Maureen Heffern-Ponicki switched back to English as the workshop participants filed out of the classroom.
She and several of her other colleagues from the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) had been speaking in Spanish or Portuguese for most of the past few hours.
The anti-militarism workshop they helped present included participants from Cuba, Colombia and Brazil.
Heffern-Ponicki welcomed their presence.
“It’s actually nice to be at an event at which there aren’t too many Americans,” she said.
“You get to hear viewpoints from other people.
We don’t wind up dominating everything.”
The event in question was the 2003 World Social Forum, which ran Jan. 23-28 in Porto Alegre, Brazil.
Its organizers conceived the forum as an open meeting space for “civic groups opposed to globalization and capitalist hegemony.”
Over 100,000 delegates from 150 countries gathered for the event. For five days Porto Alegre hosted 1,700 workshops, conferences and demonstrations on topics ranging from the international debt crisis to the looming war in Iraq.
Maureen Heffern-Ponicki was one of 2,000 Americans present at the forum, as well as one of several Philadelphians representing the AFSC.
Brazilians and other Latin Americans made up the largest national contingents, while Europe, Asia and Africa were also well represented.
Iraqi, Israeli and Palestinian peace activists stole the show at several events.
The workshop on anti-militarism was one of several sponsored by the AFSC, and focused chiefly on how U.S. military policy impacted the lives of people in countries like Angola and Colombia.
AFSC delegates were pleased with the response.
“I feel great about being able to reach a lot of people,” said Natalia Cordona, who has been working to raise awareness on how America’s war on drugs has impacted the lives of Latin Americans.
“Colombia is a big issue to many of the people here.”
While the workshop didn’t include a specific discussion on Iraq, AFSC distributed literature calling for people to oppose the economic sanctions and military action against Iraq.
AFSC delegates admitted that the crisis with Iraq had shaped the tone of 2003 World Social Forum.
“I wasn’t in Brazil for the 2002 World Social Forum,” said Heffern-Ponicki, whose primary duties with the AFSC involve free trade issues.
“But some of the other delegates were here last year.
They said that most of last year’s activities were on globalization.
But I think that there are a lot more anti-militarism activities this year.”
In fact, the looming war with Iraq threatened to overwhelm every other issue at the forum.
Each day was marked by protests against a possible war, with tens of thousands of delegates bearing signs that read”No to War!” and “No Blood for Oil!” in Portuguese, Spanish, English and Arabic.
Billboards and posters throughout Porto Alegre denounced the United States as a “pirate state” and displayed caricatures of President George W. Bush with a Hitler moustache.
At the forum’s closing march on Jan. 27, one South Korean peace delegate carried a sign that read, “Bush, Cheney, Powell = Axis of Liars.”
Some Philadelphia delegates found these displays discouraging.
“It’s a little disheartening to see so much anti-American sentiment,” said Lincoln Ellis, a senior from the University of Pennsylvania.
However, Ellis welcomed that sentiment as a wake-up call for the United States.
“On the other hand, it’s probably good for us to see that we need to work harder to change some of our government’s policies,” he said.
Heffern-Ponicki shrugged it off.
“I think we deserve it,” she said in an interview after the forum was over
Heffern-Ponicki was more disappointed about the lack of American press coverage for the event.
Of the 4,000 journalists who covered the 2003 World Social Forum, only a handful came from the United States.
Most of the large American mainstream periodicals did not attend the forum.
“It’s very sad,” she said.
“What about journalistic integrity? How can you ignore an event in which 100,000 people come together for a forum on globalization? And how will Americans ever learn of these issues if they don’t read about them?”
Jerome Montes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.