There was one word that could be heard being repeated throughout last week’s World Social Forum (WSF) – revolution.
This year’s WSF was held in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas. The choice of venue meant that participants didn’t simply discuss why we need a better world, we talked about how we can get it in the here and now.
There were, as at previous WSF meetings, debates over the crucial issues, but the presence of huge numbers from Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and above all Venezuela itself brought a new edge to those debates.
Across Latin American the movement against imperialism and neo?liberalism is advancing.
Tens of thousands of Venezuelans came, turning the WSF into a fiesta. Discussion spilled out onto the streets, involving the poorest sections of the population.
Much of this is due to the country’s president, Hugo Chavez. It is hard to think of any other head of state telling his audience at a packed venue:
“There is not going to be another century beyond the 21st if we don’t change the direction of this one.
“The phrase used by Karl Marx – socialism or death – is more relevant than ever. But now it’s the death of the human species. Capitalism is killing the planet, the environment, the life of the seas, of the woods, drying rivers and lakes.
“This destructive model of capitalism is destroying the life of the planet. It’s now or never, as Fidel Castro said, ‘Tomorrow could be too late’.”
Chavez warned that the annual WSF meeting was in danger of becoming “a discussion forum with debate but no conclusions”. He called for the construction of a mass anti?imperialist front.
Chavez’s talk of socialism for the 21st century meant that that debate echoed through the WSF. There was, however, a contradiction. Chavez went out of his way to praise the Brazilian president, Lula, saying he stood “shoulder to shoulder” with him.
Lula, leader of the Brazilian Workers’ Party, drew strong criticism from Brazilian delegates for implementing neo-liberal policies and committing troops to the US-led occupation of Haiti.
As well as talking of the need to build anti-imperialist unity, Chavez is also pushing for an alliance between Venezuela, the new radical Bolivian president Evo Morales, and centre?left governments in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Chile. That jarred with the mood of most of those at the WSF.
At one meeting on resisting imperialism in Latin America, speakers from the region spoke in support of Venezuela’s revolution.
But a former guerilla fighter, now active in the barrios (shanty towns) of Caracas, argued that Chavez faces two enemies – US imperialism and the old, corrupt state bureaucracy.
The movement, he added, had to be ready to challenge both. That involved building all forms of struggle – effective trade unions, popular power and people’s militias.
On the morning of Thursday of last week, it was standing room only for a discussion on building popular power, held in the unlikely surrounds of the Hilton Hotel.
People discussed the popular assemblies created during last June’s rebellion in Bolivia.
There was debate about whether we should fight for socialist revolution or popular revolution.
Several speakers talked of the need to build assemblies in workplaces and communities. These should draw together indigenous people (descended from the original inhabitants of Latin America), landless labourers and the people of the barrios, alongside organised workers.
The biggest applause greeted Brice Bragato, of the radical left P-Sol party in Brazil, when she slated Lula for appeasing the bankers, Bush and big business.
She called for the left to build radical left parties like P-Sol, embracing all those who reject the neo-liberal consensus of the centre left.
Elsewhere a representative from the landless MST movement from Brazil argued that because of Lula’s record, the working class and social movements in Latin America’s biggest and most important country was in crisis.
He joined the calls for a new political party, saying, “It’s not enough to get on a bus and travel – you need someone to direct it and to say when to get off.”
The forum started with 100,000 people marching on Tuesday of last week. There was an even better spirit on a 3,000-strong protest of people calling for the unification of the struggles in Venezuela.
Landless labourers waved machetes on the march. Some had been arrested, beaten and charged by the National Guard after taking over unused land owned by a major landowner. They were demanding Chavez revoke a state of emergency imposed by the right wing local authorities in the Yaracuy region to stop such occupations.
Young people from the barrios spray-painted banks and McDonald’s, while a feminist collective from the Bolivarian University chanted “women and men, together we must build popular power” and “no socialist revolution without women’s revolution”.
They all shared the popular enthusiasm for Chavez and the changes he has brought about.
The WSF committed itself to support a number of initiatives, but above all the global day of action on 18 March against war and occupation.
Government ministers publicly admit that Venezuela owes a debt of gratitude to the Iraqi resistance, which prevents George Bush intervening directly against Chavez.
We need to continue the debate with our sisters and brothers in Latin America. But on 18 March we need to march together and deepen links between our common fights against neo-liberalism and war.