NEW YORK, Jan 12 (IPS) – U.S. activists are heading to the Sixth World Social Forum (WSF) with a renewed sense of optimism and international solidarity, despite Washington’s animosity toward the hemisphere’s growing slate of leftist governments.
Up to 100,000 visitors are expected in Caracas, Venezuela from Jan. 24-29, while parallel forums will take place in Bamako, Mali from Jan. 19-23, and Karachi, Pakistan in March.
The WSF was founded in 2001 to counter the unabashedly neo-liberal agenda promoted at gatherings like the World Economic Forum, held annually in Davos, Switzerland. It has grown larger every year since, drawing thousands of trade unionists, anti-debt campaigners, environmental and fair trade activists, peasants’ groups and others representing economic and social justice movements around the world.
Although the WSF has a relatively low profile in the United States, groups that attended in the past are sending more people this time around, and others are planning their maiden voyage to the conference.
Global Exchange, an international human rights group headquartered in San Francisco, California, is sending 200 people — nearly four times the number it sent to the WSF gathering in Porto Alegre, Brazil last year.
“The main purpose of the trip is to educate people to look deeper into the realities of Venezuela, so they can come back and fight the media blitz and put pressure on the government,” said Zach Hurwitz, the “South America Reality Tours” coordinator for Global Exchange.
Venezuela’s leftist President Hugo Chavez has been painted by both Washington and the mainstream media here as a demagogue and a threat to regional stability, with the George W. Bush administration going so far as to support a failed coup against the government in 2002.
His populist “Bolivarian Revolution” has rejected the model of corporate-led globalisation, instead promoting grassroots political participation, poverty alleviation and economic self-sufficiency.
The Global Exchange delegations will meet with representatives from all walks of Venezuela’s political and economic life, including the Afro-Venezuelan Network, women’s and indigenous groups, agricultural cooperatives, grassroots media and student activists. They also plan to speak with officials involved in projects like the Cuban doctors’ programme and Mision Habitat, which addresses urban housing issues.
The groups are focusing on four themes: gender, cultural diversity and new political voices; people’s development and the Venezuelan social contract; youth leadership; and oil, natural resources and sustainability.
“A lot of people have asked what Venezuela is going to do when the oil runs out in the next 50 to 75 years, so we’re looking at what is being done to create a forward-thinking, green economy — although the first step is to cut down on consumption of oil in this country,” Hurwitz told IPS.
This time last year, the world was grieving for the victims of the catastrophic Indian Ocean tsunamis, and Bush had just won re-election, to the dismay of anti-war activists here and many people abroad who questioned the U.S.-led “war on terror”.
But now, the outlook has changed, Hurwitz and other U.S. activists say.
“There is a huge sense of optimism about the possibility for change in the United States,” he noted. “Many things have happened over the past year that worked in favour of this optimism, like the incredibly low support for the Iraq war, the exposure of corruption in Congress, and the torture cases and other scandals in the administration.”
“The Venezuelans want to be friends with people in the United States,” Hurwitz added, noting that Citgo, a subsidiary of PetrÃ³leos de Venezuela, S.A., the state-owned oil company, has donated or substantially discounted some eight million gallons of heating oil for poor communities and homeless shelters in several U.S. states.
“More and more people are catching on to the idea that the Bush administration is radically aggressive based on self-interest, while Venezuela is looking out for the welfare of people around the world,” he said.
Media activism, and particularly the growth of community radio, is the focus of the Prometheus Radio Project delegation, which is sending 15 people from across the United States to visit local television and radio stations, as well as the state communications ministry.
The members of the Prometheus collective, based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, started out as “pirate” broadcasters. When their equipment was seized by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, they vowed to open 10 new stations for every one that was shut down.
The group has successfully lobbied for low-power, non-commercial broadcasting here, and has also shared its technical expertise with communities in Nepal, Colombia, Guatemala and Tanzania to set up their own local radio projects.
“In the U.S., there is a fairly large alternative media movement, including people that work inside the (Washington) Beltway on media reform, but it tends to be quite specialised, as opposed to a broad social movement,” said Pete Tridish of Prometheus.
“We’ve observed that movements to reform the media and change the information infrastructure of society (in other countries) tend to be much more tightly connected to large grassroots movements for social change, and we’re hoping to learn about the connections between those movements in a context that is different from the U.S,” he told IPS.
“We’re particularly interested in the case of Venezuela, where the corporate media was highly complicit in the attempted coup against the democratically-elected president, Hugo Chavez.”
Other groups involved with the Prometheus delegation include Third World Majority, Reform the Media, the New Mexico Media Literacy Project, Pacifica’s Free Speech Radio News, Casa Guatemala and the Consumers Union.
“I see the WSF as a very hopeful development,” Tridish concluded. “I don’t believe that American progressives by themselves are going to steer a new course. Countries (and activists) around the world have to band together.”
While most U.S. delegates appear to be headed for Venezuela, some have also been invited to Bamako, Mali, where 35,000 activists from the region and abroad are expected.
John Catalinotto, who attended previous WSF meetings, hopes to speak about issues ranging from opposition to the Iraq war, to the race and class fault lines exposed by Hurricane Katrina, the attack on workers’ pensions illustrated by the recent Transit Workers Union strike that paralysed New York City’s subway system, and the challenges faced by immigrants here.
“People from Africa, Asia and other regions may not know the details of the struggles that have taken place, or even that there is a real class struggle here,” said Catalinotto, who will be representing the New York-based International Action Centre, a lead organiser of anti-war actions in the United States.
“At the WSF, there are different forces, and some would like to keep it as a talkfest,” he added, “while others want to see it move in the direction of ‘let’s do something against neo-liberalism, against the war,’ etc.”
“I hope we will see more international days of action this year,” he said.