This comes to you from an Internet cafe in the Hilton. The air is
full of cell-phone ringtones. Not really where I expected to begin with
Social Forum here in Caracas, but to some extent at least the ample facilities of this place have been, you might say, reclaimed.
And besides, anyone coming here via the international airport will already have run a gauntlet of soldiers and disgruntled communities lining a road that until a few days ago was deserted. Since the collapse of a key viaduct on the only highway into town, the main streets of their impoverished communities, perched precariously on the misty slopes of a small mountain range, have suddenly become an inferno of stalled airport traffic.
At a press conference yesterday to preview the Forum, which opens with a big march tomorrow, we were told that 50,000 people are here already, with an unknown quantity still to arrive. There are some 2,000 different events, more of them organized by Brazilians – the traditional hosts of the Forum in Porto Alegre – than anyone else, though closely followed by Venezuelans, Colombians and then the people from the United States.
I have a copy of the programme. You could easily spend the rest of the week ploughing through it, navigating your way through themes, axis points, horizontal nodes or whatever. The words neoliberal, socialism, integration and imperialism feature prominently – globalization surprisingly less so. Expectations that Lula from Brazil, or the newly elected Evo Morales from Bolivia, will be coming to the Forum are being played down.
At the press conference (also in the Hilton), the Venezuelan academic Edgardo Lander encouraged his compatriots to participate fully in the Forum. After all, he said, not many people get the chance to travel the world, but now the world has come to them, wandering around in the streets and looking a little lost.
Nula Faria, of the Global Women`s March, responded to the inevitable question about ‘security’ – this is a notoriously dangerous city – by saying that women understood the meaning of that word better than most, and not just on the streets of Caracas.
Already there are some contentious issues. The Youth Camp, in a park in the centre of the city, has complained about the presence of troops, in theory there to protect them. They have set up their own press accreditation system, since the press is not well-loved here, with some good reason.
There are also anxieties about the influence over the event of the government of President Hugo Chávez, since the culture of the Forums is supposed to be free from interference by governments or political parties. Having just come from a seminar where I expected to have the chance to talk with colleagues in the international alternative media, and being addressed instead by the Minister of Information on Venezuela’s new media laws, there may be a point that needs making here.
So, tomorrow we kick off with the march. If it makes half as much noise as the fans watching a game of baseball on giant screens all over the city last night, it should be a triumph.
Yesterday was a bad day. I failed to find the march. If I’d chosen to carry the hefty Forum programme with me, it was made perfectly clear on a map I discovered only on returning to my hotel room.
Here I was reduced to watching the opening ceremonies on TV. The state TV station, Venezolana de Television, is giving blanket coverage to the Forum. Well, this is just about the biggest international event in the country’s history, and the commercial stations are ignoring it. That’s what this place is like.
So it’s worth watching, even if the final effect of relentlessly good news from the government can be a little dispiriting. The disastrous collapse of a key viaduct on the road to Caracas from its main air and sea ports was reported as a triumph for the army, who stepped in to restore order from the chaos that followed.
This could even have helped to deter some people from attending the Forum, where the number of registered participants – much smaller than the actual number of participants, of course – is about half the 100,000 plus who went to Porto Alegre or Mumbai for previous Forums.
However, this Forum is ‘polycentric’, with others taking place at roughly the same time in Africa and Asia. And the issues at stake are not just (or even) about numbers. People from all over Latin America are indeed here, everywhere in the city, clearly identifiable by their red Forum tags or distinctive dress.
It’s extraordinary and wonderful to feel good about being a foreigner in this inferno.
The abstractions of ‘Latin American integration’ – an important issue at the Forum – are being translated into small acts of solidarity all around you. If this marks a lasting move away from the cynical and manipulative forms of nationalism that have so plagued this continent, then it’s a minor miracle.
Cindy Sheehan, the remarkable US anti-war campaigner, addressed the rally at the end of yesterday’s march, calling for US withdrawal from Iraq and the prosecution of Bush ‘and all the others’ for crimes against humanity.
A huge roar of approval went up from the Cubans, who were prominent at the front of the audience. I suspect – though on the TV couldn’t see for sure – that a roar went up from everyone else as well. The theme of the march was, after all, against war, and people here care passionately about Iraq.
There’s confined but growing hysteria in some quarters of this country that the US intends to invade. You have to remember that when it comes to ‘threats’ – of a kind that never existed for the US or Britain or anyone else much in Iraq – then people who live in Latin America have more than enough reason to be fearful of the US.
This morning I wandered around some Forum locations, taking pictures and talking with people. As often at such events it’s what happens on the streets outside, rather than inside the venues themselves, that really matters.
A group of actors – or activists? – from the Communist Party of Brazil gave as accomplished a display of crowd manipulation, set to music, as you’re ever likely to see. People were sitting down, standing up, clapping, shouting, singing the refrains, at the click of the maestro’s fingers – even the man who’s already become something of a celebrity here and bears a large sign on his head that says, in Spanish, ‘Justice for the Insane’, and has a set of ear mufflers which he puts in place whenever he doesn’t like what he’s hearing.
Elsewhere he’d be an object of fear and derision. Here he is welcomed wherever he goes. To my mind, you can’t get a much better sign of something good going on.
Today I´m determined to get to grips with this Forum and set off early to a Liceo (high school) where workers from all over Latin America are billed to be discussing on ‘environmental justice’.
Inside the school there are dozens of desolate and completely empty classrooms. Bemused students wander around looking for their lessons.
I check. Yes, this is the right place, and yes the meeting is due to happen. But no, it isn’t happening.
Perhaps I should have gone to a workshop on ‘Running in single file as a revolutionary act’ instead.
I withdraw to a nearby avenue, which has been closed – hence, perhaps, the gridlock on neighbouring streets – and lined with rather grand booths advertising the wares of Government Ministries. Among them are some posh new military vehicles, displayed as if at a motor show. Freelance street sellers are ushered away by military police. A man – I think – on the tallest unicycle I have ever seen, wearing a bowler hat and making a fascist salute, wobbles by.
There’s only one big crowd on the acres of empty tarmac, and that turns out to be a queue for Venezuelan identity cards – thousands of people here have never had an official identity, and the posters say: ‘Now it is possible!’ Word has obviously been getting around Caracas. In the queue there are some people with Forum delegate badges.
Only one thing for it – back to the Caracas Hilton, from where the Forum’s press centre operates. This place will definitely attract the crowds – and, sure enough, there they are. I’m accosted by an occasional NI contributor from Vermont, who also smokes a pipe and generously replenishes my depleted stock of tobacco.
Inside, in the giant conference halls, meetings are indeed taking place. One on the independent media, which was billed for the afternoon, seems to be underway already. Another, in a much smaller hall, is full to overflowing – it’s about women’s political rights.
As so often in such circumstances, it’s the Brazilians who rise to the occasion. They’ve taken over an empty hall, strung up a sound system and set about dancing to the voice of a woman singer. She must have come well prepared. Two small girls circulate among the dancers selling CDs of her music. It is a moment of pure, outrageous joy.
Outside there is chanting – the boys from Colombia. They, too, have the ideal tactic. They are parading through the Hilton with a banner that says: ‘Drink Coca-Cola and die.’ They chant very loudly: ‘Coca-Cola asasina.’ They are referring to the violent repression of Coca Cola workers in Colombia, and they obviously mean business. That’s what you have to do at this extraordinary, enfuriating and eternally surprising event – decide what you’re after, and go for it.
Which is all very well, unless you’re Dr Laura Chamberlain from Chicago. She is fully armed with a veritable thesis of leaflets, which explain how voting machines have stolen every recent election in the US. She’s no crank. A burly fellow American from Florida wanders over. He wears a T shirt that quotes Stalin – something to the effect that it’s not the voters but the people who count the votes who matter.
Well, Laura thought Chávez was a good thing until Venezuela bought the same electronic voting machines. No-one who uses these machines can be up to any good, she says. But her workshop has been cancelled. She shrugs, laughs and heads for the Brazilians.
You can’t help wondering whether all the left-leaning governments that have been elected in Latin America in recent years have stolen some of the World Social Forum thunder – not to mention personnel.
In a way, it’s a small triumph. But it’s left a degree of uncertainty about the Forum’s real purpose, at least on this continent. Would that it were not the case that the most dangerous moment often comes when you no longer feel afraid.
As for me, this is, I’m afraid, blogging as inactivity again, since my latest meeting has also been cancelled and here I am, back in the Hilton, making use of the excellent and open Internet access. Like the Colombians, I’ll keep wandering around – but unlike them I´m no longer quite sure what I’m after.
The press room in the Caracas Hilton, again. Yells and screams come from the street below. I wonder if those boys from Colombia are finally storming the place. But no. There’s a scrabble over free bags being given out by the Brazilians. Looking down on this from our balcony, a fellow hack says: ‘Social Forum, eh? Looks more like capitalism to me.’
All three of the meetings I planned to attend yesterday failed to happen. So, like many others, I ended up wandering in and out of workshops in any venue I could find – not, perhaps, the best way to make another world possible.
But this morning I went to a packed meeting on ‘The crisis of politics: relationship between political parties and social movements’. This is no easy question to resolve, given the number of ‘progressive’ governments being elected across this continent – though the issue is a universal one.
Well, the meeting was exemplary: crisp and to the point, a real exhibition of how soggy ‘diversity’ creates space for genuine insight. The Forum has a lot to teach political parties in this respect. Suggestions that the Forum should itself become a political party are, thankfully, unlikely to bear much fruit.
Much against my better instincts, last evening I headed off on my own to a Forum rally where President Hugo Chávez was billed to appear.
It was a daunting prospect, way out of town at the Poliendro, a covered arena. Hoping to find a fleet of buses at the end of the Metro line, a group of us were confronted instead by torrential rain and no evident way of making further progress. Somehow an enterprising group of Brazilians found a taxi on the road, and I jumped in too.
We arrived who knows where, on a giant expanse of rain-polished tarmac largely occupied by military police. Men and women were separated for frisking and coaxed into absolutely straight lines as we waited.
Then a soldier carrying a machine gun, seeing the line was so long, pointed to another entrance whence everyone began to run, for fear of ending up at the back of another queue – I did not join in, for fear of being mown down by the machine gun.
Eventually I was frisked. The soldier opened my bag and saw my camera, yelling out with alarm. Another soldier came over and asked me to turn it on – in case it exploded, I suppose. When it did not, I was allowed in.
And there, essentially, was a Chavista rally of a kind I have been familiar with in Latin America for some time. Decked out in red caps and T shirts, they were having a great time, waiting for their man.
Among them, swamped, there were indeed Forum delegates. But their only visible presence was one Brazilian flag and a group of Colombians hurling periodic insults at their own President Uribe back in Colombia.
Apart from a few banners, the only way to guess it was a Forum event was from various luminaries – Walden Bello, Cindy Sheehan, Richard Gott – sitting a little uneasily on the stage. It was a good bet that few people in the audience knew who on earth they were.
An artfully constructed crescendo brought the man himself on to the stage, wearing a red shirt and embracing each of the luminaries in turn before sitting down among them.
A curious show began. People bearing black banners with the names of transnational corporations on them advanced from one side of the auditorium. People bearing white banners with the names of social movements on them advanced from the other side and, faced with only ritual resistance, tore up the black flags.
A sense of dread overwhelmed me. All those speakers would have to have their say. Then Chávez himself would have to have a bit more of a say. Afterwards, thousands of people would descend onto the tarmac outside in search non-existent transport.
I made a run for it through the continuing downpour, happened upon a taxi and retreated back to the city, past the barrios that twinkle like Christmas trees behind every towering slab of contemporary concrete – without having heard a word from Chávez himself.
I am sorry to have to tell you this. It was only my job that drove me there in the first place, and to come back with nothing to report is no triumph.
But I am not used – and do not take kindly – to being marshalled into supposedly progressive political meetings by armed soldiers. I know the threat of assassination against Chávez is real enough, but if this is what it takes to protect him then the threat alone seems to be working.
I do not want to be misunderstood. The Forum here is still an astonishing and truly international event, unimaginable no more than 10 years ago. There are vigorous discussions going on everywhere.
True, it has been a real disappointment to find so little on the environment, not least in one of the largest oil producing countries in the world with quite obvious problems of its own.
On the other hand, I get the feeling that more women than men are more truly engaged across a whole range of issues – including their own elusive rights.
Finally, I had the tables turned on me. A Venezuelan student wielding a notebook stopped me. In what I think he thought was English, he said something I took to be about health. He asked me to reply in English.
I got into my stride in Spanish, saying that I thought health was, well, fundamental to life… while he scrawled erratically over the pages of his notebook. I stopped, and we smiled at each other.
Eventually he said, in Spanish, that life is like being intoxicated with whiskey.
So the World Social Forum crowd have gone – and central Caracas has now been invaded by Chavistas, the enthusiasts for President Hugo Chávez, who has been in power for exactly seven years.
They arrive in a celebratory mood, blasting horns and waving the Venezuelan flag, in great convoys of clapped-out buses accompanied by swarms of mopeds which take over traffic control and prompt an additional, enraged outburst of car-horn-blowing in the clogged smarter parts of town, where the Chávez-haters have their lair.
It is a theatrical performance conducted for the most part in a good humour that is rarely reflected in the political invective here. There are even a few upscale Chavistas. One group of well-groomed and formidable-looking grandes dames had an unfortunate poodle in tow which had been sprayed a lurid pink, presumably to denote its political affiliation and avoid an unfortunate colour clash.
Yesterday President Chávez addressed the nation from the same luxurious theatre where a few days earlier we were berating the World Trade Organization. He too looks pretty well-groomed these days, in a designer suit but without the sash in the national colours sported by many of the ministers, governors, generals and dignitaries of one sort or another who surrounded him. He looked relaxed and omnipotent – which these days he almost is.
His speech was not, however, the kind of populist rant one might expect from someone who is accused by his opponents of being interested only in the accumulation of personal power. In a low-key, conversational and studiedly impromptu manner, he went through the detail of what he thought his government had achieved so far, and what remains to be done.
In December this year there are new presidential elections, and Chávez is aiming for 10 million out of a total 14 million or so registered Venezuelan voters. If he gets them – and most people seem to think he might well – then, his opponents say, the country will have finally fallen to elective dictatorship.
I have my doubts. After all, he has been in power for seven years already. Considering the visceral hatreds – mostly based on class – that have festered in this oil-rich country for so long, the absence of bloodshed has been quite remarkable.
All you have to do is spend some time in the barrios where the vast majority of Venezuelans live to see that a slow but profound change is taking place here, as elsewhere on the continent.
Quite what that is I am here to try to find out. An impossible task, of course, but one I have recklessly undertaken for the June 2006 issue of New Internationalist magazine.
The adjective ‘Bolivarian’ is attached to almost anything that moves – the Republic, the Revolution, the ‘process’, passports – but so far I have been unable to discover precisely what it means.
The general idea is that this country, this continent, is fighting its second war of independence, after the first against Spain was led from Venezuela by its ‘Liberator’, Simón Bolívar.
This new war is, of course, rather different and against American imperialism – but, more to the point, against what is called ‘neoliberalism’ here and translates worldwide into corporate globalization and free-market fundamentalism.
How far I succeed in untangling this immensely complex puzzle – with more than a little help from some very bright Venezuelans – you’ll have to judge for yourselves in the June issue of the magazine.
At the moment I’m left with the immediate recollection of a woman who works on fair-trade chocolate in a distant and impoverished rural community near the oil-rich district of Maracaibo.
She takes money from the Shell oil company. But she says quite firmly that her principles would never allow her to receive a penny from Chávez, for whom she harbours a hatred that shakes her whole body as she speaks.