If the sixth World Social Forum (WSF) on 24-29 January 2006 in Caracas were a school test, Brazil’s president Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva would have been dismissed without even having attempted the questions. Here in Venezuela’s capital city, it is clear that Lula has lost the confidence of a public with whom he and his Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party/PT) used to share the dream of a socialist world.
He attributes this to his decision not to attend to his domestic political troubles in Brazil. This is credible enough - Lula has a lot of work to do in 2006 if he is to ensure his re-election in November. It promises to be a dramatic year for the president and his party: the PT, once seen as an oasis of honesty in the Brazilian political scene, has since May 2005 been under fire from the opposition as a result of an ever-growing scandal in which its members are accused of illegal electoral funding and money-laundering.
Activists and authors from five continents debate the global justice movement and its World Social Forums on openDemocracy:
Susan Richards, "The world’s fair" (January 2003)
America Vera-Zevala, "A space of freedom: the Women’s World Forum" (January 2004)
Meenakshe Shedde, "Kodak moments at the World Social Forum" (January 2004)
Caspar Henderson, "The whole world is here - reports from Mumbai" (January 2004)
Susan George, "Another world is possible…if…" (October 2004)
For these and more see our Globalisation / DIY World debate
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But the real reason for Lula’s absence from an event which his party had helped create and maintain is probably connected to the fact that for the first time he may not be the WSF’s main protagonist. Three presidents are in contention to replace Lula as Latin America’s leftist hero: Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Argentina’s Néstor Kirchner and Bolivia’s indigenous activist and socialist Evo Morales, who was inaugurated on 22 January and has yet to prove his intentions. So far, Chávez’s longer experience in power and fiery rhetoric have made him the recipient of popular acclaim and solidarity from many countries.
With the exception of 2004’s meeting in India, Lula has attended all the WSF’s international events since its creation in 2001 and encouraged his supporters with promises of major change in Latin America’s largest country, which they expected to influence other nations in the hemisphere.
But after more than three years of PT rule, significant sections of Brazil’s electorate are disappointed with what they call Lula’s "neoliberal" government, and true to their character, they are willing to protest. If they were teachers, they certainly would send Lula back to his books.
In fact, a noisy Brazilian contingent has already disembarked in Caracas to discuss alternatives to so-called United States imperialism – and their list of complaints includes some of the Lula government’s policies. Among these is the early repayment of International Monetary Fund (IMF) debt, which stands in conflict with Lula’s electoral pledge to use more of the country’s budget for what they consider to be “historical social debts” to education, health services and sanitation.
Meanwhile, Hugo Chávez has voiced many of Latin America’s popular demands, from his rejection of engineered crops to his head-on opposition to United States policy for the region, and resistance to the US-proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Latin American peoples and even governments have talked for centuries about the integration of the region as a means of confronting external powers: Chávez has taken many steps in this direction, including a recent agreement with Evo Morales to exchange Bolivian soya for diesel oil. Bolivia has huge reserves of natural gas and crude oil but no capacity to refine it.
Argentina’s Néstor Kirchner has also made important popular moves. In 2004, he confronted the IMF by suspending payment of external debt, to counter the deep financial and social crisis that Argentina entered in 2001. The nation then suspended the payments of private debt holders, took up $1 billion in public loans with Venezuela and is now registering almost fifty months of continuous growth in formal employment.
Chávez’s major role in Latin America is fuelled by the rise of crude oil prices in the international market, which allows him to practice what his critics call “oil diplomacy”. According to Venezuelan government calculations, a crude oil price of $30 per barrel should offer the country the prospect of financial stability. The international markets have been favourable and kept it between $50-$60 per barrel.
His ability to talk to social movements and NGOs, which Lula used to share, is another advantage. Conscious of their potential to amplify voices in the political arena, Chávez maintains frequent dialogue with organisations such as the Movimiento sim Terra (Landless Movement/MST), one of the PT’s former allies, which has said that his wide programme of agrarian reform makes him the president Brazil truly needs.
In November’s Summit of the Americas, Chávez used his six-hour speech to 40,000 protesters in the city stadium to gain support and declare that “the FTAA is dead”, while objecting in the official Summit, alongside Kirchner and Lula, to US president George W. Bush’s efforts to unlock the negotiations of the FTAA.
While Lula faces difficulty at home, the political landscape beyond is changing. Another upcoming Latin American hopeful, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, recently emerged from his popular mayoralty of Mexico City to run for presidency in Mexico’s July 2006 elections. He too will be a strong candidate to become a new icon for the WSF. Meanwhile what is certain is that Lula may have lost the only chance of his life.
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