Venezuelan Politics Touch Sixth World Social Forum Youth Camp

In both the problems and successes in the sixth World Social Forum Youth Camp, campers got a taste of the Venezuelan cultural and political reality.

The International Youth Camp in Parque Los Caobos, Caracas.
Credit: ECHO/Aporrea.org

Caracas, Venezuela, January 29, 2006—Parque Los Caobos, located in Bellas Artes, the arts center of Caracas, was transformed this week by the thousands of campers who came to the Caracas gathering of the sixth World Social Forum. Gone was the tranquil atmosphere where families, joggers, and dog walkers enjoyed an afternoon among trees, sculpted white fountains, and winding paths. Campers replaced the serenity with a vibrant energy as people from across the Americas and farther set up camp, put up banners and flags, participated in cultural activities, and talked about how to change the world.

But while a Caracas park was briefly changed from a Venezuelan sanctuary into a global village, the organization and experience of the youth camp was bound up in the political realities of the country. Or, at least, the political situation was used as an excuse to justify problems within the camp.

Among the issues that concerned campers was their virtual exclusion from camp decision-making. One of those to make this complaint was French Canadian activist Pierre Marin, who had come to Venezuela before the forum to help organize. He said camp decisions were hierarchal and failed to consult campers, citing as examples the fumigation of the Parque Vincio Adams campsite and the formation of the camp newspaper, El Querrequerre, which was organized and largely written by people who weren’t staying in the camp.

The Director General of the camp, Eduardo Che Mercado, agreed with this assessment, saying that Venezuela was a civil military society. “[Those who make this criticism are] totally right. We’ve realized, and have been learning with the people in both camps that our way of being and our way of living in…Venezuela is really vertical,” he said. “The forum has reflected that [working in a horizontal manner] has been very difficult for us, but it also has reflected that we have the will and the possibility to work towards it.”

He could not cite an example where the camp had shown its will to work more consultatively, but said that because it of Venezuelan politics, now was not the time to make changes. “If I’m honest, within the forum organization, there’s no horizontality. It doesn’t exist. And this is a historical moment in the country, where there should not be horizontality,” he said, pointing out that it was an election year and that he thought that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez needed to be reelected.

“As soon as we’ve achieved this, we can begin to work in the evolution of this new revolutionary political process, which obviously should be horizontal and that I personally call popular power,” he said. Many had hoped that December’s parliamentary elections, which, after a partial opposition boycott, gave the governing coalition 100 percent of the seats in the National Assembly, would be the turning point where Chávez supporters were given the political space to act less defensively.

Echoing Che Mercado’s concerns of guarding against the Venezuelan government detractors, the editorial in issue number four of El Querrequerre—which reflects the opinion of the paper’s editorial staff rather than that of the campers—seems to warn campers against the giving ammunition to the press. The major Venezuelan media, as well as United States op-ed pages, have been staunchly opposed to the Chávez government. “The dynamics of living together results in a dose of understanding that is necessary for our society, especially for the caraqueña (Caracas) community. Subject to the tensions of political changes, we live here under the crossfire of the media, which do not delay in highlighting the blunders, turning them into weapons against the dreams of an undeniable majority,” it reads.

Another bone of contention at the camps, which was blamed by some on politics, was the price of food. Planning to house many more people than came, forum staff set up two camps, one in Parque Vinicio Adames, which lies, when there’s no traffic, about half an hour outside of the center of town, and one in Parque Los Caobos. When less people than expected came, food cooperatives at Parque Vinicio Adames raised the price of food above the rates that had been promised to campers before they came.

Organizers did not cite economies of scale as an explanation. “In this country you always need to be careful with the opposition, all of the government work that is done, or any event, they’ve always got their hand in it. In this case, the people in the cooperatives, the majority of them are these sorts of people [from the opposition]…So, the first day, there was only one cooperative selling food at the [initially agreed upon] solidarity price,” said Massiel Terrasi, a volunteer organizer in the youth camp food office. Terrasi was a government supporter who said she was volunteering in order to aid the process of social change going on in the country.

Then too, people criticized bureaucracy and traffic, typical complaints of virtually everyone living in Caracas. “Yesterday, it got really crazy with Hugo Chávez speaking at the Paliedro. [None of the camp transportation] would go straight to [the] Vinecio [camp]. Even if all of us wanted to go to [there], they would stop at the Poliedro [which was] half an hour out of the way and then go to Vinecio, and there was tons of traffic anyway,” said Kesha Ram, a member of Students for Peace and Global Justice at the University of Vermont (UV).

But characteristic Venezuelan hospitality also pervaded the camp. The camp volunteers, many of whom were government workers sent by their agencies, helped sick campers, artists setting up to perform, and lost foreigners, in every way imaginable. And they seemed genuinely pleased to welcome the hoard of visitors to their city.

“This is a world wide event that’s taking place in our city. It’s a privilege to have it here. How could we miss out on the opportunity to work on it?” said Oswaldo Zárraga, a volunteer in the transportation department.

Carol Dorta, one of the four coordinators of the department echoed his sentiments. “We’re all students at different universities…so when we heard to forum was coming we immediately started asking how to get involved,” she said.

“The forum is cool…The people who have come, really understand that for the revolution, it’s necessary to put forth an effort to continue working for it… I’ve never seen anything like this, people have come in tents, all their clothes have gotten wet, but in spite of that they’re supporting the forum, and all of the topics they’re talking about. It’s magnificent,” said Karina Ramos who works for the mayor’s office and had been sent to help with the security of the event. She said hadn’t yet been able to go to an event because she’d been working. 

Even those who opposed the current Venezuelan administration—a marked minority among the overwhelmingly Chavista volunteers and campers—seemed to appreciate the campers. Isabel De Sosa, a doctor vocally opposed to the government, was working at the camp medical clinic. Though she knew little about the content of the forum, she, too, said she enjoyed the international atmosphere the forum had brought to the city. “We’ve heard people speaking all sorts of different languages on the metro. You listen and hear a Brazilian talking, and then someone who speaks English, or Japanese. It’s unusual in your own country to hear this spectrum of languages at the same time…People are making friends with people from all over the world. It’s really excellent,” she said. 

And the atmosphere created by the work and enthusiasm of the volunteers did not go unappreciated.  Paola Monges, a camper from Paraguay, raved about the security and vegetarian food.

At last years World Social Forum, in Puerto Alegre, she said, “There were problems with robberies and rape, but here the security is super good.” She was surprised to see so much military around, but, she said, “They really are here to protect us.” And, she said, unlike it other camps, vegetarian food was easily accessible, and good. 

A group of Venezuelans decided to stay in the camp even though they lived in the city.

“At night, people get together here, and have fun together. We were in the pacifist tent, and [in another there was] samba, salsa, we played drums, and danced,” said Alex Reyes, a student at the University Central de Venezuela, and a member of a Capoeira group that had been performing. “We’re here to have another opportunity to get to know people… The best way to [do that] is to live with them and spend time with them,” said Jean Carlos Rosa, another member of the group.

Ram, the student from Vermont, said it was creating a space for meeting people that scarcely existed anywhere else. “If you’re from the United States, [and] you’re affluent enough, you can travel to other countries, but the problem is that you often go and have this dichotomous relationship [with the people]. You’re either a tourist and these people are natives or you’re giving charitable service work and they’re receiving the service work, so it’s charity. Whereas with this you meet people and you all have common interests and you’re all on the same field, in many senses of the word,” she said.