Small steps forward

Vittorio Agnoletto is the only official representative of the Italian left on the international council of the World Social Forum. He is neither a member of Rifondazione Comunista nor the Democratic Left, but has been chosen as the Italian representative, "because I have been around the left since the 1970s and I think I can speak with people from very different backgrounds". The international council was set up after the first WSF in January 2001 in Brazil and has taken the lead in establishing regional offshoots like the European Social Forum. Its latest meeting took place on January 21-22 in Porto Alegre. Its composition is a little arbitrary, to say the least. The secretariat of the IC consists of eight Brazilian comrades who have taken it upon themselves to appoint 68 further council members. None of the 76 have been elected at any time. Nor are they accountable to anybody.

Vittorio, do you share Naomi Klein's criticism that this year's World Social Forum was "hijacked" by big name politicians? Naomi is a very good writer and journalists, but "¦ let me put it this way: I think it is very important that people in Porto Alegre discussed the political issues of the day. Chavez did not speak directly in the social forum: he spoke in a palace of the government of Porto Alegre. But of course he chose the time of the WSF to visit the city, so it was not really a coincidence. It is important that people discuss Chavez's politics and problems, but also be aware of the situation in Venezuela. We have to understand that the right is mobilising against the government. Lula not only spoke at a big meeting; he also met with the international council, which again took place outside the WSF in a hotel. We agreed that it is very important for the social forum to keep its autonomy and not be used by his government. For example, when we had a left-centre government in Italy, a lot of the left tried to avoid fights with the government and they kept quiet about a lot of things. It is of course useful to listen to such apparent leftwing leaders. But we have to be clear about criticising them as well, when they deserve criticism. You even had a session with an official representative of the UN in a 'round-table debate', didn't you? I liked the controversy. It worked very well. I debated with Nitin Desai, an adviser to Kofi Annan, the general secretary of the UN. I think the movement and our ideas are strong enough to invite our counterparts. These people are not able to pacify us or win us over. We have grown up a lot since 2001 - it is not so easy to impress us now. Now we are able to debate with them and we are able to win such debates. This is very important for our future, that we can openly challenge those people. But what was again very much missing was participation from the audience. People should always be able to ask questions or to make comments. Sometimes there was too much talk just from the top table. What about the obvious contradiction then that political parties are still officially banned? You said in an interview with the Weekly Worker that this is something you would challenge on the international council (September 12 2002). I think now that it will be very difficult to change the 'Charter of principles'. I believe that for the time being we must keep the current structure, where each regional forum can discuss how they want to engage with political parties. There are a lot of worries about parties among many people in the WSF. I also believe now that we will be opening a Pandora's box if we allow in political parties - where will it end? I think it is better if local and regional forums, who know the parties in their area, decide. But why can we not openly challenge those parties when they come to our meetings? Would that not be preferable to those parties taking part anyway but hiding behind various disguises? We must choose our fights wisely, I believe. In the ESF, we are dealing with a French organising committee, which is not keen on the idea of political parties taking part at all. At this stage we must try to convince them that we adopt the same formula we had at last year's ESF: parties are allowed to take part, but they are limited to organising workshops. Individual members of parties should again be allowed to speak from some platforms. Political parties are part of many national movements and we cannot and should not try to keep them out. Another issue we discussed back in September was the undemocratic nature of the international council of the WSF. Were you able to make any progress in that respect? At the meeting on January 21-22, we decided that the secretary of the international council must be different from the secretary of the World Social Forum. At the moment they are the same people, all of them Brazilians. We also discussed how to strengthen the regional and thematic forums and how those forums could be represented on the international council. A committee of four people has been delegated to draw up proposals on how to elect a new council, which will have to become something like a 'continental secretariat', because we will have one or two representatives from each continent on it. The main point is that we need to organise in a more democratic way. Comrades from the European Social Forum were also very successful in putting the fight against war at the centre of the WSF. We argued that the battle against the war is part of the battle against neoliberalism. This sounds like common sense, but only two years ago there were social movements involved in the European Social Forum who were not against the war in the Balkans. The Europeans were also able to win agreement that the theme of the big January 27 demonstration should be anti-war. This was definitely achieved as a result of the ESF being such a success. Still, the WSF has not officially supported the anti-war protests across the world on February 15. Do you think the 'network of social movements' that was set up in Porto Alegre will change that? In my opinion this network might be a way to solve, at least partially, the problem we have in the WSF, because the 'Charter of principles' demands that we can only discuss and not decide anything. We can talk and talk, but at some stage we also need to arrive at decisions and we must organise in order to fight back. By having this network, we can finally begin to decide on some joint activities. These two organisations are working together - they are linked - but they are also different. Inside the WSF we discuss, but inside the network we decide upon common action. All of this is happening very slowly. We have delegated a small group of Brazilian comrades who will act as a 'facilitating committee' until we meet again at the G8 protest in Evian in June and the anti-WTO protests in Cancun, Mexico in September. In Cancun we will hopefully decide how we can elect a working secretary. That seems like establishing a rival WSF. Do you not think that the WSF should start to organise international activities? I am not very hopeful about that. However, one thing has changed. Future WSFs will no longer take place simultaneously with the World Economic Forum, as they have done in previous years. From now on, we will have the WSF in January, irrespective of whether the capitalists are meeting as well. But when they do meet, the WSF will organise demonstrations against neoliberalism in all countries of the world. That is a step forward.