WSF VI: The Revolution in Venezuela

by Kendra Fehrer and Thomas Ponniah *

For the first time in World Social Forum (WSF) history, the most interesting alternatives were not those presented within the Forum, but instead those taking place outside of it. WSF VI offered social movements an opportunity to see the Venezuelan path to another possible world.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez Frías, in power since 1998, has been especially visible over the last eighteen months. Chavez's appearance at the 2005 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre; his presence among the protesters in Mar del Plata, Argentina at the Summit of the Americas; his purchase of Argentine debt, taking it out of the hands of the IMF; his in-kind trade of "oil for doctors" with Cuba's Castro; and his support for newly elected leftist leader Morales of Bolivia, have placed him at the center of a growing radicalization of Latin American politics.

Accordingly, the highlights of the Forum were Chavez-related. One of the activities the Chavez administration offered visitors was a tour of the Misiones (missions). The misiones are social, cultural, and economic projects not necessarily government-initiated but benefiting in some way from government support. One of the multiple tour routes available included a visit to a community radio station, a medical center, and a subsidized grocery store (known as a Mercal), all based in a barrio suburb of Caracas.

The barrio, Petare, host to one million residents, spreads out across a congested valley. The houses are built on top of each other, sustained by a combination of innovation and luck. Several of the institutions visited were initiated before Chavez came into power, but the last several years have been marked by consolidated growth. For example, the radio station sprung out of a small community group active in the neighborhood for fifteen year, working out of the members' houses or storefronts. Now, they are in the process of constructing a two story brick building that will house a cultural center and a community television station. The building is just a five minute walk away from the local health clinic, staffed by a Cuban doctor. For the first time, barrio residents have access to regular medical consultation. As well, in the middle of Petare are subsidized grocery stores. These Mercales are small shops that sell basic foods—such as milk, rice, beans and flour—at half price to the residents. The community radio station, the medical clinic and the subsidized food are all part of Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution that could the country reach the Millennium Development Goals earlier than any other nation in the world.

Another highlight of the WSF was an event organized by the Boston Delegation to publicly thank the Venezuelan government for providing Massachusetts poor families with subsidized oil. The main slogan was "Oil for peace, not war for oil". Other banners called for the US to keep "Hands Off Venezuela" and "Bring the troops home now!" The demonstration gathered approximately 300 people, more than half of whom were local Venezuelans.

What was unique about the demonstration was a phrase that kept appearing on the lips of radio program host MC Luis Melendez: "¡Viva el pueblo estadounidense solidario!" "Long live the US people in solidarity!" This positive exclamation, in contrast to most imperialist references to the U.S . public, indicated a new trend at the WSF: outreach to U.S. social movements.

The inclusion of the U.S. Left was evident at Chavez's speech at the Poliedro auditorium. Chavez referred to Cindy Sheehan, seated near him, as a heroic woman embodying hope. The Venezuelan President made it clear that while he sees George Bush as "Mister Danger", he regards the U.S. public as allies on the road to building a new global society.

Chavez's other notable comment concerned the World Social Forum itself. He proposed that the Forum should build a unified political program. He suggested that the danger of the Forum's current "Open Space" model was that it would degenerate into a "folkloric" festival. Chavez's comments were consistent with a pattern of commentary that has appeared at every World Social Forum. Since its beginning, the Forum has attempted to maintain a balance between the unity and diversity of movements, programs, and cultures present at the event. Inevitably, it has been criticized by revolutionary statists—such as Chavez—as being "too decentralized", not allowing for the creation of a unified program. Simultaneously, it has been condemned by Zapatista-inspired autonomists as being "too hierarchical", thus repressing the diversity of possibilities at the Forum. Both critiques are thoughtful but partial. The World Social Forum's genius has been its ability to create a space between these two positions, hence its capacity to have all strands of the global left in dialogue at the Forum.

WSF VI offered participants an opportunity to see a progressive project in motion. The Bolivarian revolution is certainly one path to another world. We look forward to seeing other ones at next year's Forum in Kenya.

(In the photo (by Jonathan Lawson), one of the many stages for cultural presentations during the Forum.)

*Kendra Fehrer is a solidarity activist with the Movement of Unemployed Workers (MTD) La Matanza , Argentina and adjunct professor of Sociology at Worcester State College.

Thomas Ponniah is the editor of "Another World is Possible: popular alternatives to globalization at the World Social Forum"(Zed 2003) and a member of the Network Institute for Global Democratization.

Both Fehrer and Ponniah went to Venezuela with a fifty-person delegation, co-organized by July 26 Coalition in Solidarity with Cuba, Latinas y Latinos for Social Change, the Martin Luther King Bolivarian Circle of Boston, Massachusetts Global Action, City Life and Tecschange.