ASUNCION, Paraguay - It was an historic moment for Latin America, and perhaps for the world: A former guerilla, a former priest and a former coca grower, now presidents of their respective countries, stood together and addressed the continent's largest assembly of social organizations.
Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo, a former Catholic bishop whose election on April 20, 2008, signaled the end of a six-decade dictatorship, welcomed the Social Forum of the Americas to his country as a much-needed show of international support for his country's fragile democracy. In addition to battling his own right-wing legislature, judiciary and mass media, the country's first progressive president just last week began chemotherapy treatments for a newly diagnosed case of lymphoma. In perhaps the most emotional discourse of the entire forum, Lugo spoke from his heart.
"This privileged social forum is one of the lights we can raise like a torch to light the road to change in Latin America," he said. "For the Paraguayan people, this is a sincere show of brotherhood ...your presence is the force that will sustain us for the irreversible road to change in Paraguay."
Bolivian President Evo Morales, risen from the ranks of indigenous organizers and coca growers, called the moment a sign of the times. "Never in the '80s or the '90s would you have seen a president at any of these events - and now we are here to receive your solutions, to convert them into programs and projects to liberate our people."
The relationship between the forum and the progressive governments of the South has been a reciprocal one, with presidents from Venezuela's Hugo Chavez to Brazil's Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva have used it to burnish their images with social movements. The World Social Forum was launched in 2001 in the neighboring country of Brazil as a counterpoint to the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and as a meeting place and incubator for social movements across the globe under the theme, "Another World is Possible."
Over the years the annual event has drawn upwards of 100,000 participants and has become so unwieldy that some have dismissed it as little more than a feel-good talk session or a left-wing carnival. But to many here, the social forum has become a force to be reckoned with, and indeed, a current that has nurtured and informed the continent's leftward shift over the past decade.
"Critics have said all along that the forum is just a gabfest," said Marc Becker, longtime forum observer and Latin American historian. "But there's no doubt in my mind that it's fundamentally shifted the discourse from neoliberalism and the Washington consensus to an environment that has permitted the rise of the leftist governments we have today."
Since its inception, the WSF has spun off numerous regional and thematic versions. This week's gathering, launched Aug. 11 and running through Sunday (Aug. 15), was the fourth hemispheric gathering, and it drew more than 10,000 from all over the Americas and beyond. Its slogan, "Nuestra America está en camino" (Our America is on its way), reflected the optimistic view that significant progress has been made toward achieving that other possible world.
This year's themes were many and diverse, ranging from climate change and food sovereignty to the impacts of an increasingly industrialized agriculture and the growing number and strength of U.S. military bases throughout the continent.
Whether the forum will manage to shift the debate at the global level remains to be seen, but there's little doubt that it has had significant impact at the regional and certainly at the local level, and within the movements themselves.
Peruvian anti-mining activist Lourdes Huanca actually credits the connections she made at the forum with saving her life and that of other activists during a violent confrontation with the Peruvian government.
"We sent out an e-mail to the contacts we had made saying, 'Help, they are killing us!'" she said. Via Campesina, a global peasant organization, sent a representative and others responded by putting pressure on the government, and the situation was resolved, she said.
Groups as diverse as the Via Campesina and the Latin American Network of Women Transforming the Economy (REMTE, by its Spanish acronym), some of whose feminist leaders hold multiple academic degrees, come together across borders to strategize on their own issues, and reach out to learn about the struggles of other groups, as well.
Sonia Alvarez of the University of Massachusetts attributes the forum with giving women a much more prominent voice within social movements in the South; Gina Vargas, a fellow member of the Network, agreed.
"When Via Campesina first began having a presence here, the men would say, 'Here we'll have our meetings, and there the women will do their cooking,'" said Vargas. "We said, 'Wait a minute!'"
As the Via Campesina women began to interact with strong women leaders, the power balance began to shift. This year, one of the most dynamic speakers from the central stage was Magui Balbuena, a campesina leader from Paraguay.
Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchu, who was received with perhaps even more excitement than any of the presidents, joined a panel defining the concept of "buen vivir," or living well - a counterpoint promoted by the new Latin American left as a counterpoint to the individualist striving for the better life promoted by industrialist societies, a striving that speakers said impoverishes the planet through mindless consumerism.
"Our elders taught us that what we can take with our hands is ours; what doesn't fit is for someone else. It's selfishness that caused us to take the rest and put it in a bag for ourselves - and that selfishness is destroying the world," she said.
One area in which the forum has the potential for a greater global impact is in the area of climate change. Groups preparing for the upcoming climate talks in Cancun, a follow-up to Copenhagen, have been working behind the scenes since April's WSF-styled People's Climate Summit in Cochabamba to further the development of an International Court for Climate Justice. Their sessions laid the groundwork for a multifaceted approach in Cancun.
Back in Paraguay, it's hard to measure the impact on local social movements, but farmer Braulio Anibal Avalos provided a little insight when he stopped me on the stairs after a workshop to tell me how excited he was.
"This forum has completely changed my way of looking at the world," said Avalos, whose family has been involved since before his birth in a fight to reclaim their cooperative's land after it was seized by the Paraguayan government for supposed subversive activity.
Paraguay's difficult past - first, a war with neighboring countries in which it lost more than half its territory, followed by the dictatorship - has made Paraguayans insular and isolated, he said.
"I've always been extremely nationalist because of our history," he said. "But today, as I look around and discover the thousands of people from other countries who are struggling for a better world, I realize the fight is not just ours. I realize we are not alone."
Tracy L. Barnett, www.tracybarnettonline.com, is an independent journalist and the founder of The Esperanza Project, www.TheEsperanzaProject.org, a bilingual new media initiative. She is currently traveling through Latin America, reporting on environmental issues for the site and for an upcoming book.