• The Social Forums and the Left in Latin America

  • Por Francisco “Chico” Whitaker Ferreira | 20 Apr 10 | Posted under: América Latina , Foros Sociales
  • The question I had been asked by the editors of this publication - “What has been the contribution of the Social Forums to the experiences of the left in Latin America?”- cannot be answered that easily. In order to learn lessons for the political struggle it is not at all sufficient to describe its contributions. One needs to evaluate and situate them in its context.

    Each action has to be seen as linked to many others and as being in combination with a myriad of actions and reactions, and all of them of the same importance.

    Therefore it might be misleadingly triumphal to claim – especially when the focus is only on the most successful Forums – that all political victories of the left in Latin America occurred due to the Forums, and in the same way that the Forums have contributed decisively to what might have happened.


    The number of factors and circumstances

    For example, the election of Lula in 2003. The holding of the World Social Forum 2001 in Porto Alegre doubtlessly contributed a lot this victory. This first edition of the WSF had been held in a moment of flowback of the social movements in Brazil, after three frustrating defeats of the lefts in presidential elections. In this moment it had provided a space for a new gathering of the political left and created new hope by declaims that “another world is possible”. Lula’s victory in the presidential elections of 2002 can of course not be attributed only to those who attended the World Social Forums, although they played a role. But in order to mobilise a majority in society, Lula also had to change his electoral strategy, not only relying on the hope he generated but also on a direction of political realism.

    We might relativise the influence of the Forums even more when we look at the election of Evo Morales in Bolivia in 2005. Were those Bolivian militants who participated in the 2005 Forum with its 150,000 attendants really a pivotal factor for Morales’s victory? 1

    Moreover, when we look at the special case of electoral results, the contribution of the Forums must in a way be limited because parties are prevented from participating since the space of the Forums belongs to civil society. So the effects of the Forums on electoral processes are indirect.

    The same kind of relativisation is required when we deal with other recent left accomplishments in Latin America, as, for example, the suspension of government negotiations over the ALCA (the perverse Commercial Agreement which the USA tried to impose on the continent) in 2005.

    I am not sure in which of the Forums the broad alliance of Latin-American organisations opposing the Agreement was actually formed. Moreover, it is obvious that this resistance finally prevailed because of various factors and circumstances.

    Likewise, many other facts and circumstances were operative when Venezuela proposed the Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (ALBA) – the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America – and the Tratado de Comercio de los Pueblos (TCP) – the Peoples’ Trade Agreement, signed at the end of 2004 as a countermeasure to ALCA, by aiming at the economic unification of those countries resisting North American domination.2


    Diversified realities and different histories

    To evaluate the contribution of Social Forums to the development of the left in Latin America we need to consider the extreme diversity of experiences and realities in this continent.

    In the South of Latin America you find countries like Chile, Argentina and Uruguay, which alienated themselves from the rest of the countries of the continent in the first part of the 20th century. With populations mostly consisting of immigrants of European descent, their economies and life patterns as well as the degree of industrialisation and urban infrastructure,3 they tend to resemble European societies. And although these countries suffered economic and social stagnation during the second half of the 20th century, they sustained their democracies longer than most of the countries in Latin America.

    In most Latin American countries extreme social inequality is the most outstanding and characteristic feature of society. The displacement of rural populations, the development of a capitalist export-orientated agro-industry and other social upheavals during the last 50 years have brought about huge urban agglomerations, the large metropolises4, with, in its slum areas, poor infrastructure, water supply, transportation and sewage.

    On the political level frequent periods of dictatorship hindered the solution of social problems as well as the development of social movements. And globalisation, driven by the interests of capital, increased the concentration of wealth and income.

    However, these analogies in the economic and social spheres negated neither the huge historical and cultural differences of the different countries, nor the specific origins and experiences of their peoples.

    One example of these differences relates to the various impacts of indigenous peoples. There are also countries with a high predominance of their original inhabitants as also others in which they were eliminated during the first centuries of colonisation. At the same time, the indigenous population differs in terms of the levels of civilisation in which they traditionally have lived. Andean peoples had built advanced civilisations, by the time the Europeans arrived and looted their riches, while in Brazil the indigenous cultures were comparatively primitive.

    Furthermore, in some countries populations of African ancestry exist, which derive from slaves brought by the Europeans during the colonial period and even afterwards. In some cases, these communities comprise nearly the whole population, while in other they are minorities.

    A further difference has to do with the colonial past. While Brazil was colonised by the Portuguese, the rest of the continent was conquered by the Spanish.

    Because of the linguistic split, it took until the second decade of the last century for economic relations between Brazil and the other nations to develop.5


    A diversity in the left

    All these elements introduce differences in the left. A certain unifying influence was exerted by Fidel Castro´s Cuba. In the aftermath of the revolution many militant Latin Americans received various kinds of political backing from Cuba, while at the same time a number of governments of the Cono Sur launched a combined repressive police operation against the left, the so-called Operation Condor, which brought about new dictatorships in Argentina, Uruguay and Chile, and fostered the already existing ones in Paraguay and Brazil.

    Although Latin America is a common political space there are important differences, which was also demonstrated by the tragic failure of Che Guevara’s attempt to export the experience of the Cuban revolution to other parts of the continent, without considering the enormous differences between the countries involved.

    It is quite clear that Latin America has to cope with common enemies: first of all the economic and ideological domination of the whole continent by the USA. But here you also find other kinds of differences, caused e.g. by the immediate geographical vicinity of some countries to the USA – like Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. This causes similar problems, as for example the integration of Mexico in the Commercial Agreement with the USA and Canada.6

    We still have not spoken of the differences in the political orientation of governments and of the conditions under which they have been elected. The phenomenon of left presidents in power in a number of countries leads sometimes to a belief that there is a single irresistible wave spreading today throughout Latin America. However, the political conditions in the respective countries remain quite different.7

    In Chile we experienced a complete turn-around in the last elections. In some other countries the left governs in explicit alliance with parties of the political centre and is even based on the right-wing economy – as in Brazil. And in others, like Colombia, the extreme right will even maintain power in the next elections.

    The left has undergone different developments, and it is clear that it is acting in many different ways in the various Latin American countries. Some are opting for armed struggle, like in Colombia8 or the Zapatistas in Mexico.9 There are others opting for the institutional path, like in the “Frente Amplio” in Uruguay, with the recently elected President, José “Pepe” Mujica, who in the past was an important leader of the guerilla organisation “Tupamaros”.10

    We therefore have to qualify the impact of the Social Forums on the left according to time and space. Still, we can identify this impact. Nevertheless, I would relativise the lessons to be learned, because specific experiences may not fit other contexts.

    However, there is one thing which may be of general, let us say, global interest, namely the capacity of the Forums to breed a new political culture, or a new way of doing politics.


    What kind of contribution

    It seems that, in trying to become more effective, the problems of the left are quite similar throughout the world.

    The political struggle of human society for a world in peace, justice, equality and in respect and integration of nature – which is the left’s objective – has undergone some changes in the first decade of the 21st century.

    These changes are under way right now. There is, on the one hand, the frustrations we experienced at the end of the 20th century – in the context of the fall of the Berlin Wall – which led to an enhanced awareness of the necessity of change. On the other hand, the emergence of multiple crises has induced movements of the entire society to transcend capitalism to reach another possible world.

    If the left were capable of finding new ways kinds of activism, new horizons of great victories might open up. However, profound changes are required to overcome the culture and the political methods the left has implemented for more than a century11. Therefore no immediate results should be expected. We should more likely expect, in a long-term perspective, the creation of a new political culture.

    What are in fact the principles of this new political culture? They seem to be based on three reciprocal positions:

    l the willingness to combine our efforts to build the “union” of the left with adequate behaviour and ways of acting;

    l the acceptance of civil society as a new political actor, autonomous in relation to parties and governments, which were until now regarded as the main subjects of political action;

    l the principle, often forgotten in political action, of reflecting collectively before acting.


    The most important contribution of the Social Forum to the political action of the left is stimulating the adoption of these three principles.12.


    Building the “union”

    The dynamics of segregation – as utilised by the ruling classes to maintain power – accompanies the political left in all parts of the world.. The energy and the effectiveness of the left will depend largely on how it can overturn these dynamics. Latin America is no exception. Moreover, there are common practices which need to be “unlearned”, as they are destructive and based on a culture of competition.

    However, in Latin America left parties today find themselves in a period of expansion. Even in this situation they must not neglect the promotion of new emancipatory practices and of an active citizenship. The organisation and mobilisation of indigenous peoples on the continent, as well as of the immense majority of the poor, must not be impeded by the traditional rivalries between left organisations. It is therefore important to adopt new political practices based on a culture of cooperation as the only way to build “union”.

    This “union” is without doubt more than “unity”. The term “unity” carries in itself the idea of disciplinary action, based on the obedience to a certain orientation, whether adopted democratically or implemented in an authoritarian way. The “union” requires something more profound, more sustainable, than the usual tactical or even strategic agreements. It needs another kind of thinking and construction, based on an attitude which only a few may adopt: be ready to listen.

    To listen is a skill which has to be developed, since we all are shaped by competition and authority, inherited from colonialism with its spirit of domination. Our good democratic principles of deciding by majority encourages us to present our arguments in a combative manner rather than to convince the by than listening to them.

    The process of the Word Social Forums offers the opportunity to try new kinds of discussion and decision-making, for example, by applying the principle of consensus. This principle obliges us to identify the truth in what is said by the other, to be combined with our truth and build a new third truth acceptable for everyone.

    One natural consequence of this practice is the respect for heterogeneity. But it goes much farther than that. Decision-making by consensus demands communication on an equal footing without authoritarian arguments. In the meetings organised within the process of the World Social Forum nobody may be more important than others. Therefore, the WSF does not provide chairpersons or speakers. In the same way, there cannot be activities superior to others: these activities are proposed by the participants themselves and there is no hierarchy in the programme of the meeting.

    These principles are in contrast to pyramidal structures of organisation – a fertile soil for authoritarian attitudes and the abuse of power – which we are accustomed to see in governments, trade unions and even disciplined social movements. Behind these horizontal structures you can find the culture of networks, in which everyone is co-responsible and where decisions are made by conviction and not by receiving orders, as can happen when seeking “unity”.

    In the culture of networks you will not find any concentrated or hierarchical power, but the attribution of functions according to the needs of everyone. In the “open spaces” realised in the Social Forums there is no room for power struggles as there are no final documents expressing majoritarian positions.13

    The method applied in the meetings of the WSF endeavours to create basic conditions for the building of a union, while other political goals are recuperated.


    The acceptance of civil society as an autonomous political actor

    The second principle of the new political culture introduced by the Forums is the abolition of the idea that parties and governments are the only political actors. For several reasons, this change in political action seems to be more difficult in Latin America.

    The fragmentation of civil society and its consequent fragility as a social organisation seems to be, on the one hand, quite evident, although civil society here appears to be less weak than in other continents like Africa.

    However, any cultural change passes through concrete experimentation in the autonomous mobilisation of civil society. The expulsion of various presidents from office by the pressure of people in the streets, not necessarily led by parties, created self-confidence. But in fact there is still a long way to discover what civil society can accomplish by its autonomous actions when millions of citizens, working people and consumers rally and act collectively.

    In many countries the political parties recently underwent a process of re-democratisation which was recognised enthusiastically by the populations and led to great electoral victories.

    In contrast to the situation in, for instance, Europe, where parties are experiencing a big crisis of representativity and effectiveness, pushing society to act for itself, in Latin America parties are still considered to be central to political life.

    Contrary to the fragmentation of civil society as one of the major weaknesses, the network organisations and the respect for diversity create conditions within the experience of the Social Forums, where they become the great actors we need all over the world. Many of the mobilisations show this horizontal relationship among its participants. The two outstanding moments were the protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle in 1999 (already before the first World Social Forum) and in 2003 against the invasion of Iraq and for peace.

    The characteristic of the World Social Forum process was to create conditions for responding to the long-standing necessity of “no acting without reflecting”. A social movement which does not open spaces for reflection is condemned to disappear.

    But the WSF offers in fact the opportunity of going one step further: that each person and each organisation not undertake this reflection in isolation, in its own territory, but in the most collective way possible, exchanging analyses and evaluations.

    The way then of organising this joint reflection comprises the circle of three principles for a new political culture in search for the union.

    In fact, the horizontal structures, the respect of diversity, the activities proposed by the participants themselves, the exercise of decisions by consensus and network relations, the undertaking of joint reflection create the possibility of mutual understanding and the overcoming of prejudices and misconceptions, which break down instead of gain more force.

    This WSF process has resulted in new alliances, which formerly would have been inconceivable.

    Apart from being a place for reflection, the WSF meetings also constitute instruments for coming together. And they create, as spaces of civil society, conditions for its different organisations to connect themselves to common actions, overcoming their fragmentation and respecting each other’s diversity.



    The Social Forums may contribute much to the left in Latin America, where they are given a chance to participate in building a new political culture of the continent. This might be decisive to achieve a future we long for, in Latin America and in the entire world.




    1) One out of five presidents present at the 2009 Forum in Belém (Brazil), Evo Morales, attributed his election to the mobilisation of the Forums. But it seems clear that there are other social and historic elements more decisive than the influence of the Forum in Brazil. These election results – as well as the left initiatives making them possible – depend on circumstances way ahead of what Forums can contribute. Its value has always to be seen relatively, as there are a number of factors.

    2) It is significant that in 1992, when Mexico had declared its accession to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), this already contained some of the worst clauses of the ALCA. The Agreement, signed in 1988 by the USA and Canada, came into effect in 1994, thus showing how much time it took.

    3) The urban underground transportation system of Buenos Aires already existed in the 1920s.

    4) The capital of Mexico and São Pãulo in Brazil are among the largest cities of the world.

    5) Even the Brazilian left has “discovered” its Latin American brothers by force of political events, when the former Chilean democracy of Allende (later overthrown by a military coup) became the asylum and refuge for persecuted Brazilian militants, at the same time as military dictatorships were installed in Argentina and Uruguay.

    6) In order to refute the argument of proximity, Chile was associated to the Agreement, although belonging to the very south of the continent

    7) The difference of the situation might be clear, when we compare for example Argentina, with Paraguay, Bolivia and Ecuador.

    8) In the meanwhile, there is an increasing number of persons who consider today´s Colombian guerrillas barely leftist.

    9) Armed struggle is meanwhile quite contested by the Zapatistas themselves, opening perspectives towards new ways of political action.

    10) The Tupamaros had been a well-known urban guerrilla organisation, much admired by Latin American leftists of the 1960s and 70s.

    11) After the initial process of 2001 an experienced French politician said in a small local Social Forum in his country, that the Social Forums make us “learn to unlearn”, as cited in the book I wrote in 2005 about the World Social Forum. This indicates a double goal: we have to free ourselves from what we have until now thought to be the best political activism and learn other, sometimes even opposing, forms.

    12) If in other times we were dreaming of an uprising of one, two, a hundred other Vietnams, as proposed by Che, we nowadays have to raise consciously – in a more prosaic than heroic way – one, two, hundreds of meeting places to form a new political culture. That’s life!

    13) The absence of struggles of competition, as experimented in the Social Forums, mark a new political culture: its environment seems happier and to have more mutual trust than in normal political meetings, with its tensions, confabulations, victories to commemorate, frustrations of defeated minorities tending to auto-exclusion and boycott, thus destroying the “union” and weakening the whole.

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