From 28 November to 1 December 2012, around three thousand people from all over the world gathered in Porto Alegre, Brazil for the World Social Forum-Free Palestine (WSF-FP). Like any mass gathering, this Social Forum served both as a point of contact for activists to network and plan new initiatives, as well as bring out the movement’s inner tensions and challenges in strange—and sometimes uncomfortable—moments. In particular, the unprecedented size and ambition of this convergence spread a distinct air of high tension, expectation, and urgency throughout those three short blistering days in Porto Alegre—especially since they occurred so soon after the unexpected “Pillar of Cloud” Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip, and the then-imminent United Nations statehood bid. As 2013 rolls through, and a World Social Forum is held in Tunis, we would do well to look back on the experience and highlight the strengths and weaknesses the 2012 WSF-FP revealed in the different organizing models represented. It is in these contradictions that we can see some of the impasses at which the international movement finds itself, and the obstacles it will face in the coming years.
“Another World Is Possible”
The World Social Forum and its regional counterparts, such as the US Social Forum and the European Social Forum, are something of a “post-Berlin wall phenomena,” according to Feroz Mehdi of the Canadian Alternative Information Center and longtime participant in the WSF process. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the Socialist Bloc, even the little remaining symbolic power to assert alternatives to the global imperial capitalist system appeared weakened as “neoliberal capitalism went into a very high attack mode and … all the energy of the capitalist system changed gear completely.” The mantra, from Francis Fukuyama to television pundits, was that this was finally the “end of history.” Capitalism was declared thwe winner, along with its its frivolities, its excesses, the wreckage it left at the feet of the world’s peoples. All this was said to be par for the course, and there was no other game in town. So the story went.
But in the fertile climate of the late-1990s and early-2000’s “convergence” or “anti/alter” globalization movement, the seeds for the Forum had already begun to grow. The power of new social movements began to be felt, and the need for a real response to capitalist fatalism became more and more apparent. It turned out to be deceptively simple: “Another world is possible.” With that banner, the first World Social Forum was held in 2001 in Porto Alegre, deliberately scheduled to coincide with an annual gathering of business and political elites: the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Perhaps as an evolution of the earlier mass protests of “their” summits, the idea was to make them irrelevant with proposals coming from “us”: grassroots community groups, peoples’ movements, and those directly affected by the global elite’s policies.
However, while all of the classic nationalist and “third-worldist” gatherings of the last century—from W. E. B. DuBois’s 1919 Pan-African Congress to the 1955 Bandung conference, or the 1966 Tricontinental Conference organized by the Cuban Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa, and Latin America (OSPAAAL)—had always been implicitly based on the premise that only “capable” politicians and resolute leaders of the contemporary liberation movements would attend, the Forum proposed something entirely new as far as international conferences go.
In the words of one of its main architects, Portuguese intellectual Boaventura de Sousa Santos, the Forum would seek a form of “counter-hegemonic globalization” by uniting worldwide social movements under a “grassroots bloc” that emphasized “strong presence” in aggregates over “strong agendas.” Instead of heads of state, it would be community groups as well as peasants’ and indigenous movements setting the terms of the conversation, without a pre-set framework or common language to bind them together other than the “general agreement on the fact that no individual, no single theory[,] or no single practice has the infallible recipe to conceive of another possible world and to bring it about”—what Santos calls “negative universalism.” “Such articulations,” claims Santos, “presuppose combinations among the different social movements and NGOs that are bound to question their very identity and autonomy as they have been conceived of so far.” For Mehdi, this “open space,” or “big tent,” is what undergirds the Forum’s ability to propose alternatives without monopolizing any particular form of resistance. “To say ‘no’ is also a very fundamental right,” he says. The difficulty is keeping that “no” open-ended.
Thus the World Social Forum is a self-consciously diverse space of mixed tendencies, factions, groupings, and positions that go well beyond the specificities of one social struggle. Perhaps for this reason, the WSF-Free Palestine took on a distinct flavor unlike many other Palestine solidarity spaces: anti-capitalist, anti-globalization, open-ended, and experimental. No stone was left unturned as social movements from across the spectrum were forced to account for each other and take each other seriously: conversations about Palestinian liberation would be inherently linked to conversations about indigenous sovereignty in the Americas; workshops on G4S naturally took on global capital; and almost no event could escape making the link with working class movements the world over, so heavy was the presence of labor activists from every corner of the globe.
Suraya Jawoodeen of the South African public service workers’ union NEHAWU—which helped push through a landmark BDS resolution at the World Congress of the Public Services International (PSI) last November—captured this feeling succinctly when she stressed that “We can’t decontextualize the struggle of oppressed people from this…system, from capitalism.” Echoing a sentiment that would pervade the Forum, she continued: “Our futures don’t lie in that system.”
Legacies of Struggle
Porto Alegre, and its home state Rio Grande do Sul, have a rich history of progressive social movement activity. The infamous Landless Workers’ Movement, or “MST” by its Portuguese acronym, exploded onto the world stage here. In addition, the Partido dos Trabalhadores, or Worker’s Party, which now sits in the government after years of serving as a radical support base against the dictatorship, found its first major electoral base here. Furthermore, the municipality experimented with one of the most ambitious participatory budgeting projects ever known in the 1990s. Even more, and partially as a result of this legacy, the first Social Forums found their home here as well.
Now the city was abuzz with activity as sessions began in all those hallmarks of social struggle which offered their space for the Forum, such as the Usina do Gasômetro, an old electrical power station-cum community arts space, or the various Union halls granted by the Journalists and Bank Workers. But an equal amount of workshops were found nestled into decidedly bureaucratic spaces: the Municipal Chamber of Aldermen; the Public Ministry of Rio Grande do Sul; and the Federal Post Office; to name a few. This would be the first, but not the last, signal of the strange balance Brazilian organizers had struck with the state and municipal government: a relationship that danced around the Forum, above and around negotiations and meetings, up front to make bold proclamations and back behind the curtain with its tail between its legs to hide from backlash.
[Panelists deliberate on the G4S panel at the Union of Bank Workers. Image by Alex Cachinero-Gorman]
But as was to become clear to arriving delegates in the coming days, the heavy subsidies coming from the government and its principal trade union partner, the CUT, would condition not only the Forum’s rhetorical flavor, but its concrete organizing potential in favor of the Palestinian Authority and the UN bid. The tenacity of organizers coming from the struggle on the ground would push back as well, however—leading to what Maria Delgado, an Uruguayan delegate of International Women’s Peace Service, called a forum of “two paradigms”—“not confronting each other but not dialoguing” with each other either.
The conflict of the two paradigms, more than anything else, would come to be the defining characteristic of the World Social Forum-Free Palestine, reflective of the tensions and growing pains of the global Palestine solidarity movement seven years after the official call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS).
Days 1 & 2
It did not take long for the two models to clash, as the opening plenary set the tone firmly in favor of the Brazilian government and their main partner on all things Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas—even as some in the crowd held up signs reading, “The PA does not represent me.” But in these first, sanguine hours of the Forum, the “big tent” of social movements so hyped by Boaventura de Sousa Santos and by Forum organizers seemed open for business: despite disagreements, activists of literally all stripes were present, from an infinite number of factions, delegations, and tendencies, all in the same space, discussing, debating, and sharing proposals.
[A packed panel on the right of return and water rights chaired by Soraia Misleh (third from left).
Image by Alex Cachinero-Gorman]
Interestingly, most of these important strategic conversations could already be seen spilling outside of the formal workshop space and down the Rua dos Andradas, where every few feet delegations from South Africa, Scotland, Spain, and Latin America could be found meeting and dining regularly at one of the street’s many restaurants. It would be a lesson in the days to come: when the Forum failed to provide space, delegations wasted no time in making it themselves.
The first real convergence, however—the moment that inaugurated the Forum officially to the news media, to Porto Alegre, to the rest of the world—was as exciting as it was fraught with the same kinds of tensions that already characterized its first few hours and which would continue until the Forum’s end. After workshops had finished in the evening, attendees gathered in the center of town for a massive and lively march set to coincide with the International Day in Solidarity with the Palestinian People. Devoid of the dreary repetitiveness of run-of-the-mill protests and full of dancing, chants, songs, and bright, waving banners, the procession wound its way through major downtown intersections in an undulating mass of mostly red-and-white from the CUT’s well-distributed pennant, flags, and balloons. This was most definitely a CUT-dominated space, but by no means completely. Rank-and-file CUT affiliates marched alongside World Women’s March, Central dos Trabalhadores e Trabalhadoras do Brasil (CTB), Coalition for a free Palestine-South Africa, and many, many more affiliated and unaffiliated individuals. Youth delegations quailed excitedly at passers-by and drummers pounded out the rhythm as we passed the gigantic living cooperative and former squat Utopia e Luta, which unfurled a gigantic, several-story Palestinian flag in solidarity with marchers. The feeling was of overwhelming power, unity, and joy.
So it came as something a surprise when it turned out that the protest was being led by a statehood-specific banner. The speeches that followed at the march’s end confirmed its fundamental message, as the bulk of speaking time was taken up by a rambling ode to the Palestinian Authority and to the Dilma government. This is the same government, we would be reminded the next day in a lively response to the previous day’s panegyrics, that has “embarrassingly expanded its military agreements with Israel in the last few years,” as Soraia Misleh, a Brazilian-Palestinian activist and conference organizer, emphasized. Indeed, amongst many other signs of collaboration, Misleh points to a 2010 security cooperation agreement that opened up billions of possible dollars in defense industry investment.
[Marchers proceed through the streets of Porto Alegre on International Day in Solidarity with
the Palestinian People, 29 November 2012. Image by Charlotte Kates]
Regardless, the Forum continued, featuring inspiring workshops from the superbly-organized Queer Visions delegation, an emotional session [es] uniting members of the MST, Via Campesina, and Palestinian youth in a cultural exchange, the Latin American Flotilla project, and more. There were the two paradigms, the two threads quivering close to each other—wary, but not so much in conflict as much in uncomfortable, implicit alliance. How temporary that alliance was to be became fully clear on the final day of this unique world meeting.
Some of the enumerated contradictions of the fabled “two paradigms” began to become more pronounced and more obvious to attendees as the conference drew to a close. These revelations shed light on the mounting general confusion and disorganization of the conference, with multiple workshops and plenary sessions being held simultaneously in mutually exclusive, far-flung locations, while other sessions were surreptitiously cancelled or unattended. The last set of workshops was no exception: mysteriously scheduled to partially conflict with the final and more important session, which closed the entire Forum.
This final session, dubbed the “Assembly of Social Movements,” is now a staple post-Social Forum activity, introduced after attendees of the first few Social Forums complained of the lack of an action-oriented convergence space for delegations to come together and agree on points of unity moving forward. This time, the Assembly was highly polarizing, and the results unexpected—to say the least.
Delegates streamed all over the room talking over one another as the session facilitator began reading off a list of speakers which had been previously decided and strangely left out key delegations which had prepared statements. Interpreter equipment failing, the bulk of delegates still attending workshops in other parts of the city, and a sense of haste meant that what followed resembled something more like grandstanding than a movement in self-reflection. The knife in the wound, however, was one member of the Brazilian Committee’s decision to read out what was understood to be the “final statement” co-written by the Brazilian Committee and the Palestine Committee. But as it was read, it quickly became apparent to those who had worked on it or had spoken to the Palestine Committee that the statement being read was not the original.
After more confusion, arguing, an intervention, booing, and finally the end of this horrid display, what followed was a hurried cascade of short speeches read amidst the noise—some speakers very clearly allowed more time than others, others forcibly removed from the stage or asked to end their speeches early. The Palestinian Youth Movement read their statement against the odds, and members of the Queer Visions delegation had to force their way onto the list to read theirs. And these were not isolated cases.
Given the importance of the occasion, it did not feel democratic, and it certainly did not feel constructive. A very clear attempt at a sort of “coup” had come and gone before our very eyes, and there was no explicit accountability taken for that act. We were once again at a crossroads, many having schlepped to Brazil at considerable personal or organizational sacrifice, and we were seeing something fall apart before our eyes. The bridges we so desperately wanted to construct ironically came about in the private meetings spontaneously organized all across Porto Alegre, while it was the formalities we had come for that failed to serve us. One might say, as director of Pambazuka News Firoze Manji wrote of the 2007 WSF in Nairobi, Kenya, “There was much discussion about policies and alternatives to existing policies. But one couldn’t help feel the absence of politics.”
As delegates finished reading their resolutions, and it became clear that nothing would follow this theater, many simply left while successive delegates read to a progressively smaller room of listeners. Numbers dwindled and spirits waned—and so we might say that the World Social Forum-Free Palestine ended not with a bang, but with a whimper.
[Queer Visions delegation holding up their banner in the Assembly of Social Movements.
Image by Alex Cachinero-Gorman]
Aftermath & Reflection
“The lack of transparency was not by accident; it was designed to be so,” explains Feroz Mehdi, a longtime participant in the WSF process and member of the Canadian Alternative Information Center. The more information surfaced, the more it became clear that there had been significant losses prior to the conference: pressure from Zionist groups had caused the mayor of Porto Alegre, initially in support of the Forum, to pull his support and ask that the logo of the mayor’s office be removed from all PR material. This also resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in support, as well as the loss of several locations which would have hosted workshops under the original plan—all this according to Fabinho Bosco, a militant in the hard-left split from the CUT, CSP-Conlutas, who was involved in some of the early stages of the Forum planning process.
This was “a huge hindrance for us and for the life of the WSF,” claims Fabio Bosco, a CSP-Conlutas militant involved in some of the early stages of the Forum planning process. “This pressure from the Zionist groups on the municipality was critical to [not] having a better social forum.” What is more, a couple of months prior, the mayor “went to Israel…and met with the IAI [Israel Aerospace Industries], so there are economic connections that are very strong” which kept Porto Alegre from coming through on its promises. The result was the logistical mess that unfolded before our eyes.
But the general confusion caused by the new layout also managed to cover up some of the more serious failures—such as Leila Khaled of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine being “accidentally” disinvited due to lack of funds, only to be Skyped in at the last minute in a workshop on Gender & Resistance (Khaled released her own statement on the Forum). She was not the only Palestinian delegate who did not make it to the Forum despite many months of preparation.
The obvious frustration, then, is that the movement cannot seriously progress if it is in denial about its own failings. “The first thing you should do,” says Mehdi, “is say, ‘hey folks, these are the political pressures—what can we do?’ Or, ‘hey folks, we applied for $4 million from various sources and ended up getting $200,000’. That should have been made public. And tell the Palestinians: ‘we cannot support so many tickets, this is the budget, how do you suggest we work with that?’ and so on. Nothing of that sort was ever transmitted to anybody.” More than just benign neglect, the resulting picture begins to look like specific forces acting in collusion, contesting who has the right to tell the narrative of Palestinian struggle.
And yet, perhaps in part due to the Social Forum’s own commitment to plurality, a robust counter-narrative ran throughout the Forum and escaped the grasp of the more regressive forces present. In this sense, if we believe that movements cannot progress without an honest appraisal of their failures, then they cannot without an equally honest account of their victories.
Here, they were not necessarily international, but local: Mehdi emphasizes that in almost every case, “most benefits [of the Forum] go to the social movements of the host country.” The Forum, as it were, put Brazil—and BDS in the Global South—on the map: and for many, the sentiment is that the mere fact that it happened, in spite of so much pressure, was a victory. Spanish delegate Jorge Sánchez of RESCOP voiced a sentiment seemingly shared by many delegations with budding BDS campaigns; on the heels of the first national BDS conference held in the Spanish state, Sanchez affirmed that the sense is now that BDS is not “a” strategy, but “the” strategy for international civil society to support the Palestinian cause.
Bosco stresses that the Forum, which escaped the complete control of these regressive forces, was a watershed moment for the movement in Brazil and Latin America. “For the last ten years, almost every social movement has been co-opted in one way or another by the Brazilian administration,” he says. He goes on:
Here in Brazil the fact we have a "left-wing" government is not a guarantee for the social movements. On the contrary, what happened here in Brazil is that…this "left government" in reality…[does] something very strong against working people: they take their leaders and bring them inside the administration. So the movements to resist have much more difficulty and much more confusion. It is more difficult to fight against someone who is "with" you! I myself know many people that are in the administration and they were the leaders of social movements—now they are not, and they are voting for parliamentary laws against working people; they are the ones involved in corruption.
Bosco’s conclusion, then, is that the Forum’s mere existence in spite of these forces—in some cases even allowing room for a truly radical critique—is quite a feat.
What’s more, the gathering has brought out not only the contradictions of the Palestine national movement itself, but has exposed the internal contradictions of progressive, left organizing in Brazil. Where some on the outside see a progressive government in a so-called “pink tide” of Latin American regimes forging an independent, autonomous path from the United States, others have begun to see self-proclaimed “post-neoliberal” governments continuing some of the same policies of their predecessors, including internal wars on their own indigenous populations, a situation that is not unique to Brazil. In the end, these local and international tensions speak to the Forum’s greatest strength: to bring people from across civil society, even those outside of the Forum’s framework, into a dialogue about social transformation. The sea change in the Palestinian liberation struggle and the solidarity movement in the last decade, as well as the larger shifts in the region and in the world, have shown that the world’s grassroots forces are once again making their voices heard.
Still, the Forum is not without its critics. Some come from a place of intimate critique, while others have claimed that its time has passed and even called for the end to the whole process. These critiques are, unfortunately, not new, and have raised uncomfortable questions about the uneven representation the Forum encourages, and whether it does indeed represent a ‘grassroots bloc’ or a global NGO elite. There is even the idea of creating an alternative to the alternative—“a movement forum and not an NGO forum,” as one delegate to the 2009 Forum in Belem, Brazil put it.
It remains to be seen, then, if the next Social Forum gathering in Tunis this March will be a chance to air their concerns, or if ‘the people’ will truly be elsewhere, as some have alleged. PYM’s recent announcement of the Arab Youth Conference for Liberation and Dignity, another Tunis meeting preceding the World Social Forum by many months, could be a litmus test of the relevance what Santos once called, perhaps with not a little bit of arrogance, “the maximum possible consciousness of our time.”
These meetings will only find success, however, if they are pushed by the forces of the movement itself. As the Forum came to a close, Soraia Misleh reflected that this implies “a continuous process of solidarity—not just when the bombs are falling on TV. That’s what BDS is for us.”
[The author attended the World Social Forum-Free Palestine (WSF-FP) 2012 as a non-affiliated member of the US/Canada “Joint Struggle” Delegation, whose recorded workshops can be found here, and which recently published its own reportback here.]
 For an extremely insightful narrative of these early de/anticolonial gatherings and their significance, see Robret J.C. Young’s “From Bandung to the Tricontinental.”
 More details on these subsidies below. However, it is worth pointing out that this was not always the case. The last Forum held in February of this year was the first in 9 years, according to Upside Down World, “for a reason – the Workers´ Party may have controlled national power since 2003, but it lost the mayor of this city in 2004, an office it had controlled since 1989. In 2011, the Workers´ Party returned to the governor office in the state of which Porto Alegre is the capital, and this meant the party could once again dedicate resources and use the platform of Porto Alegre to ally itself with the participatory and horizontal movements that make up the forum”. See “Observations from the World Social Forum in Brazil: The Life and Death of Liberal Democratic Capitalism.”
 This would not be the first Social Forum to face such difficulties: In Senegal in 2011, President Abdoulaye Wade pulled his support by “firing the Rector of the principal university where the Forum was being held, four days before the opening, and installing a new Rector, who promptly reversed the decision of the previous Rector to suspend classes during the WSF so that meeting rooms be available. The result was organizational chaos for at least the first two days. In the end, the new Rector permitted the use of 40 of the more than 170 rooms needed. The organizers imaginatively set up tents across the campus, and the meeting proceeded despite the sabotage.” See “The World Social Forum, Egypt, and Transformation.”