The same question echoed in the back of thousands of minds as the Sixth World Social Forum (WSF) opened here in January: “Where’s Hugo?” In fact, on the day of the forum’s opening march, self-styled socialist Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was in Bolivia attending the inauguration of fellow left-wing President Evo Morales. Chávez’s presence, though, was everywhere in Caracas–on T-shirts laid out by vendors on the march route (outnumbering by 2 to 1 the face of revolutionary heartthrob Che Guevara); on pins with the flag of Venezuela, handed out by volunteers; in the chants of enthusiastic supporters; even in the talking Chávez dolls sold along the street.
For six days at the end of January, more than 80,000 participants from around the globe descended on Caracas to collaborate and strategize in the annual forum for leftist civil society. This year, the Caracas forum was one of three in a new “polycentric” format intended to foster more regional collaboration. Another was held in Bamako, Mali, the previous week; a third is scheduled for Karachi, Pakistan, in March (moved from January because of last year’s earthquake).
The decision to hold the forum in Venezuela gave the meeting a new flavor–as well as a new set of challenges. On the one hand, the country is living proof of the WSF’s slogan: Another World Is Possible. In a short seven years, Chávez and his “Bolivarian Revolution” (a reference to legendary South American hero Simón Bolívar) have upended the Venezuelan economy, using a ready supply of oil money to fund social programs for some of the world’s poorest citizens. At the same time, many forum participants expressed private dismay at El Comandante’s close ties to Cuba and his cult of personality, which some critics on the left see as more show than substance.
From the beginning, this forum had a more nationalistic feel than those in the past, which have taken pains to de-emphasize political parties in favor of an open space to debate. The opening march was festooned with national flags and insignia–not only from Venezuela but also from Colombia, Brazil and an 800-member Cuban delegation that marched in lockstep, wearing matching baseball caps and waving flags. Perhaps it was the overcast sky or the forbidding, postapocalyptic architecture of downtown Caracas, but the opening march of the forum also seemed less defiant than might have been expected, as if the participants weren’t sure whether to protest or celebrate recent events in South America.
These are heady times for the continent. In addition to Venezuela and Bolivia, four other countries now have left-leaning leaders: Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil, Néstor Kirchner in Argentina, Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay and the newly elected Michelle Bachelet in Chile. Last November their influence all but scuttled the Free Trade Area of the Americas (a linchpin of the neoliberal free-trade agenda, also known by its Spanish initials ALCA) at a meeting with George W. Bush in Argentina. Combine this with an open revolt against Bush’s foreign policy agenda in the United States, and leftists in the hemisphere suddenly have reason for optimism.