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Liberals discuss social policy

The Miami Herald  Sat, Jan. 29, 2005


As an alternative to the annual meeting of world economic powers in Switzerland, liberal groups from around the world are discussing social and economic policy at a forum in Brazil.

Special to the Herald While the world's business and political elite met in the Swiss ski resort of Davos, their liberal counterparts were meeting in this small port city in Brazil. PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil -

Sometimes called the left's answer to Davos, the fifth annual World Social Forum that has drawn well over 100,000 participants from five continents is more than anything a place for leftists to network, trading both experiences and business cards. But its plethora of cultures, ideologies and agendas defy any simplistic categorization.

''It's inspiring, so many people from so many parts of the world coming together to share their experiences. It's gives you strength to keep working,'' said Maija Nilson, 25, a Swede working with a nongovernmental organization that helps poor children in Chile.

The opening day parade earlier this week set the tone, as tens of thousands of people wound through Porto Alegre streets before converging in one of its parks. The vibe was part Mardi Gras and part political convention, with a bit of Woodstock thrown in for good measure. People with Ernesto ''Che'' Guevara and anti-George W. Bush T-shirts chatted with native Brazilians in feathers and body paint. Others in the crowd waved banners with slogans like ''Against the War and Against Capitalism,'' and ``Tourism is Predatory.''

Not a vacuum

Too often activists feel as if they are working in a vacuum, said Gururaja Budhya, who works at a women's rights organization in India. At last year's forum, which was held in his country, Budhya says he ``met people from different countries working on the same issues. I encountered activists from Thailand, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Europe. We kept in touch. It was empowering.''

The 500-odd panel discussions that occur each day through Monday are as varied as a university curriculum. Among one day's offerings: a Brazilian-led meeting on women and sustainable development; anthropologists discussing the effect of globalization on human rights, and a discussion on racism, sexism and homophobia led by an organization representing black Catholic lesbians.

U.S. citizens are not a big presence here. Canadian political scientist Elizabeth Smythe attributes the absence of U.S. and Canadian citizens to a culture that ``deliberately tries to depoliticize inequality.'' The World Social Forum started in 2001, after an anti-globalization alliance of labor and leftist activists announced itself with massive protests against the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle. These days, the activists gathered in Porto Alegre are struggling to determine not only what they are against but also what they are for.

On the first day of the conference, a panel made up of representatives from the countries affected by the tsunami said they should be given total debt relief. Canceling out the debts would do far more good in the long term than issuing cash advances that will have to be paid back with interest, said Vinod Raina, a representative from India. ''What is reprehensible is that instead of the whole world rising up to help, they are treating this as a business opportunity,'' said Raina.


For other interest groups, the purpose of the conference is to gain allies across borders.

''In this age of globalization we can no longer work only in one country,'' said Dieter Eich, one of several representatives of the Confederation of German Trade Unions sent here to bridge the historical gap between workers in wealthy and poor countries.

''For the Brazilian unions dealing with a German company, they are limited in how much pressure they can apply. But if the German unions also apply the pressure, it can have a lot of impact,'' he said.

All Material Copyright Samuel Lowenberg