The Alternative Social Forum in Caracas, Venezuela: A World Made of Many Worlds

The sixth World Social Forum (WSF) has ended and all the thousands of activists and journalists have gone home, most unaware of the parallel events held by the Alternative Social Forum (ASF). The ASF hosted a diverse group of participants all in agreement of the necessary autonomy of social movements, voiced their critique of Latin American energy policy and questioned the state appropriation of social movements in Venezuela.

In places far from the mega WSF forum held at the Hilton in Caracas, the ASF took place at the Universidad Central of Venezuela, the Colegio de Ingenieros and the Organización Nelson Garrido, and offered a space void of seminars on solidarity and support of a very specific other possible world, that is, the Bolivarian revolution. The ASF instead opened up the debate to anyone to share ideas for the plurality of other worlds that are possible and included among many others, anarchists, environmentalists, and indigenous leaders.

The purpose of the ASF was to create a dissident space to traditional party politics and the Venezuelan State, with room for multiple voices and visions to further advance the creation of new autonomous social movement networks, with new ways of engaging in politics. The ASF included seminars, workshops, and an independent film festival showing documentaries from eight different countries. Among the seminars that stood out was a whole day’s discussion of the current energy politics of Latin America, which included information about oil exploitation in Ecuador and gold mining in Venezuela. The critics pointed out that behind the anti-imperial rhetoric of the Bolivarian government, Chavez has in fact signed over the biggest concessions since the 1940’s to transnational corporations and oil giants such as ChevronTexaco, ExxonMobil, Repsol, and Shell.

In another seminar, Wayuú leader Angela González and Lusbi Portillo from the Venezuelan environmental organization HomoetNatura denounced Chavez´ plans to expand coal exploitation in the Mountains of Perijá, on the Western border of Colombia. Portillo, deemed the leader of a CIA sponsored green mafia according to the Venezuelan government, brought light to the issues at stake in today´s Venezuela, beyond the simplistic Chavista or anti-Chavista discourse. The denouncements of Venezuelan indigenous peoples at the alternative social forum culminated on Friday Jan. 27 when Yukpa, Bari, and Wayuú indigenous groups, environmentalists, and student activists marched against coal exploitation from Plaza Bolivar to Plaza Venezuela.

Perhaps most talked about of the events at the ASF was the projection of the Gattacicova films production "Our Oil and Other Tales", a documentary previously supported and funded by the Venezuelan Ministry of Communications, then later censored and abandoned due to its critique of Venezuela´s oil and coal exploitation. It shows the human face behind exploitation, and more generally reflects on the social and environmental problems surrounding the exploitation of natural resources beyond the rhetoric of the Bolivarian revolution. It leaves the viewer asking the question: How can any government that completely ignores environmental issues call itself revolutionary?

Several U.S. participants at the WSF who had come to hear Chavez speak and to show solidarity with his government clearly did not enjoy my questions about how revolutionary oil exploitation actually is and warned me of critiquing Chavez and thus falling prey to the right. In fact, multiple seminars of the WSF organized by U.S. delegates focused on solidarity with the Bolivarian government, and seminars that explained ALBA, the socialist alternative to the FTAA. The WSF´s grand anti-imperial march was taken over by the many red shirted Chavez supporters, as well as U.S. forum participants such as a delegation from Boston which carried a banner that read "Thank you for the oil", referring to the shipments of subsidized oil that Chavez has sent to benefit poor U.S. citizens. The contradictions in the Bolivarian revolution should be a disappointment to revolutionary romantics who choose to ignore the role of multinationals, and the lack of indigenous rights in Venezuela, behind the anti-imperial façade. Perhaps the rhetoric of Chavez is especially attractive to many Americans who desperately wish for more welfare programs and social security, in addition to seeing the end of the Bush era. But their simplistic support of Chavez ignores the environmental ills inherent to oil exploitation and the multiplicity of cultures and worldviews that is Latin America.

This obvious lack of open space to debate what kind of world we want to live in, in which any critique is either deemed "anti-revolutionary" or appropriated by the right, is indicative of the current social democratic hegemony in Venezuela, as well as the deficiency of real democracy. When the state pacifies and neutralizes the struggle and assumes a leading role for social movements, it reduces the movements to puppetry. Independently of one’s views of the "Bolivarian model of development", today in Venezuela, the WSF should have made us reflect. But due to the Venezuelan government’s infiltration, the Alternative Social Forum instead offered this open space.

The WSF just happened to coincide with the beginning of the Venezuelan presidential election year and thus, the state oil company PDVSA welcomed WSF participants. It was evident that the PDVSA sponsored the WSF and in the daily "independent" newspaper of the forum in Caracas, Terraviva, a full page ad by PDVSA showed images of an oil tower, an oil worker sporting a helmet with the Venezuelan flag, a port, and a map of Petroamerica, the planned Lula-Chavez mega oil merger. Appropriating the slogan of the WSF and even using the same typography as the forum slogan, the ad read: "Another world is possible and in Venezuela the new PDVSA is proving it", and further that: "We want to say that our beliefs are based on facts and that Another World is Possible!" The propaganda echoed Chavez´ hour-long speeches during the WSF in which he also picked up on the WSF slogan "Another world is possible" and then went on to brag about the many infrastructure projects that are part of IIRSA, or the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America. And so suddenly, in this upside down world of revolutionary rhetoric, another world is possible only through the PDVSA and oil exploitation, despite the deforestation, contamination, and indigenous displacements that comes with it.

Against the backdrop of a banner which played on the Venezuelan slogan "Venezuela – now it belongs to everyone", but instead read "Venezuela – now it belongs to the multinationals", John Holloway spoke of how to "Change the world without taking power", in front of a filled lecture hall of curious newcomers and those sick and tired of Marxist rhetoric and in search for a less hierarchal structure such as embodied by the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas. Far from those macho strong men politicians who Latin Americans are used to, this soft-voiced Irish scholar, astute critic of the old left, and author of Change the World Without Taking Power: the Meaning of Revolution Today, published in 2002, demanded us to listen closely. Most revolutionary of all, Holloway did not give any catchy or easy answers. His own answer to how we change the world without taking power was: "We don’t know", while he assured his audience that "Everyone can participate", and that in critiquing the state we assume the responsibility of change. He also spoke of the many cracks or spaces of resistance against capitalism in which we assume dignity and can make change and stated: "The world is full of cracks". Holloway further contrasted the different types of power, "power to do", which is used to dominate and overthrow, and the "power to create" which is another meaning of power which we can use to change the world.

Ecuadorian indigenous organizations´ experience of trying to make change by taking power in 2003 exemplifies Holloway´s theories reminds us of the importance of autonomous social movements. The indigenous federation CONAIE took power in a military coup and later supported the coup leader Lucío Gutierrez in his presidential bid in 2003, who ended up giving only two seats to indigenous representatives in the cabinet, while he also sold out to the IMF and U.S. interests. CONAIE founders Luis Macas and Nina Pacari resigned and Pacari later complained: "We were in power but we had no power". As former CONAIE chairman Leonidis Ica stated during a congress of Amazonian indigenous peoples last spring, "We made a mistake about where power was to be found. Now we know."

When Holloway quoted the Zapatistas "preguntando caminamos", or asking we walk, it reminded us that the real revolution is a constant questioning and as such, the debate following the end of his talk lasted four hours. In stark contrast with the WSF slogan "another world is possible", the Alternative Social Forum helped resuscitate the social movements in Venezuela and embodied the diversity of the world and the Zapatista call for "a world of many worlds".

Hanna Dahlstrom can be reached at