Anyone who thinks the left is monolithic should come to the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Tens of thousands of activists, politicians, and even bureaucrats are here from all over Latin America and Europe. There are also almost 500 from Canada, most from Quebec.

It’s a bit chaotic – as any conference of approximately 50,000 people would be. The translation equipment doesn’t work very well and the sessions are packed. You have to stand in line for everything except, remarkably, the bathroom. The halls in the university where most sessions take place are crowded and noisy. Every so often, a chant emerges from the general chaos. People were surprised to meet participants from as far away as Canada.

The media centre has 150 computers. They are all being used. The Workers Party of Brazil leads in the national polls, and governs in hundreds of cities and some states, so the left is news.

At this conference in Porto Alegre, the workshops alone take up thirty-seven pages of a tabloid-size program — and that’s just in English. The youth camp has 10,000 people camping out. With so much going on, it is hard to get an impression of everything that’s happening.

Thursday, the conference kicked off with a march that brought out an estimated 25,000 people. It highlighted the fact that Brazil is one of the few places in the world where racial integration is quite real. Flags were everywhere. I’d never seen so much red before. The most common image was of Che Guevara. T-shirts, banners and buttons featuring the revolutionary were everywhere.

Argentinians were the most lively participants — they’ve had lots of practice of late. Their contingent — all of whom were banging pots and pans or making noise with something else — was mostly made up of women. One group did a little dance where they walked one step forward, turned around and took two steps back. The chant was, “Governments are all the same, one step forward, they turn around, and two steps back.”

Billboards denouncing neo-liberalism were everywhere in this socialist city. All along the march’s route, people hung banners from their windows and balconies in support. Banners dropped from overpasses were greeted with chants of support. Even the police were helpful.

The demo finished, as does every day, with a big party in a park.

Here is a sampling of the seminars held on Friday:

  • The first one, on trade, had the usual travelling road show of anti-free trade activists, such as Lori Wallach from Public Citizen U.S.A and Martin Khor of the Third World Network. There must have been 2,000 people in the room. Khor was particularly eloquent. The focus was the catastrophe that would befall the people of the world if the World Trade Organization extends its mandate even further. The good news is that countries in the south are still resisting this expansion, despite what our newspapers say. Curiously given the racial diversity of the conference, most of this audience was white.
  • The other was a discussion of foreign debt. Here, the audience was made up primarily from people of colour. Many were part of the massive Landless Movement in this country. Every speech was applauded, then welcomed with a chant. The topic centred on the need for socialism. The speakers were from Brazil, Argentina and Europe.
  • At a later workshop on participatory democracy, almost everyone was either French or Italian. Many were municipal officials who were trying to implement some form of the Porto Alegre participatory budget in their own cities and towns.

But, as with any conference, the most interesting things happened away from the meetings. At lunch, Eloisa Helena Primavera described the Solidarity Barter Network in Argentina, for which she is a key organizer. At least 2.5-million people are now using what they call social currency in a highly sophisticated system of bartering that started seven years ago. As a result of some TV coverage, what began with twenty-three people is now spreading across Latin America.

Hundreds of people approached the small group to organize a barter system in other communities. The founders developed a six-hour training program that explained how to use social currency, and the importance of spending it rather than hoarding it. Each Solidarity Barter Club is autonomous and sets up its own rules, with a market where people buy and sell their goods. In some cities now, the government accepts social currency as payment for taxes, and redistributes it through the welfare system to poor people.

“What they like the best,” says Primavera “is the markets. In the thirty-storey building where I live, I don’t know anyone, but in my club I know them all, really well.” There will be a lot of talk of alternatives like this as the conference continues.

Judy Rebick

Judy Rebick

Judy Rebick is one of Canada’s best-known feminists. She was the founding publisher of , wrote our advice column and was co-host of one of our first podcasts called Reel Women....