JOURNAL OF A YOUNG DELEGATE TO THE WSF
By Zaskya Perez
After long delays and a speedy switchover, we arrived in Caracas at 12:25 am. We were lucky to make it in last night. We picked up our luggage and were escorted by volunteers from the World Social Forum. It was comforting to see their welcome signs and smiling faces. We jumped onto a bus and began our journey up the mountain and into the city. Yellow lights illuminated the hillside, showing that people did indeed live there. We finally arrived at Hotel Lider at 5:30 am!
This morning the delegation met for a short while and sped off to the WSF’s opening day march celebrating the first day of the forum. People from all over the world flooded the streets in a colorful exhibition of banners, songs and chants. Our delegation marched behind two banners thanking Venezuela for the oil and demanding to end the occupation in Iraq. Chavez’s face was everywhere as people sang “Ooh ahh, Chavez no se va!” On the contrary, Bush was portrayed as a terrorist and assassin. Being from the US, I was surprised to feel so welcomed by the people in Venezuela. As we walked down the street, someone stopped us to say, “Venezuela is for everyone! Welcome to our country!”
While waiting for the tour bus leading to the missions in La Plaza Bolivar I was interviewed by Roberto Lavato; a writer for “The Nation” magazine. He asked questions like, “What do you expect to learn/gain from the organizations attending the forum?” and “Do you feel that the US people are being represented by White men? What are you trying to do about it?” I answered these questions and explained that this trip was my first venture out into becoming active in social politics. I told him that I was trying to speak to as many Venezuelan natives as possible because they are the ones most impacted by the revolution. I asked him if he believed if the Bolivarian Revolution would one day be successful. He answered, “That, my dear, is up to you..”
Artisans fill the streets and parks in Caracas. They present hand made jewelry and trinkets on tapestries on the sidewalk. Taina and I stop and speak to some of them for hours, interested in their names and asking to hear their stories. Mostly males, they are dark-skinned indigenous people. They make intricate jewelry out of rope, seeds, vegetable skin, and other natural objects. They tell me stories of traveling far from the mountains; where they strive to survive in cold valleys. It is beautiful to me how they maintain the strength of community through their journeys. Today I spent half the day with two men from the city of Cutuca in Colombia. They sell cigars, coffee and other goods, which they brought from their country. They came to the forum specifically to try to make money to support their children back home. Grateful for the company, they joked a bit. “You can always tell which tourists are Americans,” one said to me. “They dress outrageous!”
This experience was most inspiring. We drove one hour from Caracas deep into the mountains to “Los Teques.” We had the chance to tour a factory, which makes huge valves for oil and water. The workers didn’t even know that we were coming, but still embraced our visit. They showed us how things worked there and shared the story of their uprising.
In 2002, 300 factory workers were being mistreated and underpaid by the factory owner. He decreased their wages and tried to remove them from their jobs. These workers are poor people who live in the mountains in cold valleys and had worked there for 30 years. They got sick of the maltreatment, and although their morale was low, they rose up and fought for their labor rights. They organized themselves and formed different committees: one to research law, one to contact the media, one to distribute flyers.. They included their families in their long struggle. The owner paid off the judge and tried to evict the workers. The police came to remove them, but they fought and said they “would stay till the death!” Their argument was that the factory belonged to them, as some had worked there for so long. It took a three-year strike, but the workers gained ownership of the factory. They made it into a cooperative organization where they run and own the factory themselves. There is no hierarchy, no bosses, no unions needed because everyone is equal.
After this long struggle the amount of workers has decreased from 300 to 60: 58 men, 2 women. They are now in the process of repairing the factory, since it has been abandoned until now. They are replacing the roof, building offices, tiling the floors. They call the factory their “nińa mimada” which means the spoiled, favorite child. They hope to reopen in April of this year. The workers are creating new jobs for people. They take turns rotating in the committees so that everyone will diversify their skills. A percentage of their profits will be donated to their community for schools.
At the end of the visit our delegation presented the workers with the banner and a donation of computers. They were proud and thanked us for coming so far to meet them and learn from them. They asked us to share their story and left us with the message that Venezuela dislikes the US government, not the people. “Venezuelans and northerners are brothers,” said one worker, “we struggle and fight hand in hand.”
The delegation saw an opportunity to make some noise on the street. Today we met at the Plaza Bolivar for a demonstration. We made signs reading, “troops out now” and “oil for peace, not for war.” I couldn’t believe the amount of support that we received from the public. People joined us in holding signs and chanting. We sang songs and told stories of freedom in a public display of emotion.
I spoke to one man who was just walking through the park. He stopped and decided to join us and stayed for the whole day. He described the significance of the plaza: “This is the park of the people,” he said. “We meet here to speak and to organize. We value it and care for it as if it were our home.” Do we have a similar place in Boston, where people feel free to publicly speak and organize? Why don’t we take ownership of our public space?
The delegation organized a bus to take us through the mountains to stay in a small town close to the airport. We were to meet between 10 am-11 am. Taina, Michael and I got caught up in last-minute picture taking and shopping, so we arrived at 11:30 am. People were annoyed from having to wait so long. In a country where “ahorita” means now, 1, 2, or even 3 hours later! Everyone is late.
The mountain scene was breathless; a world tucked away in high peaks and dirt roads. We drove so high up that we were surrounded by white clouds. It was beautiful. Michael read from his view book and explained that the town of Los Cocos has been mostly abandoned since 1999 when a huge mudslide killed 50 thousand people! It was a drastic change of extremes from being over-crowded in the city to desolate silence. Going to the beach was a peaceful end to this trip.
(Pictured from l-r: Zaskya, a Venezuelan worker, and Taina at Los Teques)