During a debate which featured two influential thinkers deliberating on how best to build a perfect society, a young woman from the audience abruptly jumped to her feet. In a shrill, breathless voice she accused the two men of being old and white; of talking, talking, talking and doing nothing while a revolutionary regime fights for its life. Welcome to the left. It is the 2006 World Social Forum (WSF) in Caracas, Venezuela, where close to one-hundred-thousand activists have gathered for six days of seminars, speeches and networking-all with the aim to develop the global left, and resist neo-liberalism and imperialism.
The WSF was founded to be the antithesis of the World Economic Forum in Davos, an annual, exclusive gathering of the business and political elite. First held in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2001, the WSF is meant to be a space open to decentralized debate by members of the global left. To bang home the point, this year's WSF has been spread throughout the world, with forums being held in Bamako, Mali (in mid-January) and Karachi, Pakistan (later this spring).
Although the WSF has no official ideology, given the manner in which it is structured and the dominant views of its organizers and participants, one can interpolate that the forum represents both a marked focus on social movements-as opposed to political parties-and a deep scepticism of state power. In theory, armed movements and political parties aren't invited.
Despite this, the 2006 Caracas forum took place in a country where the most spectacular surge of the Latin American political left since the Cuban Revolution nearly fifty years ago, has taken place-a surge represented by the charismatic president Hugo Chavez.
Chavez, who led an unsuccessful military coup in 1992 and was elected in 1998, has taken up the banner against US imperialism, prompting US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld to compare him to Hitler. He survived a US-favoured coup in 2002, an opposition-organized halt to Venezuelan oil production later that year and a recall referendum in 2004. He has also helped to derail talks on a pan-American free trade agreement and is pushing alternative, left-wing, Latin American arrangements. Chavez has poured a lot of money into this WSF.
At home he's leading a "Bolivarian revolution," named for Simon Bolívar, the nineteenth-century general who liberated much of South America from Spanish imperial rule. Chavez actively encourages citizens to organize themselves locally and empower themselves politically. His supporters insist that, although Venezuela has never before been a true democracy, today it's the most democratic nation on earth. His innovative social programs, which primarily focus on basic health care and literacy for poor Venezuelans of all ages, are paid for by the country's massive oil reserves (in defiance of neo-liberal logic), and operate outside traditional institutions in order to directly reach those in need. Like Fidel Castro in Cuba, Chavez has personalized his revolution. His Sunday talk show, "Aló Presidente," often runs for seven hours, while his speeches-frequently delivered without notes-can last over two hours. His image is stamped all over the country.
But while Chavez may be the face of dramatic-even revolutionary-change in Venezuela, he wasn't supposed to be the face of the WSF.
Last year, a far more innocuous attempt to give form to the self-consciously grassroots, nebulous forum was met with strong resistance. Nineteen intellectuals-including Eduardo Galeano, Ignacio Ramonet and Tariq Ali-released a document called "The Porto Alegre Consensus Manifesto," which called for specific global policies ranging from economic reform to democracy promotion. Manifesto-signatories (among them noted scholar Immanuel Wallerstein) are among those who hope the WSF will soon embody the new global left; but to do so, the forum must learn to take action, as well as talk, in order to achieve its aims. Articulating a common position would be a baby-step in that direction.
Many furiously disagree, however-including WSF organizer Chico Whitaker, who told openDemocracy this year that the document "was an [undemocratic] initiative by only a small group of participants at the forum ... Their views do not represent the forum as a whole." He said that if such initiatives continued, people like him would stop attending the forums.
This year, although no such proposals emerged and there was sparse mention of last year's "Consensus Manifesto," the stakes had grown higher. Chavez's presence weighed far more heavily than that of a few thinkers. Bolivarian kitsch-Chavez t-shirts, posters, wood-carvings, etc.-greatly outnumbered the usually dominant Che paraphernalia. At a number of seminars and influential chats, the WSF talk shop seemed like a backdrop to the real action: an incoming tide of radical left-wing presidents; from Nestor Kirschner in Argentina, to freshly-elected Evo Morales in Bolivia to Chavez in Venezuela. Events featured speakers, mostly from the different social movements, who were jubilant about the "red wave," although worried that the political leaders would stray too far from their base.
In a classroom in downtown Caracas, Luis Villa Faña, a community organizer and administrator at the National Library, told an audience seated either in small chairs or on the tiled floor, that the leadership of the Bolivarian revolution was losing touch:
"A gap is forming between disillusioned local leaders, who are really focused on their own neighbourhoods, and the people around Chavez, at the top," he said. "This makes it very hard for the leaders to solve people's problems."
Faña believes this growing gap constituted a violation of article 62 of the new constitution, which reads, "It is the obligation of the State and the duty of the society to facilitate the most favourable possible conditions for the practice [of participatory democracy]."
"The people have a slogan, which goes: 'Even with hunger and unemployment, I stay with Chavez'," Faña says. "The leadership of the process [the ministers, advisors, etc.] doesn't have that slogan. Many of them don't consider this a revolutionary process and are already thinking about their next job."
One prevalent idea about social change suggests a two-part process: On the one hand, leftwing political parties should seek influence in parliaments and national assemblies, eventually gaining power democratically. Because such power is inevitably corrupting, the grassroots social movements-those closest to the people-must pressure the political parties on the left to stay true to the people's goals. (Indeed, in much of South America, it is the social movements that get the socialist parties elected.)
At the WSF, community leaders from across South America shared this view. They warned that their Presidents needed to stay close to their people in order to fulfill their mandates, and that it was the role of the social movements to make sure that this happened. The Americas wing of the WSF has a parallel role: to maintain honest discourse while exerting influence on the presidents who claim to wield power on behalf of shared principles.
At the 2006 WSF, however, it was Chavez who gave the orders.
On the forum's Friday evening, at half-past-seven, the President addressed ten thousand cheering supporters under a geodesic dome located about thirty minutes outside Caracas. The event was well-planned, if low on production values. Sandwiches, juice and bottled water were repeatedly distributed to the crowd.
The official insignia of the event closely mimicked that of the WSF. The logo was the same-only coloured in blues instead of oranges-and the slogan "Another World is Possible" was replaced by "The Anti-Imperialist Struggle of the World's People."
Before the speech, there were further allusions: a mock machete battle was performed between youths bearing corporate logos on the one side and populist, anti-war slogans on the other. This was followed by a sentimental dance by indigenous people in full regalia. We learned that, seated with Chavez at the head table, were Ricardo Alcarón, the president of Cuba's National Assembly, American anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, and two leftwing journalists-Guardian writer Richard Gott and Monde Diplomatique editor Ignacio Ramonet.
Near the close of a long, rambling discussion of South America's history, Africa's place in the Latin American soul, the cynicism of the American empire and the inspirational example of the Cuban revolution, Chavez addressed the role of the WSF. He assured the audience that it is essential to respect the autonomy of the social movements. And then:
"Last year, we were talking about how the WSF has enormous importance to the global offensive of [leftist] social movements, politicians, parliaments, governments, et cetera. And it would be awful, I believe, to permit the WSF to become an annual, folkloric event, of tourism. We'd be wasting time. And we're not here to waste time. So I say, to the leaders of the social movements who are here, join us in developing a work plan, an action plan to drive these efforts in Latin America, in Asia, in Africa."
And, a moment later: "Socialism or death!"
The WSF has long been criticized for lacking a mechanism for action. Its defenders say, "So what? It's purely a space for debate. Trying to transform it into something more would only kill it." But with the rising power of elected socialists, the status quo may be ever riskier. Already, the WSF is plainly becoming an activist tourist event. Even more dangerous, if the forum fails to find a way to assert itself-to unite its participants in a constructive project-it risks accelerating the very process it's designed to prevent: the concentration of leftwing energy, power and legitimacy in the hands of a handful of presidents.
Daniel Aldana is a Caracas-based freelance writer who blogs at www.danielaldana.net. He happily admits he's all talk and no action.