For a lifetime's dedicated work for social justice that has strengthened democracy in Brazil and helped give birth to the World Social Forum, showing that 'another world is possible'.
Francisco ‘Chico’ Whitaker Ferreira is a Roman Catholic activist who has worked for democracy and against corruption throughout his life, both at home and in exile. After 15 years abroad, he was one of the main activists in organising the popular participation process during the drafting of the Brazilian constitution.
Whitaker was twice elected as local councillor in São Paulo for the Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT) until he left the position to return to work with civil society and later left the party. He has also participated in the Movement against Electoral Corruption’s collection of signatures for a new bill of popular initiative aiming to impede the candidacy of people convicted by the justice system. He is one of the key people behind the burgeoning World Social Forum.
In the last century, Brazil has lived two long periods of dictatorship: from 1930 to 1945 and 1964 to 1980. Each time democracy is back, people must re-learn how it functions, Whitaker says. "Many distortions remain, and people take a good bit of time to believe in the possibility of solving our problems through the democratic institutions. Democratisation is not only guaranteeing political rights and elections but especially the right for all to live with dignity. Nearly half of the Brazilians are still half-citizens: the Constitution guarantees to them all these rights, but they don't even know they have these rights". Brazil is among the most unequal countries on the continent.
Early career and exile
Chico Whitaker left architecture school to research the standard of living of the inhabitants of São Paulo at the Research Institute SAGMACS. Whitaker joined the Planning Office of the State Government of São Paulo and became, in 1963, the director of planning for the Federal Government's Land Reform Superintendence, SUPRA. He left this function with the military coup in 1964, joining the opposition to the regime. During 1965-66 he could still work in Brazil as a planning advisor of the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops (CNBB). But at the end of 1966, the military forced him into exile with his wife Stella and their four children.
During 15 years abroad, Whitaker initially lived in France, where he worked as a teacher in the training of Third World public servants, as a researcher and as a UNESCO consultant. For four years, he also worked in Chile for the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and lived there during the overthrow of Allende. When returning to France after his stay in Chile, he coordinated during six years the "International Study Days for a Society overcoming Domination" in Paris, launched by the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops, with the support of four other Bishops' Conferences and the International Commission of Jurists. This project facilitated the exchange of experiences among people fighting in 100 countries against all types of oppression.
Work for democracy and against corruption in Brazil
Back in Brazil in 1982, Whitaker first worked as political and social affairs advisor to Cardinal Evaristo Arns in São Paulo. He was one of the founders of the São Paulo Association for Solidarity in Unemployment and, always with his wife, was one of the main activists in organising the popular participation process during the drafting of the Brazilian constitution: The "Plenaries for popular participation", created all over the country for this purpose, presented 122 amendments to the Constitution project, with 12 million citizen's signatures.
From 1989 to 1996, Whitaker was elected twice as local councillor in São Paulo for the Brazilian Workers' Party (PT). In 1996 he left this function to return to work with civil society. He remained a member of the PT until early 2006, resigning when he considered the party was no more faithful to the principles of its foundation.
As Executive Secretary to the CNBB's Commission of Justice and Peace (CBJP), Whitaker conceived the idea and was instrumental in implementing a Bill of Popular Initiative: One million signatures were collected against electoral corruption, particularly the purchase of votes. Congress approved the bill in 1999. Whitaker sat as the CBJP's representative on the National Committee of the Movement Against Electoral Corruption, created after the Bill's approval, which involves more than twenty of the major national civil society organisations in Brazil. The Bill has already had a great impact. Since the first election respecting it in 2000, more than 650 mayors, councillors, deputies, senators and state governors, who were found to have been involved in electoral corruption, have lost their mandates.
Since 2008, Whitaker has participated in the Movement against Electoral Corruption's collection of signatures for a new bill of popular initiative aiming to impede the candidacy of people convicted by the justice system.
The World Social Forum
In 2000 Whitaker was one of those who conceived the World Social Forum (WSF) idea and played a key role in bringing it to realisation. The idea was to hold a large conference event, a parallel to the World Economic Forum in Davos, to share the various insights of those from around the world who were working for alternatives to "world domination by capital, within the parameters of neoliberalism." The slogan was "Another World is Possible".
The "other" world to build is the utopia of all human beings: peace, justice, dignity of life for all, cooperation and not competition as rule of life, solidarity as main value, no kind of oppression, respect of diversity, no more wars and violence between human beings, respect of the nature to protect our planet and to think of future generations.
The idea was taken forward by eight leading Brazilian organisations operating by consensus. Today, Whitaker is a member of the WSF International Council, representing it in the Brazilian Commission on Justice and Peace.
The first World Social Forum was held in 2001 in Porto Alegre in Brazil, attracting 4,000 delegates and 16,000 individual participants from many countries - far more than the organizers had anticipated. People came from Porto Alegre and other places in Brazil and neighbouring countries and Europe, North America, Asia, and Africa. It was such a success that a second event was held in 2002, attended by 15,000 delegates representing 4,909 organisations and movements in 131 countries, with another 35,000 'non-delegates participants. During 2002, several regional or national forums were organised in all continents, and a World Social Forum took place again in Porto Alegre in 2003, with 100,000 participants. That year also saw the first Asian Social Forum being organised in Hyderabad. Between 2004 and 2009, the WSF took place in various parts of the world, like Mumbai, Nairobi, Caracas, Karachi and Porto Alegre, with up to 150,000 attendants. In 2008, the WSF held a global day of action, with self-organised activities worldwide.
From the beginning, the Forums have been much more than just meeting places. They have become platforms for civil society organisations worldwide to exchange views, form coalitions, work on concrete strategies, and coordinate campaigns.
Whitaker explained the success through the principles adopted to organise the Forums: horizontality, non-directivity, respect of diversity, no spokespersons, no final document or orientations, self-organisation of the participants' activities in the Forums. The principles were defined in 2001, after the success of the first Forum, in a Charter of Principles, which is now the sole criterion for participating in the Forum events. It allows anyone to take part, except government representatives, military organisations and political parties.
Whitaker wrote for a French publication for the 2003 World Social Forum: "Porto Alegre is not a 'summit of grassroots organizations' nor is it a world congress of a new international movement, but rather a free-form context designed for encounters to enable mutual recognition and learning, which respects all individualities. The Forum brings together delegates from social organisations striving the world over to build a world centred on people instead of accumulating wealth. Today the Forum's organisers are certain they are on the right track to helping citizens rid themselves of their feeling of powerlessness".
Liberation Theology, the inspiration underlying Whitaker's life's work, is the radical Catholic theology, which - as he puts it - says that "true religion, especially Christianity, basically means working for the upliftment of the poor, fighting for their rights and against the exploitation of the have-nots by the haves."
In 2016, when the Brazilian parliament started the impeachment process against the elected president Dilma Roussef, Whitaker called on civil society to raise a political consciousness that redefines the conditions of today’s representative democracy. He described the Congress as the place where “many people enter and remain” with the sole purpose of becoming rich” and as “one of the greatest distortions of Brazilian democracy”. Whitaker stated that reforming the legislative power is a priority to end corruption, overcome the political crisis and improve the country’s governance.
Preventing nuclear threats
Since the accident at Japan's Fukushima I power plant in 2011, Whitaker is an outspoken anti-nuclear activist who has been raising international awareness about the unnecessary health and environmental risks of nuclear power. At the national level, he is a member of the Coalition for Brazil free of nuclear power plants.
In 2003, Whitaker received the "Medaille Vermeil" of the Paris Municipality. In 2007 he became a councillor of the World Future Council and was nominated Commandeur in the Rio Branco Order of Brazil's Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2008. He also was a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa, Canada.
Among Whitaker's publications are Planning Yes and No (1976) and O desafio do Forum Social Mundial (2005).