WSF 2003

Confronting the Empire

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We are meeting at a moment of world history that is in many ways unique – a moment that is ominous, but also full of hope. The most powerful state in history has proclaimed, loud and clear, that it intends to rule the world by force, the dimension in which it reigns supreme. Apart from the conventional bow to noble intentions that is the standard (hence meaningless) accompaniment of coercion, its leaders are committed to pursuit of their "imperial ambition," as it is frankly described in the leading journal of the foreign policy establishment – critically, an important matter. They have also declared that they will tolerate no competitors, now or in the future. They evidently believe that the means of violence in their hands are so extraordinary that they can dismiss with contempt anyone who stands in their way. There is good reason to believe that the war with Iraq is intended, in part, to teach the world some lessons about what lies ahead when the empire decides to strike a blow -- though "war" is hardly the proper term, given the array of forces. The doctrine is not entirely new, nor unique to the US, but it has never before been proclaimed with such brazen arrogance – at least not by anyone we would care to remember. I am not going to try to answer the question posed for this meeting: How to confront the empire. The reason is that most of you know the answers as well or better than I do, through your own lives and work. The way to "confront the empire" is to create a different world, one that is not based on violence and subjugation, hate and fear. That is why we are here, and the WSF offers hope that these are not idle dreams. Yesterday I had the rare privilege of seeing some very inspiring work to achieve these goals, at the international gathering of the Via Campesina at a community of the MST, which I think is the most important and exciting popular movement in the world. With constructive local actions such as those of the MST, and international organization of the kind illustrated by the Via Campesina and the WSF, with sympathy and solidarity and mutual aid, there is real hope for a decent future. I have also had some other recent experiences that give a vivid picture of what the world may be like if imperial violence is not limited and dismantled. Last month I was in southeastern Turkey, the scene of some of the worst atrocities of the grisly 1990s, still continuing: just a few hours ago we were informed of renewed atrocities by the army near Diyarbakir, the unofficial capital of the Kurdish regions. Through the 1990s, millions of people were driven out of the devastated countryside, with tens of thousands killed and every imaginable form of barbaric torture. They try to survive in caves outside the walls of Diyarbakir, in condemned buildings in miserable slums in Istanbul, or wherever they can find refuge, barred from returning to their villages despite new legislation that theoretically permits return. 80% of the weapons came from the US. In the year 1997 alone, Clinton sent more arms to Turkey than in the entire Cold War period combined up to the onset of the state terror campaign – called "counterterror" by the perpetrators and their supporters, another convention. Turkey became the leading recipient of US arms as atrocities peaked (apart from Israel-Egypt, a separate category). In 1999, Turkey relinquished this position to Colombia. The reason is that in Turkey, US-backed state terror had largely succeeded, while in Colombia it had not. Colombia had the worst human rights record in the Western hemisphere in the 1990s and was by far the leading recipient of US arms and military training, and now leads the world. It also leads the world by other measures, for example, murder of labor activists: more than half of those killed worldwide in the last decade were in Colombia. Close to ½ million people were driven from their land last year, a new record. The displaced population is now estimated at 2.7 million. Political killings have risen to 20 a day; 5 years ago it was half that. I visited Cauca in southern Colombia, which had the worst human rights record in the country in 2001, quite an achievement. There I listened to hours of testimony by peasants who were driven from their lands by chemical warfare – called "fumigation" under the pretext of a US-run "drug war" that few take seriously and that would be obscene if that were the intent. Their lives and lands are destroyed, children are dying, they suffer from sickness and wounds. Peasant agriculture is based on a rich tradition of knowledge and experience gained over many centuries, in much of the world passed on from mother to daughter. Though a remarkable human achievement, it is very fragile, and can be destroyed forever in a single generation. Also being destroyed is some of the richest biodiversity in the world, similar to neighboring regions of Brazil. Campesinos, indigenous people, Afro-Colombians can join the millions in rotting slums and camps. With the people gone, multinationals can come in to strip the mountains for coal and to extract oil and other resources, and to convert what is left of the land to monocrop agroexport using laboratory-produced seeds in an environment shorn of its treasures and variety. The scenes in Cauca and Southeastern Turkey are very different from the celebrations of the Via Campesina gathering at the MST community. But Turkey and Colombia are inspiring and hopeful in different ways, because of the courage and dedication of people struggling for justice and freedom, confronting the empire where it is killing and destroying. These are some of the signs of the future if "imperial ambition" proceeds on its normal course, now to be accelerated by the grand strategy of global rule by force. None of this is inevitable, and among the good models for ending these crimes are the ones I mentioned: the MST, the Via Campesina, and the WSF. At the WSF, the range of issues and problems under intense discussion is very broad, remarkably so, but I think we can identify two main themes. One is global justice and Life after Capitalism – or to put it more simply, life, because it is not so clear that the human species can survive very long under existing state capitalist institutions. The second theme is related: war and peace, and more specifically, the war in Iraq that Washington and London are desperately seeking to carry out, virtually alone. Let's start with some good news about these basic themes. As you know, there is also a conference of the World Economic Forum going on right now, in Davos. Here in Porto Alegre, the mood is hopeful, vigorous, exciting. In Davos, the New York Times tells us, "the mood has darkened." For the "movers and shakers," it is not "global party time" any more. In fact, the founder of the Forum has conceded defeat: "The power of corporations has completely disappeared," he said. So we have won. There is nothing left for us to do but pick up the pieces -- not only to talk about a vision of the future that is just and humane, but to move on to create it. Of course, we should not let the praise go to our heads. There are still a few difficulties ahead. The main theme of the WEF is "Building Trust." There is a reason for that. The "masters of the universe," as they liked to call themselves in more exuberant days, know that they are in serious trouble. They recently released a poll showing that trust in leaders has severely declined. Only the leaders of NGOs had the trust of a clear majority, followed by UN and spiritual/religious leaders, then leaders of Western Europe and economic managers, below them corporate executives, and well below them, at the bottom, leaders of the US, with about 25% trust. That may well mean virtually no trust: when people are asked whether they trust leaders with power, they usually say "Yes," out of habit. It gets worse. A few days ago a poll in Canada found that over 1/3 of the population regard the US as the greatest threat to world peace. The US ranks more than twice as high as Iraq or North Korea, and far higher than al-Qaeda as well. A poll without careful controls, by Time magazine, found that over 80% of respondents in Europe regarded the US as the greatest threat to world peace, compared with less than 10% for Iraq or North Korea. Even if these numbers are wrong by some substantial factor, they are dramatic. Without going on, the corporate leaders who paid $30,000 to attend the somber meetings in Davos have good reasons to take as their theme: "Building Trust." The coming war with Iraq is undoubtedly contributing to these interesting and important developments. Opposition to the war is completely without historical precedent. In Europe it is so high that Secretary of "Defense" Donald Rumsfeld dismissed Germany and France as just the "°âèØöë
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