Viaje al otro mundo

World Social Forum VI

The World Social Forum of the Americas in Caracas, Venezuela was an unforgettable experience. While the event, in this hotbed of political activity at this point in time, had limitless potential, it seemed to spark as much disappointment and frustration as it did inspiration and edification. What happened outside the constraints of the Forum itself felt more important than what happened within — yet the Forum must be credited with bringing tens of thousands of activists from the Americas and beyond to the streets of Caracas to witness the Bolivarian Revolution firsthand.

The logistics of the Forum were a nightmare and poorly planned. Events were scattered all over the city of Caracas, and some locations were very difficult to reach. Everything was behind schedule, while many events were cancelled without notice, often after a tough commute to the site. Too few events offered translation, and it ended up being very difficult to get much out of the workshops and panels. The one plenary session I attended, on the battle of Hong Kong and the World Trade Organization (WTO), was very good, and it’s clear that the next few months are very important for challenging the WTO.

Hugo Chávez speaking to a crowd of 12,000 people was a sight to behold — not a very forgettable moment. The passionate crowd was brimming with political chants:

  • Alerta! Alerta! Alerta que camina! Espada de Bolivar por America Latina!
  • El pueblo, unido, jamás será vencido!
  • Ooh! Aah! Chávez no se va!

Chávez himself broke into song, which I could have done without. Solidarity with Cuba was on display as a sea of over 1000 members from the Cuba delegation, all in red, sang and chanted and waved banners and flags. The victory of Evo Morales in Bolivia was highlighted again and again. And allied presidents Kirchner and Lula, of Argentina and Brazil, respectively, were praised (though Lula’s name was met with boos). Also, as was seen throughout the city of Caracas, there was a strong emphasis on history. Countless political and historical murals line the streets, and the people are reminded of heroes past and present. Powerful quotes are commonly found next to the portrait of the person who said it. There is also a lot of graffiti on the walls — all of it political in nature. The most impressive thing I witnessed was the level to which the political discourse has been raised — and it is completely open to all. There is a consciousness permeating the people of Venezuela that transcends politics and traditional class structures.

We toured the barrio El 23 de Enero, and the guide and community organizer told us about the change in political participation since Chávez became president. He said there were people active in politics in very partisan and closed groups, but after Chávez, ordinary people started organizing and they far surpassed the political groups. This neighborhood was built up under the leadership of Perez Jimenez, who was thought of us a dictator, and was overthrown on January 23, 1958. This was followed by 40 years of brutal repression in the neighborhood, to the point where local leaders felt it necessary to develop a militia. Once Chávez became President, many of the militia members helped organize the neighborhood to receive social services. We visited a school in the barrio which opens it doors to kids until 11pm with regular and after-school programs and offers 3 meals a day. We also visited a new community radio station — fashioned out of the former police station which had symbolized much of the repression. The station has only been active for 2 months and has already made an impact as it reaches most of Caracas. So far they have been playing an impressive variety of non-commercial and even revolutionary music, but the station manager believes all music is revolutionary. They hope to integrate more news and politics, but their main goal is to demonstrate to Caracas that 23 de Enero has culture.

Another thing that’s clear is that not everybody is thrilled with the progress of Chávez and his Bolivarian Revolution. Common complaints were that Chávez is focusing so much on alleviating poverty that he is neglecting the basic infrastructure for a functioning nation. Garbage lines the streets, the streets are in disrepair, and when Chávez visits a neighborhood his people come in and fix things up ahead of his visit so he is oblivious. Many believe Chávez has an inner circle that insulates him from the reality, making it harder for things to improve (sound familiar?). Why is Chávez giving away discounted fuel to the richest country in the world? Why is he focusing so much on other countries when Venezuela’s own problems are far from over? These are the legitimate complaints. Then there’s the propaganda of the mainstream media, where editorializing and misinformation abound. And now, after 8 years in power, the Chavistas have developed their own propaganda engines, increasing the number of government-friendly stations, and have enacted laws that have forced the private anti-Chávez stations to tone down their rhetoric. After a change in the criminal code last March which expands Venezuela’s laws against insulting government officials, while other Latin American nations have been scrapping such laws, the country is now prosecuting its first defendant under this reform according to Reporters Without Borders. With propaganda on both sides of the debate, it seems to me that objective reporting is hard to come by in Venezuela (sound familiar?), but fortunately there has been and continues to be an expansion of independently owned and operated media as well as community radio and television stations.

I got the feeling from my brief visit that there is a change afoot in Venezuela that is too intangible to measure in economic indicators and poverty figures, but has embedded itself in the souls and spirits of the people. It is a change in attitude that is both simple and profound — that they have a say in what happens in their lives, in their communities, and in their country. And while improvements in living standards like access to healthcare, affordable nutritious food, and education have impacted the poorest of Venezuelans the most, it is the change in spirit and participation which will bring the longest term benefits to the nation, transcending Chávez’s presidency and hopefully outlasting it.


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  1. * Ray says:

    It’s disappointing to learn that Chavez is trying to clamp down on the press and is insulating himself from negativity.

    That is not a good way to bring about a positive revolution. That is a way to replace one dictatorship with another.

    I hope he comes to that realization.

    | Reply Posted 12 years, 3 months ago

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