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The other side
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 02 - 02 - 2006

Activists met in Caracas to discuss imperialism, war and poverty, writes Serene Assir
Countering the World Economic Forum (WEF) at Davos, Switzerland, between 60,000 and 100,000 activists gathered this week in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, to discuss action on a plethora of global issues, ranging from ending the ongoing United States-led occupation of Iraq to the fomentation of fair trade, to the struggle for women's rights. Constituting the second of this year's World Social Fhief eipants and organisers alike felt the venue was particularly apt, given a heightened global focus on Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's opposition to Washington's policies over recent months. The leftist summit's agenda took over from that which took place earlier a fortnight ago in Bamako, Mali, and will be followed by another meeting in Karachi, Pakistan, in March. It was launched with an anti- imperialist march, which overran the city centre, and was characterised by the presence of hundreds of flags and thousands of activists from the world over.
Engaging in a flurry of meetings, conferences, lectures, workshops and informal get-togethers over six days, the participants found it hard to agree on a unified platform from which to continue their work. There were those, for example, who were disgruntled with the lead role that Chavez took through the course of the summit. For them, the WSF should not have counted on the participation, let alone granted such prominence, to a state leader, regardless of his political affiliations. The Porto Alegre Charter, which was compiled leading up to the first WSF meet in Brazil in 2001, specifically banned "party representations" from taking part, and stipulated that the gathering should not act as a decision-making body. For this reason they staged their own Alternative Social Forum, which ran through one day over the WSF.
This is not the first time that the WSF sees such diversity leading to actual internal splits. Last year, Brazilian President Lula da Silva was criticised in much the same way as Chavez for using the forum as a platform. But the scale was different. When Lula addressed WSF participants in 2005, he ended his speech saying he was on his way to Davos to take part in the WEF. It is reported that people hissed "traitor" at the president upon hearing the news. By contrast, the majority of attendees welcomed Chavez's participation with open arms -- with many even buying the locally-made red T-shirts sporting his picture. Indeed, for many activists across the world, he is something of a new-age hero, one who is often given credit for kick- starting a renaissance of leftist governments in Latin America. Prior to the launch of the forum, he said that "Venezuela has become an epicentre of change on the world level."
Other prominent personalities at Caracas included Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, US anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan -- whose son died in Iraq -- and Argentinean Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel. As for the summit's content per se, leftist activists had plenty to choose from, as was the case in WSF meetings in the past. Independent media professionals from all over the world met to discuss the development of new forms of communication, and shared experiences with each other. Global rights watchdog Amnesty International (AI), which expressed its concern with continued arms proliferation, "gained visibility" by virtue of taking part in the cross-cultural summit, according to the AI Web site. Meetings were also discussed to address the plight of poor women across Latin America, with women's rights activists blaming the surge of globalisation and US-style free trade for weighing the most heavily on the forgotten of the earth.
High priority was also granted to discussion of Iraq and to working to end the ongoing US-led occupation. For if the WSF saw splits in its ranks, perhaps they are a small, ephemeral price to pay for the sheer diversity seen among the ranks of participants. Organisers of the forum called for worldwide protests against war and imperialism, to be staged on 18 March. And while the main focus of the demonstrations will be to protest the US' presence in Iraq, activists will also criticise the role of both the UN in Haiti and World Trade Organisation in fomenting a culture of economic tyranny.

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