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Monday, January 09, 2006 

WORLD SOCIAL FORUM:Global Protest with a Caribbean Twist
Humberto Márquez*


CARACAS, Jan 9 (IPS) - Venezuela, under the leftist government of President Hugo Chávez, has placed itself squarely in the centre of the political debate in Latin America, which the World Social Forum (WSF) has recognised by moving one portion of its annual meeting to this South American nation.

Up to now, the annual global civil society gathering was held three times in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre and once in Mumbai, India. While counting on the host government's strong interest and solidarity, the Jan. 24-29 WSF in Venezuela is also determined not to be overly coloured by "Chavismo", and to safeguard its identity as a pluralistic alternative global event that serves as a counterpoint to the World Economic Forum (WEF) held annually in the Swiss ski resort of Davos.

The central themes of the Venezuelan WSF will be: "power, politics and the fight for social emancipation", "imperialist strategies and resistance by the people", "alternatives to the predatory model of civilisation", "diversities, identities and cosmovisions in movement", "labour, exploitation and reproduction of life", and "communication, culture and education: democratising dynamics and alternatives."

The WSF in Caracas is also expected to take up the ongoing debate on whether the Forum should be simply an open space for discussion, debate, the sharing of proposals and the showcasing of successful initiatives, or should also focus on action in favour of political and social change.

The WSF will open just two days after Evo Morales, Bolivia's first-ever indigenous president, takes office. Morales is another expression of the growing leftist political and social movements that have given rise to a shift towards the left in the region, where allies of the movements taking part in the WSF and other events opposed to free-market, "neoliberal" policies are now in power in a number of countries.

In Brazil, powerful social movements helped place President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a former trade unionist, and his leftist Workers Party, in the government in 2003. And in Venezuela, the controversial Chávez, in office since 1999, regularly expresses sentiments similar to those heard at the WSF, and has personally taken part in international anti-globalisation events. The WSF is coming to Venezuela "in solidarity with its anti-imperialist position and its opposition to the FTAA (the U.S.-sponsored Free Trade Area of the Americas)," trade unionist Jacobo Torres, a member of the organising committee, told IPS. "The big attraction of Venezuela is that many people want to come and find out firsthand what is happening.

We want those who are already convinced and who want a revolution to come, as well as those who don't, and those who have doubts," said Torres, who belongs to the Bolivarian Workers Force, a labour movement aligned with the Chávez administration.

The Venezuelan government has provided nine million dollars to help finance the WSF, and is playing an important role in organising the gathering, "but we are committed to playing by the rules, and this will not be a Chavista meeting," added Torres, who is also a Caracas city government employee.

Even Chávez's participation "is being carefully studied, in order to ensure that it does not clash with the rest of the activities. If we schedule him to take part in events, the rest of the conference rooms and other venues could be left half empty," he said.

The tens of thousands of activists who will visit this city of four million in the last week of January will make the WSF the biggest concentration of visitors in Venezuelan history and pose enormous challenges in terms of lodging and transportation. The gathering in Venezuela, a country of 26.5 million, is expected to draw between 80,000 and 100,000 people (155,000 people took part last year in Porto Alegre) who will participate in 2,200 different activities over the space of five days, in 174 different venues, the organisers told IPS.

A central camp will be set up in La Carlota, a former air base and civil aerodrome located in the middle-class district on the east side of the capital. For decades civic groups demanded that the area be converted into a park, and the air base finally stopped functioning two years ago. The city's main campuses and auditoriums will host activities organised by social organisations from every continent, including Asia and Africa, even though those two regions will hold their own Forums, to take place Jan. 19-23 in Bamako, the capital of Mali, and in March in the southern Pakistan city of Karachi. Breaking up the WSF into three parts is a novel idea that also poses certain risks. For example, the absence of the experienced Brazilian organising committee,

which functions as a permanent body, has already begun to be felt in all three host cities. The initial plan was to hold the Forum simultaneously in the three locations. But due to a variety of organisational and logistical reasons, the meetings will be held on different dates. The Karachi WSF was postponed because of the tragic Oct. 8 earthquake that left around 80,000 dead in northern Pakistan and the disputed territory of Kashmir.

The question of financing, the high costs of travel and a dearth of adequate infrastructure have also thrown into doubt the WSF in Mali, although the members of the organising committee in that West African nation insist that everything will go smoothly. In Venezuela, supporters of Chávez's "peaceful social revolution", which has involved a broad range of social initiatives that have benefited the poor, have been busily searching among their grassroots organisations - community land, water and health committees, cooperatives and the beneficiaries of adult education programmes - to round up "solidarity lodging" in poor neighbourhoods in Caracas and outlying districts for around 35,000 visiting activists.

According to the list of available rooms, the majority will cost guests less than 15 dollars a day, and free lodging has even been offered. "We want the people to be involved, and we do not want to annoy the residents of the city. We also want the construction work that has to be done to leave behind contributions from the Forum to the city," said Torres.

The facilities that will be left to Caracas will include communication centres with Internet access, food stands - which will not sell snacks or beverages from corporations that are symbols of capitalism - and special collective mass transit routes.

In addition, an army of volunteers will help beef up security in Caracas, one of the most violent cities in Latin America. * With additional reporting by Alejandro Kirk in Chile. (END/2006)

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