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Forum in Brazil calls for world based on new economic rules

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Thirteen months after the violent demonstrations in the streets of Seattle, anti-globalization forces from around the world continued their protests in a far more sophisticated form at the World Social Forum at the Catholic University of Porto Alegre, Brazil, Jan. 25-30.

The dates were chosen to coincide with World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, a gathering of government leaders, financiers and executives of the world’s 1,000 largest transnational corporations to promote globalization of markets.

Participants in the Brazil forum came from all over the world: 4,000 participants from 122 countries, plus 1,700 journalists. Celebrities included Danielle Mitterand, first lady of France; liberation theologians Frei Betto and Leonardo Boff; Ahmed Ben Bella, former president of Algeria and leader of the Algerian liberation movement in France, as well as Mexican political leader Cuautémoc Cárdenas; U.S. professor-dissident Noam Chomsky; Uruguayan poet Eduardo Galeano, and Xavier Cifuentes, a leader of the Colombian FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces).

The mood of Seattle was not entirely absent in Brazil. Jose Bove, the French farmer known internationally for bulldozing a McDonald’s, led 300 of the 4,000 delegates to a Monsanto experimental farm at Naô-Me-Toques, 250 miles northwest of Porto Alegre. There they destroyed five acres of what they described as “illegal genetically modified soy.”

Meanwhile, at the Davos meeting, George Soros engaged in a TV discussion with Hebe de Bona Fini, a founder of Argentina’s Madres de la Plaza de Mayo. It turned into a shouting match.

Bove’s companions in the visit to the Monsanto farm were members of Movimento sem Terra, a major Brazilian organization of landless peasants who invade and occupy arable land held idle by its owners. The police kept a low profile, made no arrests, but later the federal government issued an expulsion order against Bove.

The focus of the meeting, however, was broader than an attack on the globalization agenda. François Houtart and others offered an alternative vision: to use technology not simply to increase profits “but as a means to improve the living conditions of all people everywhere.”

Houtart, a Belgian priest and graduate of Notre Dame, was a major consultor to the bishops of Latin America at Vatican II, and for 50 years head of Louvain University’s Department of Sociology. Houtart insists that tinkering with the dominant economic system (which he calls “real capitalism”), as proposed by the recently resigned International Monetary Fund head Michel Camdessus, among others, is a waste of time.

The system is skilled at adapting, he said. It must be radically replaced, and for that “we must rid ourselves of the idea that no alternative exists.”

Houtart envisages a post-capitalist society created “by reversing the logic of capitalism and then establishing new rules of the economic game.”

The concept of need would replace that of profit. Democratic control would extend not only to politics, but equally to economic activities. Consumption would be a means, not an end.

Of its nature, the project is a long-term one. But Houtart says he sees encouraging signs. He cites the growing consciousness of oppression among hitherto voiceless groups, from the indigenous of Chiapas, Mexico, to the Untouchables of India and women in the Third World. He also sees some negatives: the increasing use of force to maintain order without justice -- the militarization of police forces, the increasing number of jails, the need of “McDonnell Douglas to protect McDonald’s” and of U.S. armed forces in every part of the world “to protect Silicon Valley’s technologies worldwide.”

A closing statement summed up the results in general terms. It called for an alliance to create a new society with a logic different from that promoted at the meeting in Davos -- a logic based, according to the statement, on concentration of wealth, globalization of poverty and destruction of the planet.

The World Social Forum, which will meet annually, sees itself as representing the struggle for a world in which human beings and the well-being of the universe will be the central concern.

Gary MacEoin’s e-mail address is gmaceoin@cs.com

National Catholic Reporter, February 9, 2001