porto alegre, brazil -- instead of fending off police in New York, where the World Economic Forum was meeting, global justice activists arranged to converge last week on this amiable socialist utopia to ponder visions of an alternative world.There were 50,000 of them, calling themselves the World Social Forum. And they were greeted enthusiastically by the administration and people of this city of 1.3 million in southern Brazil, renowned for its innovative forms of participatory democracy.
A large, cosmopolitan municipality and one of the wealthiest in South America, Porto Alegre has been under the enlightened control of the Workers Party of Brazil (PT), a coalition of socialists and social democrats, for over a decade now.
And although some on the left have been critical of the regime for not being more aggressive in its reforms, the impact of its presence is everywhere. Buses are cheap, for instance -- free on Saturdays -- and billboards all over the the city welcome delegates and claim a better world is possible.
The city is full of cultural centres, free art galleries, free concerts for youth, and community centres. Low-income housing is being built, and there is official rejection of privatization. People are warm and politically engaged, and graffiti everywhere declares the evils of capitalism and the ALCA (the FTAA).
But it's the PT's much-vaunted participatory budget that excites me most. The assumption here is that citizens know better than politicians and bureaucrats about the needs of the community. Neighbourhood councils discuss and vote on priority areas for spending. Delegates are then appointed to bring this message to a regional council.
The intricate process, which is refined every year, has proven so successful that it was recently adopted by the state government. At the state level in the year 2000, close to 400,000 people participated. Although this is still only 5 per cent of the voting population, the numbers grow every year.
These kinds of social experiments provide a stunning contrast to the fiscal craziness many attendees have left behind at home. Most at the gathering are Brazilian, and the main march echoes their traditionally festive approach to politics. Samba bands, huge puppets, flags and lively chants make things militant but joyful.
In fact, it's the celebratory parts of the forum -- the theatre, music, concerts and youth camp's Woodstock atmosphere -- that are most inspiring.
All the big names of the left are here: analyst Noam Chomsky, ecologist Vandana Shiva, anti-GE hero José Bové and writer Naomi Klein have close to rock-star status. (A riot almost breaks out when the room where Chomsky is speaking cannot accommodate everyone who wants to hear him.) Tens of thousands of people take part in seminars, workshops and panels. The choice is overwhelming, filling 151 pages of the program and covering everything from "alternatives to contemporary capitalism" to "democratizing the media."
Although the vast majority of the proceedings are in Portuguese, there is still too much choice among the English sessions. The quality of workshops is uneven. Delegates I know speak of being moved to tears by inspiration and then again moved to tears by frustration over the lack of attention to gender issues and to the ghettoization or flat-out ignoring of youth concerns, Africa and Asia and the war in Afghanistan.
Many young people feel disconnected here, yet even the harshest critics look for ways to improve the forum rather than walking away.
An anarchist counter-conference takes place at noon so that even the most militant critics can attend afternoon sessions of the official meet.
In a world where the left is often on the defensive, imagining a different reality sometimes seems difficult. But in beautiful, warm Porto Alegre, with anti-capitalist slogans everywhere, it seems anything is possible.
Kim Fry is a radical cheerleader and a member of the New Politics Initiative and Mob4Glob.