Mere hours upon returning from a whirlwind tour including Spain, Russia, Libya, Iran, and Qatar, Chávez addressed several hundred intellectuals, government officials, and community activists. “I have a military background,” noted Chávez to the gathered guests, “a revolutionary military background. In the military we learned strategies for defense. And what’s the best defense?” he asked rhetorically. “The attack!” was the polyphonic response. “In defense of humanity, we must take the offensive-humanity must take the offensive,” intoned Venezuela’s charismatic leader.
Progressive luminaries such as the Argentinean Nobel laureate Perez Esquivel and his compatriot academic and political theorist Atilio Borón; members of Mexico’s prestigious Autonomous University (UNAM), which has recently become the center of progressive Latin Americanist studies; Ignacio Ramonet, the veteran editor of the left-wing French monthly Le Monde Diplomatique; and long-time social activist, author and political analyst Tariq Ali, are in Caracas for Venezuela’s own pseudo-social forum.
But in contrast with the plethora of anti-globalization forums and gatherings that have mushroomed throughout the region in recent years, this one has a practical aim in mind. One week after candidates allied to Chávez achieved a near-sweep in the October 31st regional elections, Chávez called his new governors and mayors, his ministers and advisors to a two-day meeting to come up with a detailed plan for the newest stage in Chávez’ “Bolívarian revolution” (named after Latin American independence leader Simón Bolívar). Building on this meeting, the conference places international economists, sociologists, political scientists, activists, journalists and historians together in workshops to discuss and debate concrete strategies for opposing the Free Trade Area of the Americas, American imperialism, and inequality in all its manifestations.
Many in the audience familiar with Chávez’ discourse were surprised to find a Chávez newly radicalized. Where once he would viciously denounce neo-liberalism, quoting one independence leader after another, Chávez has shifted his critique to capitalism itself—for him, the root of the problem—and has replaced some of those 19th century patriots with 20th century revolutionaries. In an intellectual sophistication that caught many in the audience off-guard, Chávez noted that those committed to the World Social Forum (WSF) slogan that “another world is possible”, the debate between Trotsky and Stalin on socialism in one country bears reexamination.
Thursday through Sunday, participants will discuss a variety of themes, ranging from participatory economic structures, to alternative media, to popular memory. It’s a line-up not entirely unfamiliar to WSF-vets, but the opening night of the In Defense of Humanity conference has an atmosphere that seems far removed from Porto Alegre. The participatory budget was, and remains, a powerful symbol of the possibilities of participatory democracy for many in the global social justice movement. Yet in Venezuela, similar people debating similar issues are nonetheless doing so in the context of a radical national government, with the express intention of “transforming ideas into concrete facts.”
Popular Memory on the Offensive at Venezuelan Intellectual Conference
Intellectuals and artists participating in the ‘In Defense of Humanity’ conference separated into workshops to debate ideas and strategies to unite third world efforts to combat neoliberalism.
Mamoudum Bocoum, a Senegalese participant began the workshop on ‘Popular Memory’, speaking in one of 12 languages indigenous to the region now known as Senegal. After switching into English, the second Colonial language spoken after French, Bocoum underlined the centrality of language in any possible attempt at “re-appropriating history.”
British historian and long-time Latin America correspondent Richard Gott addressed a workshop that drew on his recent book “Cuba: a New History.” Conscious of the context of his talk, Gott drew a fundamental parallel between two ‘great teachers’ of Latin American independence: the Cuban José Martí and the Venezuelan Simon Rodríguez, noting the legacies of education in these countries, and of the anti-imperial discourse of both Martí and Rodríguez.
The ‘New History’ in Gott’s title does not refer only to an original academic work, but also to one that has a conscious and deliberate focus on testimonial. Members of the workshop drew on their experiences from Africa, the Middle East, Europe and Latin America, sharing stories of local histories versus hegemonic official histories.
Egyptian poet and community worker Zein El-Abdin Fouad Adbel Wahab shifted discussion from local and community histories, to international political events “filtered to transparency” by the mainstream media. “I’m not defending Osama Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein,” said El-Abdin, “but we must recognize the way these men, and these stories have been twisted, manipulated by the writers of contemporary history: the New York Times, the Washington Post, and others.”Bolivian professor and social worker Rafael Puente addressed the complete absence of a sovereign history of either Bolivia or of Paraguay—both countries whose histories have been appropriated, according to Puente, by the imperialist power of the day. “Whether under the Spanish, British, or American,” argued Puente, “the history of Paraguay has never been separated from its economic and cultural exploitation.” According to Puente, Paraguay was the only country in Latin America to reject the imposition of free-trade by the British Empire in the 19th century. “This is a theme, a historical precedent that is clearly very relevant to Latin America in the 21st century and the struggle against a different empire’s attempts at imposing the same economic logic,” says Puente angrily. “And that’s exactly why it has been subverted, the history buried.”