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DEVELOPMENT: Globalising Civil Struggle to Deepen Democracy

María Isabel García

CARTAGENA, Colombia, Jun 17 2003 (IPS) - With a call to globalise civil resistance in order to put the brakes on the “hegemony of social fascism”, Portuguese intellectual Boaventura de Sousa Santos inaugurated the third World Social Thematic Forum (WSTF) in Colombia.

This edition of the WSTF, an offshoot of the World Social Forum, has brought 3,500 delegates to this Caribbean city for sessions to last through Friday. The participants are debating issues related to four areas in which Colombia serves as a living laboratory: democracy, human rights, war and drug trafficking.

“We couldn’t have found a better country in which to tackle these issues. It is important to project Colombia internationally as a nation with an active civil society and, at the same time, a country that is violent, traversed by tremendous non-institutional conflicts,” De Sousa Santos told IPS.

The Portuguese professor commented during the opening WSTF conference – as he explained the rise of what he calls social fascism – that after “the creative tension” between capitalism and socialism reached its end in the late 1980s, inequalities deepened, and “the ability of the powerful to make decisions about the lives of the weak” increased.

Faced with this new regime, “which is not political, but social,” the poorest have no option, which means they must organise and resist with creativity, he said.

“We need an alternative theory of alternatives” so that the world is “less comfortable for capitalism” and allows humans to recuperate their dignity, said De Sousa Santos, professor at the universities of Coimbra, in Portugal, and Wisconsin, in the United States.

He addressed an auditorium full of jurists, teachers, mayors, peasant leaders, indigenous activists, unionists, representatives of women’s organisations, of youth groups and of the population displaced by Colombia’s civil war – a crowd that was a manifestation of his calls for greater “tran s-culturality” and “demo-diversity”.

De Sousa Santos urged them to reinvent democracy, combining representative and participatory aspects, just as the communities and officials of the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre have done.

In Porto Alegre, which hosted the first three World Social Forums (2001-2003), budgets for local investment are subject to development plans that are drawn up in a participatory process.

He pointed to the “communities of peace” in San José de Apartadó, in northwest Colombia, where residents opted to take a neutral stance in the war between the leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries who are battling for control of the area along the Panama border.

“In the past few years the initial proposal of the World Social Forum has been validated: that neoliberalism is not the only model, that there is resistance and this can also be globalised,” said the expert, who for the past decade has been a point of reference on the globalisation question.

“Around the world, citizen groups and non-governmental organisations are resisting,” and proof of this is the fact that three World Social Forums have taken place, as well as 20 national and regional forums and three thematic forums, like the one underway in Cartagena.

This meeting is part of the preparation for the fourth World Social Forum (WSF), to take place in January 2004 in the Indian city of Mumbai (formerly Bombay).

But De Sousa Santos noted that the deepening of a radical and global fight for democracy is only possible to the extent that the organisations involved in the WSF movement apply democracy internally and among their peers.

“If participation is the key for developing the globalisation of solidarity, high-intensity democracy is the prerequisite,” he said in comments to IPS.

He also agreed with Pedro Santana, head of ‘Viva la Ciudadanía’, a Colombian group that is a member of the WSF International Council, who argues the need to “re-found the United Nations so that it is of the people and not just of the states.”

In this regard, the Portuguese intellectual said the Mar. 20 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was a direct attack “against the only organisation that, in some way, tries to create a relatively democratic multilateral reality.”

The war and the subsequent occupation “confirm the desire of the United States to reach the zero-degree mark of international law, of respect for conventions and treaties, and aims to impose itself as the hegemonic, unipolar country, without the possibility of international competition.”

This precedent, said De Souza Santos, is “very dangerous” for the world in general, and for the Americas in particular, “because we don’t know if what is occurring in the Middle East might also happen to Latin America.”

He pointed to signs of growing militarisation, which “we see very clearly here in Colombia, (where) right now the government (of Alvaro Uribe) appears to be following a political strategy that has very strong similarities to that of (U.S. President George W.) Bush.”

In Washington and in Bogotá, the aim is to make the fight against terrorism the principal battle, leading to the erosion of social rights, of the social contract, which should be inclusive, not exclusive, he said.

The democracy theme that marked the inauguration of the WSTF cuts across all others on the agenda, because this is a political movement that questions a democracy in which “citizens are kept at a distance from the economic centres and whose minimum rights are not guaranteed,” said Viva la Ciudadanía’s Santana.

The Forum unfolds this week in central conferences on the four themes on the agenda: democracy; war, terrorism, resistance and peace; human rights; and drug trafficking, anti-drug policies, illicit crops and alternative initiatives.

In parallel, panels of experts and “controversy” debates are taking place, offering a broad range of opinions in the search for solutions to the problems outlined during the thematic forum.

Workshops have also been organised as arenas for confronting theory with practice, to advance the transition “from the techno-bureaucracy to the techno-democracy”, through a sort of “ecology of knowledge”, as De Sousa Santos referred to it.

“The state can be an enemy or an ally,” it all depends on the ability to set limits and manage contradictions, he said. “We have to be practical.”

The WSTF is also the scenario for sector-specific international meetings, bringing together environmentalists, unionists, teachers, peasants, Indians and women’s groups from around the world.

A Youth Camp has also been set up, with 600 young people from the different regions of the country making it clear that they are not lacking in activist spirit.

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