"We are here to show the world that another world is possible!" the man on stage said, and a crowd of more than 10,000 roared its approval.
What was strange was that we weren't cheering for a specific other world, just the possibility of one. We were cheering for the idea that another world could, in theory, exist.
For the past thirty years, a select group of CEOs and world leaders have met during the last week in January on a mountaintop in Switzerland to do what they presumed they were the only ones capable of doing: determine how the global economy should be governed. We were cheering because it was, in fact, the last week of January, and this wasn't the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. It was the first annual World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. And even though we weren't CEOs or world leaders, we were still going to spend the week talking about how the global economy should be governed.
Next Friday, trade ministers from the 34 countries negotiating the Free Trade Area of the Americas will meet in Buenos Aires. Many in Latin America predict that the ministers will be greeted with protests much larger than the ones that exploded in Seattle in 1999.
The FTAA's cheerleaders like to pretend that their only critics are white college kids from Harvard and McGill who just don't understand how much "the poor" are "clamouring" for the FTAA. Will this public display of Latin American opposition to the trade deal change all that?
Don't be silly.
Mass protests in the developing world don't register in our discussions about trade in the West. No matter how many people take to the streets of Buenos Aires, Mexico City or Sao Paulo, defenders of corporate-driven globalization just keep on insisting that every possible objection lobbed their way was dreamed up in Seattle, by somebody with newly matted dreadlocks slurping a latte.
"I am worried that free trade is leading to the privatization of education," an elementary school teacher in Ottawa tells me. "I want to go to the protests in Quebec City, but is it going to be safe?"
"I think NAFTA has increased the divide between rich and poor," a young mother in Toronto tells me. "But if I go to Quebec, will my son get pepper-sprayed?"
"I want to go to Quebec City," a Harvard undergraduate active in the anti-sweatshop movement says, "but I heard no one is getting across the border."
"We're not even bothering to go to Quebec City," a student in Mexico City says. "We can't afford to get arrested in a foreign country."
Anyone still unclear about why the police are constructing a modern-day Bastille around Quebec City in preparation for a forthcoming summit and the unveiling of the Free Trade Area of the Americas should take a look at a case being heard by a Canadian provincial supreme court.
In 1991 a United States waste management company, Metalclad, bought a closed-down toxic treatment facility in Guadalcazar, Mexico. The company wanted to build a huge, hazardous waste dump, and promised to clean up the mess left behind by the previous owners. In the years that followed it expanded operations without seeking local approval, earning little goodwill in Guadalcazar. Residents lost trust that Metalclad was serious about cleaning up, feared continued groundwater contamination, and eventually decided that the foreign company was not welcome.
In 1995, when the landfill was ready to open, the town and state intervened with what legislative powers they had available: the city denied Metalclad a building permit, and the state declared that the area around the site was part of an ecological reserve.
I've never been to Chiapas. I've never made the pilgrimage to the Lacandon jungle. I've never sat in the mud and the mist in La Realidad. I've never begged, pleaded or posed to get an audience with Subcomandante Marcos, the masked man, the faceless face of Mexico's Zapatista National Liberation Army. I know people who have. Lots of them. In 1994, the summer after the Zapatista rebellion, caravans to Chiapas were all the rage in north American activist circles: friends got together and raised money for secondhand vans, filled them with supplies, then drove south to San Cristobal de las Casas and left the vans behind. I didn't pay much attention at the time. Back then, Zapatista-mania looked suspiciously like just another cause for guilty lefties with a Latin American fetish: another Marxist rebel army, another macho leader, another chance to go south and buy colourful textiles. Hadn't we heard this story before? Hadn't it ended badly?