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Beyond the World Social Forum

There is the increasing belief that transnational exchanges between grassroot social movements will come to play a crucial role in generating social change in the Americas. However, social movements that seek a greater role within the newly established leftist governments in South America may find that the World Social Forum offers too limited a space for such exchanges to occur.

Letter from America

Beyond the WorldSocial Forum

There is the increasing belief that transnational exchanges between grassroot social movements will come to play a crucial role in generating social change in the Americas. However, social movements that seek a greater role within the newly established leftist governments in South America may find that the World Social Forum offers too limited a space for such

exchanges to occur.


ecently, regional social forums have been organised in Caracas, Venezuela (January 24-29, 2006), Bamako, Mali (January 19-23, 2006) and Karachi, Pakistan (March 24-29, 2006). 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. Following 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, or other groups hostile to the aims of the forum. Others, critical of the influence of governments and large nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), organised a parallel event known as Mumbai resistance.

For the forum held in Caracas, hopes were high among participants. Leftist leader Hugo Chávez has been moving ahead with his “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 election victories secured by leftist and social movement leaders across the region. After decades of harsh neoliberal economic policy, the tide finally seems to be turning and 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 changes in the Americas.

The Chávez government had a strong presence in the social forum in Caracas, and there were many panels on antiimperialism, strategies for fighting neoliberalism, and similar themes addressed in previous forums. But the Caracas forum for the most part was boycotted by popular social movement leaders and organisations within Venezuela who have been at the base of Chávez’s Bolivarian revolution. While official government programmes and top-down initiatives were given space within the programme, many experiences of community organising from poor “barrios”orurban 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 organised 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 local activists most connected with social justice movements in the barrios for several decades did not participate.

Moreover, the alternative forum, that in previous forums had provided an important space for critique and discussion, was held in a middle class suburb by artists and intellectuals with no organic links to social movements in the poor barrios. Important panels such as one by the Zapatistas from southern Mexico were not given a space within the forum and were forced to organise 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, North America Free Trade Agreement, popularly known as NAFTA. The Zapatistas have since been successful in putting questions of agrarian reform and indigenous rights on the agenda.

The experience of the Caracas forum showed the problems that beset attempts to organise 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 often come to predominate over the needs and demands of social movements themselves.

New Questions

Nevertheless, the forum did bring up questions among social movements about the nature and role of transnational organising in the region, even if other spaces may need to emerge to facilitate this. 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

Economic and Political Weekly April 1, 2006

North and South America. These activists together with indigenous groups helped organise a march on one day of the forum to protest coal mining in the state of Zulia. Another group of activists from the community organisation Coordinadora Simón Bolívar also organised a parallel event in their barrio 23 de Enero. This event actually brought some people away from the official sites in the middle class suburbs, the university, and large halls, to the barrios, which forms the main site for organising political 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 organised 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 have become 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 at all 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 Venezuelans present were very interested to know more about MAS, and the Bolivian experience of creating a movement that had mass support.

At the panel organised 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 the need for them 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, selfsustaining 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 the next elections, the activist noted, that Obrador could still not represent all of these diverse indigenous groups.

Given the highly vertical notion of state power that often underlies conceptions of the Bolivarian revolution, the discussion with the Zapatistas was helpful in raising alternative views about social movements building and taking power from below. Chávez’s discourse about a Bolivarian revolution across the Americas has tended to operate in a nationalistic manner, with the idea of Chávez and Venezuela at the helm of continent-wide changes. The Zapatistas pointed out the need to take local history seriously, implying that continent-wide 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 grassroot 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 re-election 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.”



A new Centre for Philosophy has been initiated at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in order to support, sustain and enable philosophy teaching and research in various parts of the country. As part of its important programme to provide quality, rigorous training to postgraduate students, the centre plans to conduct a threeweek summer school for Masters and PhD students at NIAS from June 5 to June 23, 2006. The theme for the summer school is “Philosophy for the Social Sciences and Humanities”. Some of the topics in philosophy that will be discussed are as follows.

  • Phenomenology: Nature of human experience, subjectivity, objectivity, the role of the human subject, consciousness, existentialism.
  • Postmodernism: Modernism, reason, rationality, postmodernism, deconstruction.
  • Philosophy of mind: The nature of mind, consciousness, rationalism, body and mind.
  • Philosophy of language: The nature of language, the relation between language and reality, language and discourse, language as organizing natural and social realities.
  • Ethics: Foundations of ethics, theories of ethical behaviour and action.
  • Philosophy of natural and social sciences: The distinction between natural and social sciences, epistemology, facts, evidence, nature of science, laws and explanations.
  • The students will be chosen from all around the country. We will also be inviting philosophers to conduct classes and interact with the students. Those who are selected will be paid return train fare (Sleeper class) from their place of residence to Bangalore. They will be provided accommodation at NIAS as well as some honorarium.

    For details please contact:

    Prof. Sundar Sarukkai, Centre for Philosophy, NIAS. Email:

    Economic and Political Weekly April 1, 2006

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