Changing the World in Belém

Mr. Sta. Ana is the Coordinator of Action for Economic Reforms. This article was published in the February 9, 2009 edition of the Business World at pages S1/4 and S1/5.

Where on earth is Belém? Pinoy travelers in Brazil will be familiar perhaps with Sao Pãolo and certainly with Rio de Janeiro—the city of Tom Jobim and the girl from Ipanema.  But Belém?

Belém bills itself as the gateway to the Amazon. People all over the world recognize the Amazon.  But not so many people outside Brazil have heard of Belém.

Traveling to Belém is expensive and tough.  From Manila, the trip to Belém via the US or Europe will last more than two days. At first blush, it’s not an enticing journey even for a seasoned traveler.

But in late January, Belém caught the world’s attention and became the destination of thousands of international travelers. Belém hosted the 2009 edition of the World Social Forum (WSF)—the alternative to the elitist Davos World Economic Forum.  Contingents of development workers or activists from North America, Europe, Africa, and Asia joined many more Brazilians and other South Americans in solidarity towards creating alternatives to present tattered globalization.

Everyone, even the mainstream, was curious about the Belém activities and outcomes. Caught flatfooted by the worldwide economic crisis, the mainstream is groping for immediate and long-term answers to globalization’s hazards.  Those who championed untrammeled markets and trumpeted liberal globalization’s superiority are in retreat. The deep global crisis proved them wrong. The finance elite’s repugnant behavior—fat salaries and bonuses plus extravagant vacations for executives even as their failed companies received huge government bailouts—has unmasked their ethical pretenses.

The forces behind WSF have always led the opposition to the type of globalization that has brought disaster to both the developed and developing worlds.   It would have been easy albeit arrogant for the Belém WSF to say: “I told you so.”

Belém was festive but did not have the triumphal air.  However, some conceit could not be suppressed. In their carta de boas vindas or welcome letter, the 2009 WSF hosts said:

“WSF is taking place in a context of several world crises: economic, energy, environmental, cultural and political.  All this indicates we are facing up a crisis of the civilization model.  The unattended complaints and countless claims, delivered throughout the previous eight WSF meetings and over the time from one to another in many other places around the world, are confirmed.”

A smug statement makes me uneasy.   But what the heck; it is likewise conceited to judge the whole WSF on the basis of a poorly written welcome letter.

The first impression was that the Belém WSF looked like a seductive Woodstock. The ubiquitous display of Brazilian sensuality in a humid, tropical setting complemented the deep intellectual exchanges. The atmosphere was conducive to love and understanding. Missing though was the casual exhibition of pot, uppers, and downers.

The torrential rains, the musical concerts, the dancing, and the commune set up near the forest comprising countless tents—inhabited by scantily clad boys and girls of varying sexual orientations—were reminders of Woodstock.

In a different sense, Belen was more psychedelic—it was a riot of cultures and colors.  The main participants were young people of different nationalities who effortlessly swayed to the samba beat while walking under the intense heat of the morning sun.  The Indians from the Amazon and Andes were prominent, clad in bright costumes and adorned with body paint or tattoo.  Less colorful but still eccentric were the North American and European graying activists, rocking and rolling like Mick Jagger while toting their Macs or Toshibas.  Wearing uniform T-shirts and holding red banners were the trade unionists, still energetic in calling the workers of the world to unite.  More militant were the fringe groups identified with ultra-Left violent causes. In the spirit of pluralism, the WSF organizers allowed naïve but peaceful Brazilian youth activists to conduct propaganda for the Colombian, narcotic-tainted FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).

The women participants, who see themselves as citizens of the world with different sexual preferences, were assertive. The feminists engaged the rest, especially the Latino machos, in lively debate on issues like equal rights, reproductive health, prostitution, sexual diversity, and lesbianism.

Worth noting, too, was the space given to stateless peoples from all over the world—Palestine, Chechnya, Tamil, Tibet, Catalonia, Basque, Western Sahara, etc.

WSF has been described as a gathering of unconventional, anti-globalization activists.  Some may not be comfortable with that description.  The WSF slogan better describes what it is:  “another world is possible.”

The WSF motto is similar to Barack Obama’s slogan:  “Yes, we can.”  These slogans are catchy, but more important than the phrasing is the question of how? Obama has spelled out his plans that focus on taming the US recession and promoting dialogue and a multi-polar world.  The WSF constituents have a shapeless, eclectic program. The WSF’s strength—its diversity ranging from reforming the international economy, decriminalizing prostitution, accepting lesbianism to supporting freedom everywhere—is its weakness.  It wants to change the world at one fell swoop.

To get us closer to the possibility of another world, the first step is to tackle the present main problem—the deepening economic crisis. Global collective action, not “country first,” is the way to go. Unfortunately, the separate forums in Belém and Davos, by themselves, could not bring about the collective action to stimulate the economy and prevent jingoistic protectionism.  The best and most enlightened minds of Belém and Davos need to meet, sort out their differences, and forge a practical basis of unity for a new world.

So, was the long trip to Belém worthwhile despite knowing that the WSF would have a marginal effect on the current state of affairs?

Mingling with the 21st century peaceniks and the ageing hippies was fun. But the best experience was savoring the Amazon’s many exotic fruits—the cuaçupu, bacuri, açai, taperebá, acerola, pupunha.  In addition, the ice cream in Belém, having the flavors of the many exotic Amazon fruits, is more delicious than what has been judged as the world’s best gelato sold at the piazza in touristy San Gimignano, Tuscany.

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