BELEM, Brazil, Jan 28 (Reuters) - With a disparate cast ranging from Roman Catholic nuns to anarchists, there is one thing the 100,000 leftist activists at the World Social Forum in Brazil can agree on — it’s hard to hate Barack Obama.
Former President George W. Bush was a favorite target of vitriolic anti-U.S. protests at previous editions of one of the world’s biggest gathering of grassroots groups, whose inaugural meeting coincided with the start of Bush’s first term in January 2001.
A week after Democrat Obama’s inauguration as U.S. president, the sentiment against Washington at this year’s forum in the sweltering Amazon city of Belem was markedly more subdued.
“People just come up and say ‘Oh my God, thank you so much’ or give you the thumbs up, stuff like that,” said Chad Gray, a 28-year-old graduate student from the United States.
Bush’s war in Iraq and policies at home made him an intensely unifying figure for the world’s left-wingers.
Effigies of Bush were often burned at leftist rallies but that particular form of protest is now much more unlikely with Obama, the United States’ first black president.
Many are grappling with the loss of Bush, who was so unpopular in much of the world that he helped radical groups recruit members and get protesters onto the streets.
“Certainly this will present a difficulty for the movement,” said Altenir Santos of Brazil’s Revolutionary Communist Party, who was handing out leaflets and selling hammer-and-sickle T-shirts on the first full day of the forum on Wednesday.
“The expectations are high because he’s a new person, but we believe that the policies will be the same.”
The left, especially its more extreme wing, could find it hard to justify its anti-U.S. stance if Obama manages to push through a progressive agenda, said Zander Navarro, a sociologist at the Institute of Development Studies at Britain’s Sussex University.
“If he finds a way of establishing quasi-relations with Cuba, for example, or suspending the economic blockade, the left will find itself paralyzed,” said Navarro, a Brazilian who used to be involved in the country’s leftist land-reform movement.
The meeting here brings together groups ranging from communists railing against U.S. “imperialism” to environmentalists and more moderate socialists, as well as some government leaders.
Predictably, there was division over whether Obama’s presidency was a positive development, even though he has already ordered the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison for terrorist suspects — a long-held demand of the left.
“Bush wasn’t all bad and Obama all good. People will have to see that it is more complicated than that,” said Ze Oumon, a researcher with Belgium’s National Center for Cooperation and Development.
“He is the president of the United States so that means perhaps having some special interests.”
But Bertrand Monthubert of France’s Socialist Party said that even if Obama’s presidency didn’t turn out as revolutionary as some hoped, it was still a vast improvement from Bush and a boost for the left.
“To be united we have to have some examples of governments from the left that succeed,” he said. “The most terrible thing for workers and people who struggle for food and development is that they have no hope. So at least having a hope like this is a way to reinforce the struggle they make.” (Editing by Raymond Colitt and Kieran Murray)