By Walden Bello and Mary Lou Malig*

The 6th [World Social Forum] held in Caracas, Venezuela, provided the shot in the arm needed by this annual gathering of global civil society. The WSF had come under fire, even from some of its key founders, for simply recycling the discussions of previous fora with no discernible direction and goal.

In Caracas, discussions at the seminars and workshops appeared to have a more urgent note than in the previous gatherings. The 52,000 participants met for seven days in an atmosphere quite unlike sedate Porto Alegre. In contrast to Porto Alegre, which is located in one of the richer areas of Brazil, Caracas is a more typically Third World city—one marked by a sharp divide between rich and poor, a glaring contradiction between plush urban malls frequented by the elites and middle class and the squalid but vibrant shantytowns or ranchos rising on the mountains surrounding the city, a highly efficient underground mass transit system coexisting with hopelessly clogged surface roads, and high rates of violent crime that not a few delegates experienced first hand in the form of muggings.

Caracas, for all of Venezuela’s oil wealth, is “deep” third world and it constantly reminded us of the many dimensions of the social and ecological problems we had come to discuss.

Radical Climate

Yet it was more than the setting that accounted for the bracing atmosphere at this social forum. Delegates were inserted into a process of radical change the marks of which that were evident everywhere—in the highly partisan attachment of the masses to President Hugo Chavez, in the venomous articles against him in the establishment press, in the ubiquitous soldiers with the trademark red berets of the Chavista revolution. Not to be overlooked was the obvious affection felt by lower class Venezuelans for their president, which took the form of the mass production and mass consumption of Chavez T-Shirts, Chavez clocks, and “Chavecito” dolls that, when pressed, would declaim on the “Bolivarian Revolution.”

Likewise, we could not resist the sense that we were in a country that is on the frontlines of the struggle against the US empire. Posters of George W. Bush, with a Hitler-moustache and the words “Bush Asesino” were everywhere. And feted as the de facto guest of honor was [Cindy Sheehan], the woman who reignited the US peace movement with her highly publicized campout outside Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas last summer. Hosted by Chavez at his weekly television show, Sheehan, who lost a son in Iraq, electrified the forum and the country with her strong denunciation of Bush as a “terrorist,” before flying off to Washington, DC, to disrupt the American president’s “State of the Union” speech at the US Congress.

Chavez at Center Stage

Chavez, of course, was at center stage throughout the week, hosting a number of public and private events with participants.  Calling Bush “Mr. Danger,” he told a cheering crowd of 15,000 at the Poliedro Stadium that “the empire is not omnipotent” and predicted that “we will bring down the empire in this century.” At every opportunity, he reminded us of the US’ long history of intervention in Latin American affairs, its isolation of Cuba, and its role in the unsuccessful coup attempt against him in April 2002.

This was clearly a politicized forum in the sense that it could not resist being suffused with the militant anti-imperialist spirit surrounding it. Clearly, this bothered some participants. Undoubtedly, the Chavistas hoped that with the WSF being held in Caracas, they would have a platform from which to project the truth about the Venezuelan process internationally and gather more allies to neutralize Washington, which, they believe, is out to get Chavez. Not surprisingly, the government went all out to support the event, providing everything from visa assistance to participants to free buses from the airport to downtown Caracas, to free rides on the subway for everyone who had a WSF participant badge.

On the other hand, despite some frictions between the Chavez people and the forum organizers, there were no claims that there had been an effort on the part of the government to set the forum agenda or determine its content. This was not a manipulated event; if anything, it suffered from a great deal of unorganized energy.

The Alternatives Debate

The issue of alternatives to the current system of global capitalism was debated in many workshops and seminars. Chavez unhesitatingly jumped into the debate, mincing no words when he declared that the alternative he was constructing in Venezuela was “socialism.” This did not exactly resonate with many delegates whose notion of socialism was the system that prevailed in the old Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.  And it did not help matters when he claimed that Marx and Rosa Luxemburg said “Socialism or Death,” which they did not. On the other hand, Chavez seemed to be distancing his project from that of his close friend Fidel Castro when he claimed that “socialism was one of the great failures of the 20th century,” and when he referred to his enterprise as a mélange of “authentic socialism,” “Christian socialism,” and the “socialism of Latin America’s indigenous peoples.”

More stimulating was Chavez’ discussion of his short and medium term programs, such as the massive nationwide crash course to eliminate illiteracy, the drive to set up community clinics spearheaded by Cuban doctors, and land reform.  Also fascinating was his discussion of the first steps of the ALBA project—the “[Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas].” In his Petrocarib initiative, 13 countries in the Caribbean importing Venezuelan oil get a 40 per cent discount off the international market price of oil. In the Petrosur project, Bolivia exchanges soybeans and Argentina trades cattle for Venezuelan oil. This kind of exchanges, he underlined, go “beyond the logic of capitalism.”

Chavez’ Challenge and Ours

Perhaps Chavez’ main contribution to the forum was to challenge it, warning about the dangers of it becoming simply a forum of ideas with no agenda for action. He also told participants that they had to address the question of power.  “We must have a strategy of ‘counter-power.’ We, the social movements and political movements, must be able to move into spaces of power at the local, national and regional level.”

The frank talk was, however, two-way. Some of us challenged Chavez on trade issues, asking him not to rest on his laurels after the historic Mar del Plata Conference in November that effectively killed the Free Trade of the Americas. The WTO, he was warned, posed an equal if not greater danger. We went on to tell him that while we appreciated Venezuela’s registering “reservations” at the WTO Agreement arrived at in the Hong Kong Ministerial in December, that was not good enough and we fully expected Venezuela to help in derailing the talks based on the agreement that are unfolding in Geneva in the next few months–even if that meant his upsetting neighboring Brazil, one of the architects of a global deal that poses serious threats to the economies of developing countries.

Tonic for a Movement

The mood was so heady that a week seemed rather short, with us leaving with a sense that there was so much more to absorb, not only about Venezuela but about the whole of Latin America, where a continent-wide revolution against neoliberalism is underway, the latest signpost of which was the election of [Evo Morales], the radical peasant leader of Indian descent to the presidency of Bolivia.

Caracas was good tonic for a process that is in danger of losing its way. It underlined the fact that success for our side can only come at the price of tough struggles and great risk. Constantly threatened by a formidable alliance between the US and the local oligarchy, Chavez and his supporters are fighting for the space to transform Venezuela and Latin America. And he was daring us to fight for the space from which to transform the world, to translate into action the WSF slogan that “Another World is Possible.”

*Walden Bello and Marylou Malig are on the staff of Focus on the Global South