February 07, 2002
Boston Globe, February 7, 2002
Knight-Ridder/Tribune Information Services, February 4, 2002
Modesto Bee (Modesto, CA), February 11, 2002
PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil — Bankers and billionaires, their hangers-on and friends in government now have some serious competition when they gather — as they did this past weekend in New York City — for their annual World Economic Forum. The shadow forum down South is less exclusive — nobody pays $25,000 to get in to the World Social Forum, and you don’t need an invitation. But the 70,000 people who flocked to this waterfront Brazilian city of 1.2 million from every corner of the globe were greeted by an appealing theme: “Another World is Possible.”
It is common to dismiss such thinking as naive or utopian at best, or driven by ideology rather than practicality. The hard-headed CEO’s, IMF disciplinarians, and associated politicians at the WEF are seen as pragmatic leaders, even visionaries, who are willing to make the “tough choices” and compromises necessary to achieve progress in the real world.
But perhaps the conventional wisdom has it backwards. Here in Porto Alegre, the Workers’ Party — a major participant in the World Social Forum — has run the city government for 12 years. They win by large majorities because they have proven that the left can govern: they cleaned up corruption and waste, instituting a participatory budget process that is a model of transparency and democratic process.
The city has seen falling crime rates, improved health and education, and a noticeably more equal distribution of income than other Brazilian cities. For the last two years the Workers’ Party has also held the governorship of the state (Rio Grande do Sul).
Of course there is still poverty — this is Brazil, a middle-income country with the worst inequality in the world. But just an hour by bus from Porto Alegre, you will find people who have a sensible solution, and are putting it into practice. Sidnei dos Santos, a farmer and organizer with the MST (Movement of the Landless), explains to a group of about 80 visitors from the WSF how the Capela co-operative is run.
One hundred families farm these 5400 acres together and share the proceeds of this verdant, fertile land. Nobody gets rich, but no one goes hungry — as do millions of other Brazilians who remain landless and unemployed. The MST farmers look strong and healthy, with dignity and pride and a missionary’s zeal for the righteousness of their cause. They feed their visitors fresh meat, and vegetables and fruit (grown without pesticides), and seem genuinely moved by the warmth and solidarity that the conferees bring from afar.
The MST is the largest and most successful land reform movement in the world, having settled 300,000 families on millions of acres of land. In a country with vast amounts of unused arable land, and millions of hungry, landless peasants, what could make more sense?
But land reform is not on the agenda of the World Economic Forum, nor are these leaders impressed with the Workers’ Party as an alternative to the rampant corruption of their friends in government throughout Latin America. They have their own formula for the progress of humanity: open your country to foreign trade and investment, privatize everything that can be taken out of the public sector, and swallow the IMF’s bitter prescription of austerity when — because of skittish foreign investors or other external circumstances beyond your control — your economy ends up in crisis.
Argentina is the latest casualty of this dogma, which is considered “economically correct” in WEF circles. For 20 years these people have used their economic muscle, and a creditors’ cartel headed by the IMF, to make the world conform to their textbooks. The result has been the most widespread economic failure since the Great Depression.
During the last two decades (1980-2000), the world’s low and middle-income countries have seen their income per person grow at less than half the rate of the previous 20 years (1960-1980). Even ignoring the distribution of income, which has worsened in many countries, there just hasn’t been much that could potentially “trickle down” to the poor. Yet our leaders cling to their sacred texts; at this moment they are still trying to pry open the jaws of Argentina to pour more of the hated austerity medicine down its throat.
Who are the stubborn ideologues, and who are the pragmatists? Who is offering practical alternatives to the madness of a world that has more than enough food and resources for everyone, but where 800 million people are malnourished, and tens of millions die each year from hunger and easily preventable diseases? These are the questions that American journalists should be asking.