A Night at the WSF: Speeches as Spectacle in Chavez’s Venezuela

A snapshot of a surreal, magnificent and terrifying speech of Hugo Chavez. It’s simple. Venezuelans love a spectacle. They love watching one. They love creating one. At one of the main WSF events, Chavez fulfilled their expectations.

Supporters eagerly awaited Chavez’s appearance at the WSF.
Credit: Alex Holland

Venezuelans love a spectacle. They love watching one. They love creating one. Their fanatical passion for baseball is an example of this. The crowd, the stadium, and the audience in the street create a mass energy that has to be seen to be believed.

The night after the 2006 World Social Forum ended, the Caracas Baseball team, Los Leones, won the national championship. Immediately the city exploded with celebrations. There were cheers, car horns, fireworks and even gun shots. Crowds poured into the streets.

Days before, thousands of other Venezuelans and some foreign visitors had created another spectacle. This one was about the World Social Forum, and more about the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez Frias.

So much about the event was surreal, or maybe, “magically real.” When I have become bewildered by the extremes of Caracas, Venezuelans often tell me, “You know Isabel Allende? She is from Caracas. You know magical realism? This is it.”

The location was definitely surreal. The Poliedro is a huge domed building with thousands of seats and a large arena in the center. It is located on the edge of the city. Green tropical hills flow to one side. Fields of slum buildings on the other.

VIPs on the stage included Cindy Sheehan, Richard Gott, Chavez (center), Blanca Chancoso, and Ignacio Ramonet (far right).
Credit: Alex Holland

It was hard to reach, miles away from the metro, through the slums. People came anyway. Thousands of people. They queued for hours.

Inside, the atmosphere was like the build up to a mega-star rock concert. The banner over the stage helped with this impression. It read like the name of a rock group, “The Social Movements and Hugo Chavez.”

Different musicians from across Latin America were the warm up acts. Chavez had not arrived yet. The scheduled start time was 3 and by 5 there was still no sign. The Venezuelans in the crowd did not seem to need him to entertain themselves, though.

Before the music started, they were singing, chanting, and dancing for hours. The large group of Cubans did too. They looked like a single, shaking, creature made up of red white and blue Cuban flags.

It all reminded me of an England football match. The fans drum themselves into a fury of excitement while they wait. They chant songs including the names of the star players wanting to see them score. The Poliedro chanted, “Chavez, friend, the people are with you!”

The foreigners were quieter, especially in the press section. Anti-capitalist and alternate media reporters from all over the Americas crowded into a corner of the stadium’s seating. International corporate media and Venezuelan opposition reporters sat quietly and uncomfortably amongst them.

A long table on the arena stage started to fill up with people. Some of them could be recognized. There was Cindy Sheehan, the US anti-war campaigner whose son was killed in Iraq, as well as Ignacio Ramonet, the editor of Le Monde Diplomatique. There were nine more.

The person sitting beside me said, “Are all 11 going to speak before Chavez?” Feelings of dread came into me. It was now 7 and if they all spoke the event was not going to finish until some time the next day.

Just then the main act arrived. Chavez walked on kissing and hugging all the people on the panel. There was huge applause from the crowd. Chavez introduced those he had been kissing. Everybody sat.

Suddenly there was the recorded sound of gunfire and bombs. From a side entrance people appeared carrying large, black, banners with corporate media images on them. The sounds of gunfire continued.

Just as suddenly a group of dancers dressed as peasants emerged holding fake machetes, or swords, in their hands. They jumped on the people holding the corporate banners and attacked them, chopping them down.

Then people emerged with large white banners saying, “For peace and against war and corporate greed.” Everyone seemed a bit confused by this, considering the violent way the corporations were defeated. They clapped anyway.

But it was not over. Now a couple walked forward into the arena. One was a heavily pregnant pale woman with a naked stomach. She was walking arm in arm with a darker man carrying a child.

Dozens of dancers in colored robes jumped in to the arena around them. They held up baskets of fruit and corn. Then they left. Chavez and the panel watched them, politely smiling but looked a bit confused. The person sitting on the other side of me said, “this is weak.”

The strangeness had not stopped, though. A Brazilian monk in brilliant white robes got up to the microphone and spoke. He urged the crowd to live with peace and love. At one point, he asked everyone in the Poliedro to hug each other. They did.

I started to think it could not get any stranger. Seeing the other 10 panelists I also thought about how much longer it was going to take. Just then, the monk stopped preaching and introduced Chavez. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief and applauded.

The international notaries of the anti-capitalist movement, along with indigenous and peasant activists on the panel, were there just for decoration. I thought this was strange, but was also pleased I would not have to listen to them all talk.

Venezuela’s President Chavez addressing the WSF crowd.
Credit: Alex Holland

The Venezuelan President spoke like he normally does. Charming, totally at ease, seemingly speaking without preparation. He talked in circles, starting a topic and going off on a tangent and then returning. Rather than being annoying, this was strangely quite endearing.

The content of his speech was a mix of political denunciation, intellectual comment, needless listing and song.

The name of the event was, “The struggle of the peoples against imperialism,” and his talk was full of attacks against it. Greek, Roman and Spanish Imperialism were all denounced. Special anger, as always, was saved for the US.

George Bush is “Mr. Danger.” For attacking Iraq, Mr. Danger is the, “greatest terrorist in the world.” Chavez said the US is, “the most perverse, murderous, genocidal, immoral empire that this planet has known in 100 centuries.”

Venezuela’s oil is why, “The US wants to impose its empire on us.” The 2002 coup against Chavez was part of their, “Imperialist strategy to do this.” Chavez has apparently not given up on the US, though.

Chavez asked the audience to imagine, “what if the US government with all its resources and technology was actually sincere about the struggle against hunger and poverty. If it joined with poor governments and eliminated these things from the world.”

The Social Forum also came under Chavez’s gaze. The Venezuelan President said, “It must not become a tourist activity.” He went on to say, “We must have diversity and autonomy, but also unity in a great anti-imperialist front.”

At the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in 2005, Chavez said, “many talks were occurring without conclusions. We are not here to waste our time. We must urgently build a new socialist movement.”

The reason for this was based on intellectual reflections. Through the speech he quoted anti-capitalist darling Noam Chomsky, 17th century English state theorist Thomas Hobbes, and German Socialist Rosa Luxemburg.

Chavez supported his call for urgent action by quoting from the British Philosopher Bertrand Russell. Chavez said Russell knew, “the human race is the only one that can commit self-genocide.” For this reason time is of the essence. If capitalism is left to itself, it could wipe out humanity.

The accuracy of Chavez’s other intellectual quotes was more questionable. He said the great Karl Marx also understood the danger to human existence under capitalism. Chavez said that is why, “Karl Marx famously wrote, socialism or death!”

Even if his knowledge of Marx’s writings is shaky, Chavez’s support is not. The thousands gathered in the Poliedro loved it. Applause was loud, especially at the end.

For a European like me, all of this was extremely strange and maybe magically real. It was also a bit disturbing at times. The setting, the numbers and the focus reminded me at times of some of the worst elements of my continent’s past.

As a foreign observer, I often feel torn between denouncing a cult of personality and not patronizing a people who are loving and living their politics with flair and passion.

For the pro-Chavez Venezuelans, even the critical ones, these doubts do not seem to appear. Crowds, singing, dancing and high emotions are fun not frightening. At a baseball game or a political rally they want vibrancy, eccentricity, excitement. It’s simple. Venezuelans love a spectacle. They love watching one. They love creating one.