Leftists are pouring into town to rail against freewheeling capitalism during the World Social Forum, gleefully cheering the humbling of bankers and business titans by the global economic meltdown.
At the opening of the five-day event, some 25,000 activists paraded exuberantly through Porto Alegre on Monday, serenaded by the pounding of drums and salsa blared from sound trucks as they waved communist flags and shouted slogans against corporate greed.
The 10-year-old conference is the left's counter to the World Economic Forum at Davos, a Swiss ski resort where presidents, corporate leaders and others gather annually to discuss international issues. It is also being held this week.
Gustavo de Biase, a 22-year-old Brazilian wearing a shirt proclaiming "Socialism is Liberty," said the world's leftists are convinced they can get presidents from the U.S. to Brazil to embrace policies "of respect and equality aimed at lifting the poor out of misery."
"We want to distribute the riches to people," he said. "We're fighting for a more equal society and we're saying 'Down with hunger' and 'Down with war.'"
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva planned to address the social forum's masses Tuesday night in a soccer stadium. Media reports said he would focus on how Brazil has managed to lift millions from poverty as the country embraces an unprecedented boom that has given huge benefits to business and foreign investors.
Some participants said they like Silva's personality and respect him for rising to fame as a union leader even though he never graduated from high school. But they argued he did too much for corporations and banks during his terms in office that end this year.
The World Social Forum draws people with a wide range of causes, from demanding total state control of nations' petroleum reserves to seeking environmental preservation and animal rights.
Activists said this year's forum is especially important because governments from the United States to Europe are moving to take on bigger roles in managing the global economy.
The World Economic Forum that begins Wednesday in Davos is expected to see fewer leaders than in years past. U.S. President Barack Obama's plan to clamp down on the size and activity of banks is sure to be on the minds of many of the rich and powerful heading to Switzerland.
"They have driven the capitalist system into chaos," said Sergio Bernardo, a Brazilian human rights activist sporting a bright red shirt emblazoned with the words "Bourgeoisie Stinks!" "We're letting them know we can create a world free of exploitation that will help the poor."
Lingering fallout from the financial crisis is proof that the world economy must be retooled to benefit people, not big companies, said Francisco Whitaker, a Roman Catholic activist who helped found the World Social Forum.
He said that last year's Davos conference was similar to a "wake" and that the lackluster turnout expected this year "gives the impression that capitalism is on the downfall and hitting its limits."
Leftists are increasingly energized by the prospect of persuading governments to tackle corporate excess and spread more wealth to the needy, he said.
"We're in the midst of true enthusiasm," Whitaker said. "We may not change the world completely and all at once, but the change now can come from the bottom and spread. It's surging and getting toward a critical mass."
The World Social Forum serves as a platform for leftists to exchange ideas, though no proposals are formed following days of debate. Instead, participants are expected to take strategies back to their home countries and push for change locally.
While the economic crisis provided a perfect platform for advancing leftist movements, many failed to grasp the opportunity when the slump was at its worst, said Nandita Shah, co-director of India's Akshara Centre, which supports women's rights.
"I think there's a crisis in the left and in our voice," she said. "I hope these five days will bring us out of this visionless tunnel."
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