Brazilians that are nonexistent to the legal system very few live in Rio Grande.

Health takes10% of public revenues (compared to 5% in the previous period); the basis of improvement in this area is the municipalization and decentralization of the services, the creation of programmes that provide a basic minimum of food and improvements to the epidemiological systems. Housing continues to be one of the biggest problems: it is calculated that there’s a shortage of some 500,000 houses in the State. Investment in this area is 11 times higher than that implemented by the previous government and currently it is mainly aimed at supporting construction co-operatives. Regarding the issue of public security – so terrible today in other regions of Brazil -, the new government of Rio Grande do Sul considers it a political-social problem, not a “police-force” problem. In the doctrine officially accepted here, the main reason for violence is poverty; hence, a wide civic participation is needed to solve the problem. As for repressive methods, the government has embarked upon a unification of the numerous police bodies, which would allow a better control of these forces. In addition, they have opened police positions for women, and a “project of citizen police” is still in discussion. What is most important here is a change of mentality in the fight of proverbial corruption of officials and policemen in Brazil, and to try to educate the latter in the new ideas.

    The sustenance of all this lies in proper economic functioning. Despite the reforms – and against all efficiency theories, Rio Grande’s GDP increased at a pace of 4.5% per annum, compared to 3.5% in the rest of Brazil. Even more important is that growth in the agriculture and industry sectors was 3 times that of the rest of the country (which determined an overall increase on exports). This took place within a framework of a completely opposed economic policy to that of the Brazilian central government by supporting the regional and local productive mould and refusing to privatise and to centralize. Serious misdeeds were carried out against the neoliberal dogma: “invention” of 200,000 public jobs against market laws, and creation of a “first job” programme for youths that are usually not especially “competitive”. In general, the advancement of co-operatives has not worked against the necessary productive efficiency. There has been, on the one hand, a quantitative jump in the production of traditional regional products, such as leather and footwear, and on the other, in products more recently introduced such as spare-parts for cars and machinery. What is more remarkable is the development of 1,200 computer science companies that go as far as producing microchips. This new type of products is directly related to the creation of a Centre of Excellence in Advanced Electronic Technology: link to a chain of university ? research centres ?
businesses. The Bank of the State of Rio Grande do Sul takes care of the financing, which has made possible the recovery of bankrupt companies with special credit lines that now work under a co-operative regime.

    All in all, agriculture and cattle production continues to be the basis of the State’s economy. Record grain harvests have been obtained (18.3 million tons) and the fact that a large centralized production – a norm in the rest of Brazil, has been rejected is all remarkable on its own.  This achievement is due to the encouragement of family businesses that follow agro-ecological principles: there is an absolute prohibition on producing genetically modified organisms. Seeds are guaranteed by State agencies and organic techniques are used. The Agrarian Reform Program tries to put an end to the archaic structure of large landed estates: in Rio Grande, 2% of the landowners still possess 40% of the land (in Brazil, 3% of landowners control 62% of arable land). It should be borne in mind that in Latin America, land concentration and poverty always march together. This Programme has been able to settle 5,300 farmers’ families in plots of land bought by the State, plots that have been provided with roads and water. There are 250 establishments in direct hands of the State, dedicated to promote the creation of family plots fit for the generation of surpluses that may be traded in the market.

    As for the environment, there is a strict Environmental Code since 2000 that establishes a decentralized control by the municipalities, supported by 26 new state forest agencies. The Continuous Forest Inventory verified that in a period of 3 years reforestation tripled (data that should be compared with the continuous deforestation that takes place in the rest of Brazil). Running water reaches today 99% of the population of the State, holding back small communities from their dependence on generally polluted wells. The communities themselves – through Participatory Budget mechanisms – requested it as a priority. This process is opposed to the dominant one in the rest of Brazil and Latin America, whereby water privatisation is continually on the rise. In Rio Grande “water is life, it’s not for sale”. In terms of energy, thanks to the construction of biomass factories in the southern region and also to the controlled use of their own resources, today Rio Grande does not have electricity restrictions such as those prevailing in the rest of the country.

    Most of the above information corresponds to official sources, but it doesn’t seem to be in contradiction with what countless social organizations at the Forum sustain. The difference is that specific social movements demand more, and they want it now (probably with good reason). But for those of us who come from other Latin American countries – even countries potentially wealthier such as Argentina – and after having seen other regions in Brazil, the results are quite astonishing. There is an original aspect here that we want to highlight: even though reforms are conducted by the State PT government, it is at the core of the party itself – or in a non-antagonistic relationship with it – that most of the specific social movements are developed.  Evidently, there are many co-existent tendencies inside the PT, for there are numerous youths wearing their symbols along with others that imply more radicalisation. All commentators agree that from all the multi-coloured realities of the PT in all of Brazil, it is the PT of Rio Grande the one that maintains bigger reserves of idealism and consistency with the original program.

Although it is certain that there is nothing that comes close to a program for transforming production relationships, there is a clear confrontation with current neoliberal tendencies. For all of us, who come from very diverse experiences, what is happening here should be understood within their frameworks and contexts, which are very interesting: bringing about an honest reformist program has induced people’s awareness to break up with those limits, and to carry out actions towards forms of democracy and participative economies. These are new situations, to which the new alternative political-social movement should adapt, in order to not be isolated in its critical purity. In fact, and as we will inform you in our next reports, most of confrontational movements are shifting to a greater flexibility, in the conviction that it is necessary to add up the largest amount of social forces – accepting what we see as limitations in their programmes – because only by means of a wider social accumulation can we create the transforming agent. In any case, the reality of Rio Grande do Sul is encouraging – at least from Latin American parameters – in the sense that “a different world is possible”, as long as the most radical sectors accept that our most important programmes cannot be imposed on others, but by proving their superiority in the practice as contradictions sharpen.

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