Caracas, Venezuela is a city made up of skyscrapers, colonial architecture and, wherever possible, the do-it-yourself tile and cement houses of poor neighborhoods, known as barrios. Though the local mainstream media ignored the coming of the 2006 World Social Forum, Caracans themselves found out quickly as they watched a parade of activists from across the globe pour into their city waving banners, setting up tents and discussing the state of the world on park benches and hotel lobbies.
Since 2000, the World Social Forum (WSF) has served as a space for discussion and networking among activists, non-governmental organizations and social movements from around the world. Based on the slogan, “Another World is Possible,” the forum is organized to support human rights and the environment, and fight against poverty, war and inequality. All previous forums were held in Porto Alegre, Brazil except the one in 2004, which took place in Bombay, India. This year the WSF was held in Caracas, Venezuela where, under the leadership of President Hugo Chavez the leftist shift in Latin America has been the most momentous.
Within the past two months, left of center leaders have been elected in Chile and Bolivia. In 2006, presidential elections are scheduled to take place across the region, and in many cases left-leaning leaders are expected to win. This shift is a reaction to the effects of free trade policies and the International Monetary Fund structural adjustments, an economic agenda which has left many countries poorer than they were thirty years ago. Favoring state control over private control of natural resources, directing more funding into education and health care and resisting US-backed free trade policies characterizes Latin America’s growing leftist shift.
Awareness of this trend was prevalent at the forum, where representatives from diverse Latin American social movements were in abundance. Farmers who occupied unused land in Brazil, Bolivian activists who fought against the Bechtel corporation’s move to privatize their city’s water, members of worker-run factories in Argentina and thousands of participants in Venezuela’s new political process attended this year’s WSF.
In addition to networking with like-minded activists, this forum offered an opportunity to get to know the political and social reality of Venezuela. Regular tours from the WSF were organized into the poorer neighborhoods of the city, where much of Chavez’s support comes from and where the bulk of the country’s new social programs are located. By using profits from oil sales, the government has generated health clinics, literacy campaigns, community radios, free education and occupational classes which are focused on empowering poor sectors of society.
The momentum of this new political process was tangible in El 23 de Enero, a neighborhood in Caracas. Poor neighborhoods like this cling to the hillsides around the city, in a sea of tin roofs, orange bricks, narrow stairways and streets. Jutting out of these neighborhoods are gigantic, colorful apartment buildings from the 1960s.
Gustavo Borges grew up in El 23 de Enero and fought in an armed struggle against previous right wing governments which violently oppressed his community. Now he works with the government to improve the living situation in El 23 de Enero. By operating a website called el23.net, he provides information on what’s going on within his neighborhood. As we sat in the street in front of his house one night, he explained his perspective of Venezuela’s current politics. "What’s going on in Venezuela now is not a full out revolution, it’s a partial one. Chavez keeps the country at peace by not making radical changes; he maintains two parallel worlds [the revolutionary one, and the capitalist one]. He has created programs right next to what exists, to maintain peace. He’s done things very well so that blood won’t run. The work we’re doing now is for our children, for the future.”
The hospital system is privatized, so what does Chavez do? He doesn’t confront the system; instead, he creates the Barrio Adentro health clinic program. The universities are nearly all private and inaccessible to the poor sector, so he builds the Bolivarian University next door.
A block from Gustavo’s house was a four month old community-run radio station operating out of a building which used to be a jail and torture chamber in previous decades. Whereas “leftists” were rounded up and put in this facility under right wing administrations, now it is occupied by the same people who were tortured there. After receiving approval from the mayor to use the building for a radio instead of a police station, these community members have transformed a symbol of repression into one of hope and liberation.
Many Chávez supporters, called Chávistas, and stereotyped as poor Venezuelans wanting more social programs, speak glowingly about the active use of nationalized petroleum funds to better the lives of the poor, freedom of speech, fair elections and lack of corruption. At the same time, anti-Chávez Caracans, called the opposition, or los esqualidos, the squalid ones, by Chávistas, and stereotyped as rich Venezuelans interested in international corporations, bemoan the repression, corruption, election fraud and complete lack of government projects, claiming that all Chávez does is talk nicely while he robs the people blind. In reality we found that neither group fit entirely into their stereotypes, and we heard the stories of a taxi driver who was angry that Chávez was driving out international investment, and a wealthy woman who had to lie to her rich, opposition family to attend the new revolutionary university and to work in the barrios. These two warring realities, one of despair and the other of hope, and the grey spectrum in between, reminded us that the political orientation of people is never a simple matter.
Whereas past forums in Porto Alegre took place in one large park, participants of the forum in Caracas were asked to travel around the city by bus and subway, through parks, airports and universities to find events. Most participants we talked with described their experience as one of excitement and frustration. Many groaned about dashing around the city to the different forum locations only to find that the event they were looking for had been inexplicably cancelled.
For many foristas, though, the inevitable chaos of the forum was an opportunity as much as a head ache. Some might say the most important part of the forum is made of the international and inter-ideological connections made between forum participants while they run around looking for, at and around each others’ events. At one canceled event, we met two journalism students from Caracas and took turns interviewing each other about our respective views of the forum. At another canceled event, members of the audience stood up to speak at the mike. One woman described her home in rural Venezuela, her work and invited the audience to visit her town.
In Latin America, solidarity-building events such as this are empowering the region’s leftist movement. In 2007, a US-based world social forum is scheduled to take place. Many expect this event to build similar bridges between US-based groups working to make this “other possible world” a reality.
The best quality to take back from the forum is this feeling of connection and space for discussion. Walking on to the plane, we felt the rewards of this habit when we asked the two men in front of us where they were from. They were government officials of the small city of Puerto Corinto, Venezuela. They noted our press pass, and we held up an imaginary microphone, asking “What does the forum mean to you?” At first they smirked, but then said seriously “To us, the forum is about unity, about the fact that we are all human beings, and about looking for solutions to poverty.”
Benjamin Dangl edits www.UpsideDownWorld.org, a website uncovering activism and politics in Latin America. He is the author of the forthcoming book, “The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia and Beyond,” which will be published by AK Press in January 2007. April Howard is is a translator, writer and Spanish teacher.