The key word at this year's World Social Forum, which ended yesterday in Porto Alegre, Brazil, was 'big.'
Big attendance: more than a hundred thousand delegates in all! Big speeches: more than 15,000 crammed in to see Noam Chomsky! And most of all, big men. Lula da Silva, the newly elected president of Brazil, came to the Forum and addressed 75,000 adoring fans. Hugo Chavez, the controversial president of Venezuela, paid a 'surprise' visit to announce that his embattled regime was part of the same movement as the forum itself.
"The left in Latin America is being reborn," Mr. Chavez declared, as he pledged to vanquish his opponents at any cost. As evidence of this rebirth, he pointed to Lula's election in Brazil, Lucio Gutierrez's victory in Ecuador and Fidel Castro's tenacity in Cuba.
But wait a minute: how on earth did a gathering that was supposed to be a showcase for new grassroots movements become a celebration of men with a penchant for three hour speeches about smashing the oligarchy?
How do you celebrate the anniversary of something that is impossible to define? That was the question faced by tens of thousands of Argentinians on December 20 2002 as they marched from all corners of Buenos Aires to the historic Plaza de Mayo. It was a year ago to the day since the first “Argentinazo”, a word that is completely untranslatable into English or, for that matter, Spanish. The Argentinazo was not a riot exactly, although it sure looked like one on the television, with looters ransacking supermarkets and mounted police charging into crowds; 33 people were killed across the country. It wasn’t a revolution, either, although it sort of looked like one on the face of it, with angry crowds storming the seat of government and forcing the president to resign in disgrace.
But unlike a classic revolution, the Argentinazo was not organised by an alternate political force that wanted to take power for itself. And unlike a riot, it pulsed with a unified and unequivocal demand: the immediate removal of all the corrupt politicians who have grown rich while Argentina, once the envy of the developing world, spiralled into poverty.
Well, it could have been true.
That's what Senator Hillary Clinton had to say after finding out that five Pakistani men did not actually sneak into the United States through Canada so they could blow up New York on New Year's Eve. Because they were never in the United States at all, and they weren't terrorists, and the whole thing was dreamed up by a man who forges passports for a living.
At the height of the search for the professional liar's imaginary nonterrorists, Clinton had blamed Canada and its "unpatrolled, unsupervised" border. But even when the hoax came to light, Clinton didn't rescind the accusation: Because the Canadian border is so porous, she reasoned, "this hoax seemed all too believable." It was, in other words, a useful hoax, helping US citizens to see how unsafe they really are. And that is useful, especially if you are among the growing number of free-market economists, politicians and military strategists pushing for the creation of "Fortress NAFTA," a continental security perimeter stretching from Mexico's southern border to Canada's northern one.
A bunch of people have written to the site and asked me if I planned to respond to the attack on me in the current issue of The Economist. Frankly, I think the article
is so nuts, it’s not even worth responding. But I would like to add some context that might help explain why an article so personal and childish was allowed to go to press in a publication that prides itself on being a cool voice of reason and authority on all matters economic.
I knew from email reports that something new was going on in Washington D.C. last weekend. A demonstration against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund was joined by an anti-war march, as well as a demonstration against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. In the end, all the marches joined together in what organizers described as the largest Palestinian solidarity demonstration in U.S. history, 75,000 people by police estimates.
On Sunday night, I turned on my television in the hopes of catching a glimpse of this historic protest. I saw something else instead: triumphant Jean-Marie Le Pen celebrating his new found status as the second most popular political leader in France. Ever since, I've been wondering whether the new alliance displayed on the streets can also deal with this latest threat.
On Tuesday in Buenos Aires, only a few blocks from where Argentinian President Eduardo Duhalde was negotiating with the International Monetary Fund, a group of residents were going through a negotiation of a different kind. They were trying to save their home.
In order to protect themselves from an eviction order, the residents of 335 Ayacucho, including 19 children, barricaded themselves inside and refused to leave. On the concrete façade of the house, a hand printed sign said: "IMF Go To Hell."
What does the IMF, in town to set conditions for releasing $9-billion in promised funds, have to do with the fate of the residents of 335 Ayacucho? Well, here in a country where half the population now lives below the poverty line, it's hard to find a single sector of society whose fate does not somehow hinge on the decisions made by the international lender.
Most of the news out of Argentina focuses on angry professionals who have lost access to their savings. The truth is that, in a country where half the population lives below the poverty line, the vast majority of the protests are simply attempts meet desperate needs for food, shelter and work.
One of the symbols of this grassroots militancy is Emilio Ali, a leader of the “Piquetero” movement. The piqueteros are groups of unemployed workers whose hunger has driven them to find new ways of wining concessions from the state. In a reversal of the traditional picket line (they have no factories to close) the piqueteros block roadways into the cities, often for weeks at a time, stopping traffic and the transportation of goods. Politicians are forced to come to the road pickets and negotiate and the piqueteros regularly win basic unemployment compensation for their members, a right stripped away by decades of the IMF’s “sound economic policies.”
When the White House decided it was time to address the rising tides of anti-Americanism around the world, it didn't look to a career diplomat for help. Instead, in keeping with the Bush administration's philosophy that anything the public sector can do the private sector can do better, it hired one of a Madison Avenue's top brand managers.
As Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Charlotte Beers' assignment was not to improve relations with other countries but rather to perform an overhaul of the U.S.'s image abroad. Beers had no previous diplomatic experience but she had held the top job at both the J. Walter Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather ad agencies, and she's built brands for everything from dog food to power drills.
On the first day of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre Brazil, the hallways were buzzing with rumours of defections from the North. Top delegates were jumping ship from the World Economic Forum in New York and coming to Porto Alegre instead: a European prime minister, World Bank directors, even corporate executives.
Some never showed up, others did. But debates raged nonetheless about what it all meant. Was it evidence of the Forum's new strength (it attracted some 60,000 participants, after all) or a sign of imminent danger? The World Social Forum was founded last year as an alternative to the annual gathering of the top 1,000 corporations, world leaders and opinion-maker who usually meet in Davos, Switzerland but this year met in New York City.
But with these new high-powered arrivals, the WSF now risked turning from a clear alternative into a messy merger: teams of photographers trailed politicians; market researchers from PricewaterhouseCoopers trolled hotel lobbies, looking for opportunities to "dialogue"; students threw a cream pie at a French minister.
Since the release of The Video, Osama bin Laden's every gesture, chuckle and word has been dissected. But with all the attention on bin Laden, his co-star in the video, identified in the official transcript only as "Shaykh," has received little scrutiny. Too bad, since no matter who he is (he is most commonly identified as the Saudi mujahedin Khaled al-Harbi), he offers a rare window into the psychology of men who think of mass murder as a great game.
A theme that comes up repeatedly in bin Laden's guest's monologues is the idea that they are living in times as grand as those described in the Koran. This war, he observes, is like "in the days of the prophet Muhammad. Exactly like what's happening right now." He goes on to say that, "it will be similar to the early days of Al-Mujahedeen and Al-Ansar (similar to the early days of Islam)." And just in case we didn't get the picture: "it is the same, like the old days, such as Abu Bakr an Othman and Ali and others. In these days, in our times."