Caracas, Venezuela, January 25, 2006—The main speaker of the rally after the opening march of the World Social Forum may have been Cindy Sheehan, a North American Anti-War Activist; progressive foreign groups may have flooded to the forum in droves; Gringos on stilts may have towered over the crowds; but the Venezuelan presence was unmistakable in the walk across Southwest Caracas.
People in red shirts, advertising different Missions, or Venezuelan government sponsored social programs, speckled the march. One of these, Huberto Casterdia, a social worker who worked at the mayor’s office, was sitting on a bench, waiting for the rest of his group from Mission Sucre to arrive after being separated from them in the crowded metro. He was sporting the T-shirt of the mission, which provides free post-secondary education, with which he is a student.
“We’re here for the changes that are taking place across Latin America, against imperialism, against war, and saying that another world is possible…As [Venezuelan] President [Hugo] Chávez says, we’re working toward Latin American integration, solidarity,” he said, emphasizing, as Chávez did when Venezuela was put on track to become a full member of South American Trade Block MERCOSUR, that commercial integration is only one step toward regional integration.
Many Venezuelans at the march quoted Chávez, or spoke praisingly of him. “[I’m here] to support my commander Hugo Chavéz Frías, who we love and adore…he’s a person who cares so much about the poor, he’s a humanist, he’s someone who wants to help people who have a problem or a crisis in whatever other country,” said Reina Lopez, who studied at the Mission Ribas, which provides high school education to adults. “I’m going to graduate from Mission Ribas and study at the Bolivarian University. For a person who’s over 50 years old, that’s something wonderful,” she added, standing on the side of the road watching the march.
Some groups, however, had criticisms of the government. “We support the revolutionary process…but [we don’t support] the corruption of the government, because that’s happening, it’s a reality, and as revolutionaries we have to be critical of it. It’s our job to clean up the corruption of the government,” said David Guell, a Member of Corriente Marxista Bolivariana, a Venezuelan-Leninist Marxist organization. About 20 other members of his group, some with drums, alternated between chanting and chiming into the interview.
The notably calmer contingent of Amnesty International Venezuela, talked about their campaign within the country to lower violent crime. “This is one of the ten most violent countries…And sadly, when we look at Venezuela, what we see is that the majority of people murdered are young and poor, more than 90 percent of the victims,” Marco Gómez, Director of Amnesty International Venezuela. “We’re working for arms control, in Venezuela as in the rest of the world so that wars and street violence stops,” he added.
The Bolivarian Circles were also represented at the march. A few years ago the Chavista circles—which according to proponents were community groups, according to the opposition were thugs for enforcing the revolution—had a notable presence in Venezuela. Over the years they have lost much of their visibility, but, they say, they are still actively supporting the missions. Only spokespeople were allowed to speak to the press, because, members said, of their disciplined and militaristic structure. “We’re marching in solidarity with the people of the world and the unity of the people of Latin America and the Carribean,” said José Perada, who, as a National Coordinator of the Bolivarian Circles, was authorized to speak to the press. The approximately thirty members wore red t-shirts promoting the circles, and carried a banner that nearly spanned the width of the street.
A group of about 20 high school students stood holding hands in a large circle, waiting at an intersection to cross a major road. “We’re here representing all the Bolivarian youth, because a better world is possible,” said a young woman in the ring, who studied in a nearby school.
Several blocks behind, another group of young politics and government students from the Bolivarian University of Venezuela. “Before universities were in the hands of aristocrats and oligarchs was limited only to people who had a lot of money or connections, and the Bolivarian Universities have given us a chance to study,” said Alejandro Paldron, one of the students.
Venezuelan representatives of union groups marched as well. “We’re unionizers, but more than unionizers; we’re a movement of workers which integrate workers’ organizations and social organizations of peasants [and] of retired people without pensions,” said Eduardo García Moure, Secretary General of the Central Latinoamericana de Trabajadores. “We work throughout Latin America. In Venezuela we work with Venezuelan unions, that are affiliated with us,” he added, listing unions across the political spectrum.
The rights of people weren’t the only ones being talked about in the march. Christina Camilloni, president of the Association in Defense of Animals (APROA), a Venezuelan association for animal rights protection explained her groups position as she outpaced many of the walkers in her mechanical wheelchair. “We’re in favor of the fight of the people, and there’s another cause that’s also important, and that’s animal liberation…[The animal liberation movement] is happening here, and we hope this year they pass the animal protection law in Venezuela, which is in the National Assembly,” she said.
Caracas residents, unaccustomed to large numbers of North American tourists, generally went out of their way to be helpful. Residents happily lent cell phones to a California resident who had lost his friends. A gringo on stilts slipped on a puddle, and tumbled to the ground. Two police officers rushed to help him, though they couldn’t help cracking a smile when they found out he was from the United States. Other Venezuelans helped direct people to public transportation as they were leaving.
At the rally at the end of the march, Venezuelans and others periodically chanted for Chávez, who did not appear. It was just as well. The social changes sweeping Venezuela that many people see him as embodying were well represented by the masses in his absence.