First Person: Porto Alegre

Bob Burnett

About 100,000 people marched through the streets of Porto Alegre, Brazil, to mark the conclusion of the third annual World Social Forum. A hopeful gathering, but one marked by the omnipresent fear of war in Iraq and the next stage of a renewed American imperialism. Many marchers carried signs signaling their desire for peace, the hope that we can find a way to work together, the common belief that “another world is possible,” which was the theme of this year’s gathering.

Walking with part of the American delegation, we were greeted with surprise and enthusiasm everywhere it went. Yet every conversation I had, every workshop that I attended, every speech I heard delivered, echoed the theme that America stands almost alone in the world in our desire to invade Iraq. Just before the march the Indian activist, Arundathi Roy, reminded us that while America may be the preeminent military power, Americans are a very small segment of the world’s population. “We be many and they be few,” she said.

Forum participants were united in a common understanding of the global forces that are hurtling us into the conflict. They saw the United States as a predatory nation determined to enforce a new world (dis) order, one that mouths respect for democracy, but practices a violent form of unrestrained market-capitalism, a nation that has placed the requirements of global corporations and the needs of an international elite over the life and liberty of everyday people.

This perspective is not of America the beautiful, the defender of democracy. Rather it is of America the bloodsucker that siphons the vital resources from the other nations of the world and that appears not to care about the consequences. (One speaker observed that American people are woefully insular: “fearful, ignorant, indifferent”.)

Yet as Americans, we were welcomed warmly in Porto Alegre. People understood that many Americans oppose the war in Iraq, are opposed to the Bush administration and believe a better world is possible. They asked what American anti-war activists will do when the war starts. The answer: there have already had many large demonstrations; resistance to this war is much farther along than at a comparable stage in the war in Vietnam; the American public has a much better understanding of what this war is about than other recent military excursions: oil, empire and power and the desire of George Bush to strengthen his political position. Participants were heartened and surprised to hear this. Much of their news of America is filtered through corporate media outlets such as CNN and the satellite channels owned by Rupert Murdoch.

The forum participants asked what they could do to help. I suggested they could help by starting a worldwide boycott of American products, because while America plays at empire it needs revenue from trade to pay for its military campaigns. If the people of the world stopped feeding the machine, if they stopped supporting the multinational corporations whose ideology of globalization and unfettered market capitalism go hand in hand with Bush’s imperial strategy, if they stop buying Coca-Cola and Nike running shoes, if they stop watching American movies and TV programs, and if their governments stop buying American weapons and computers and telecommunications gear, then America’s corporate leaders will get the message. And they, in turn, will make sure that Bush gets the message: The war is not good for business and must stop.

But it was easy to be optimistic in Brazil where citizens are still celebrating the ascension of their new president Luiz Inancio Lula da Silva. When Lula spoke to the World Social Forum on Friday evening, he received rock-star treatment. “Lulaphoria,” it’s called here. (Every major gathering was interrupted at least once while everyone in the crowd sang the “’Lula song”–which consists of multiple chants of “lu-u-u-ula Lu-la Lu-la”.) Americans huddled around bilingual Brazilians for the simultaneous translation of his speech. When Lula spoke of his conviction that no people can be free until the poor receive just treatment, that he might fail in his programs but he would never abandon his principles, many Brazilians cried. And we cried, too. For that moment, and much of the World Social Forum, another world did seem possible.

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Bob Burnett is a writer in Berkeley, Calif., and Quaker activist. He can be reached at bobburnett@​comcast.​net.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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