Beyond the World Social Forum

This past January, regional social forums were celebrated in Caracas, Venezuela and Bamako, Mali. Another regional forum happened in Karachi, Pakistan in March. The regional forums have their origin in the World Social Forum (WSF), a meeting of social movement leaders and activists from around the world that promotes the exchange of ideas and strategies for social justice. The WSF emerged partly as an alternative to the World Economic Forum, and the first WSF was held in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2001.

After three consecutive years in Porto Alegre, the WSF was held in Mumbai in 2004. Folllowing several years of a safe haven in the leftist environs of Porto Alegre, supported by a progressive mayor with innovative budgeting policies, the move to Mumbai was seen as risky. Some were worried that the forum would be more open to corruption and manipulation by politicians, although this did not materialize. Others, critical of the influence of governments and large Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), organized a parallel event known as Mumbai resistance.

For this most recent forum held in Caracas, hopes were high among participants. Leftist leader Hugo Chávez has been moving ahead with the Bolivarian Revolution, an ambitious anti-neoliberal movement for radical redistribution and regional integration. Chávez came to power in Venezuela in 1998 with promises to use the oil wealth of the country to combat rising poverty, and during his time in office he has made significant progress. The election of indigenous leader Evo Morales in Bolivia also comes amid a spate of elections of leftist and social movement leaders across the region. After decades of harsh neoliberal economic policy, the tide finally seems to be turning and the activists, advocacy groups and academics who descended on Caracas in January expected to be a part of the vibrant debates and discussions that are animating these turns in the Americas.

The Chávez government had a strong presence in the social forum in Caracas, and there were many panels on anti-imperialism, strategies for fighting neoliberalism, and similar themes addressed in previous forums. But the Caracas forum for the most part was not well attended by popular social movement leaders and organizations within Venezuela who have been at the base of Chávez’s Bolivarian revolution. While official government programs and top-down initiatives were given space within the program, many experiences of community organizing from poor barrios or urban shantytowns such as La Vega, San Agustin, Caricuao, Petare, and others were not included. Panels about community media, an important and growing movement within Venezuela, were organized by the National Commission of Telecommunications (CONATEL), an official regulatory agency for broadcast services. CONATEL has a tense relationship with community media activists and hence activists boycotted these panels. It was ironic that while a large, regional conference addressing social justice issues was being held in Caracas, many of those local activists most connected with social justice movements in the barrios for many decades did not participate.

Moreover, the alternative forum, an important space for critique and discussion in previous forums, was held in a middle class suburb by artists and intellectuals with few organic links to social movements in the poor barrios. Important panels such as one by the Zapatistas from Southern Mexico did not have a space within the forum and had to organize and advertise their own events on the margins of the forum. The Zapatista movement of indigenous activists in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas gained momentum in 1994, following the signing by the Mexican government of a free trade agreement known as NAFTA. The Zapatistas have since been successful in putting questions of agrarian reform and indigenous rights on the agenda.

What the experience of the Caracas forum showed was the problems that beset attempts to organize transnationally from below, and the difficulty of achieving true moments of transnational exchange and solidarities. The problem lay not only in the strong presence of the Chávez government in the event, but also in the nature of the World Social Forum itself, in which advocacy and NGO logics have come to predominate often over the needs and demands of social movements themselves.

Nevertheless, the forum did bring up questions among social movements about the nature and role of transnational organizing in the region. There was a great deal of vibrancy and debate in a tent erected by Venezuelan community media activists: there were several workshops held on issues of communication in Latin America and technical exchange between activists from North and South America. These activists together with indigenous groups helped organize a march on one day of the forum to protest coal mining in the state of Zulia. Another groups of activists from the community organization Coordinadora Simón Bolívar also organized a parallel event in their barrio 23 de Enero. This event actually brought some people away from the official sites in middle class suburbs, the university, and large halls, to the barrios, which are the main site for political organizing work.

There were also small moments in the forum that gave a glimpse of what kind of work true transnational exchange could do to build social movements in the Americas. At one panel organized by the Bolivians, there was a discussion about the role of Evo Morales’ party, Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement towards Socialism, MAS). One person in the audience asked the panelists about the role of “Evo’s party” in the post-election scenario. The Bolivians responded adamantly that MAS was not “Evo’s party,” and that it was not a party – it was a movement that belonged to the people and not the government. This was a declaration that came as a surprise to some of the Venezuelans in the room, many of whom are accustomed to thinking of Chavista parties such as Movimiento Quinta Republica (Fifth Republic Movement, MVR) as “Chávez’s party.” There was a real sense of ownership by the Bolivians over the MAS, which is not felt by most social movement activists in Venezuela towards the MVR. While Chávez continues to hold a great deal of support, particularly among social movements and people in the barrios, the MVR has been largely discredited. In discussions after the panel, some of the Venezuelan present were very interested to know more about MAS, and the Bolivian experience of creating a movement that had mass support.

At the panel organized by the Zapatistas in a tent on the fringes of the forum, there was another interesting exchange. When the formal presentation finished, Venezuelans began to get up and make interventions about how the Zapatistas need to address the question of state power and they need to take state power like the Venezuelans have. The Zapatista activist responded courteously, explaining that Venezuela and Mexico have distinct histories and that the strategy of the Zapatistas has been to build power from below, by creating autonomous, self-sustaining communities. They said that they could learn from the Venezuelan experience in how to build broader national alliances. But given the large number of indigenous nations in Mexico, one person cannot speak for so many nations, said the Zapatista activist. Even if Manuel Lopez Obrador, the leftist Mexican mayor, were to be elected in upcoming elections, the activist noted that he could still not represent all of these diverse indigenous groups.

Given the more vertical notion of state power that often underlies conceptions of a continent-wide Bolivarian revolution, the discussion with the Zapatistas was helpful in raising alternative views about social movements building and taking power from below. The Zapatistas pointed out the need to take local history seriously, implying that regional alliances should be built from the ground up and not simply from the position of state power.

There is no question that transnational exchanges are going to play a crucial role in bolstering social movements as part of the processes of social change taking place across the Americas. Sharing the experiences of grass roots political learning can provide important resources for those who want a greater role for social movements in new leftist governments against those who seek to build and solidify bureaucratic power within state institutions. The World Social Forum may prove to be too limited as a space within which these exchanges can take place. But we can take heart from the knowledge that transnational exchanges are a real possibility. Freddy Mendoza, an important community leader from the Caracas parish of La Vega who is working towards the reelection of Chávez in the upcoming November 2006 elections, has as a campaigning slogan a Zapatista phrase: “We are willing to coexist with a state that serves but does not order, a plural state not a totalitarian state, a state at the service of the social and not of capital, a state that understands that it cannot substitute the self-determination of the people or civil society.”

Sujatha Fernandes (

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