January, 2005, Brazil
President Chavez addresses the teeming Gigantinho stadium in Porto Alegre, Brazil on the last day of the World Social Forum. The massive crowd cheers wildly; thunderous applause explodes each time he appeals for Latin American unity and denounces the Bush agenda.
I talk with him later that evening, wondering what it feels like to be the most popular politician in Latin America in decades. "The poor of Venezuela - and of the entire continent - are waking up. They are building the dream of Bolivar - to create a united Latin America free of interference from the United States."
Something remarkable is happening in Venezuela. For the first time, the President has challenged the business elite head-on, fighting - and winning - a David-and-Goliath struggle to recapture the national oil wealth from a tiny elite and put it to use to the benefit the poor majority.
President Chavez was elected in 1998 on a platform to more fairly distribute the nation's oil wealth, and to bring the country out of massive poverty and inequality. The traditional elites fought back hard, organizing a coup in 2002 which the US government was the only developed country to endorse. A massive popular uprising brought him back to office within 48 hours. An oil strike/worker's lockout later that year only served to hand over control of the massive oil company from the traditional elites to the government. And a referendum last year - organized by unrepentant coup leaders, financed with support from the U.S. Government, and designed for his ouster - instead consolidated Chavez's democratic mandate in a 59% landslide.
Flash forward to January, 2006, Venezuela
In recognition of the unprecedented changes happening there, this year the World Social Forum is moving to the country with the most mobilized citizenry and the most progressive government in Latin America - Venezuela.
The WSF has played a major role in uniting the world's social movements, Indigenous communities, women's rights activists, human rights organizations, environmentalists, intellectuals, and students, creating the vision of Another World Is Possible, as well as the space for us to build it together.
This is where the largest public mobilizations in human history - the February 15, 2003 protests against the war in Iraq - were hatched. Last year, over 120,000 people came from almost 100 countries around the world to participate, including thousands of people from the U.S.
The Social Forum provides a unique venue for learning from each other's struggles across boundaries and for sharing strategies across borders towards a truly global peace and justice movement. Latin Americans have been mounting impressive victories - electing progressive governments in Venezuela, Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina; stopping the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA); Bolivian peasants kicking Bechtel out of Cochabamba; Uruguayans passing a constitutional amendment against the privatization of water; Mexicans defending the right of the most popular progressive presidential candidate to stand for election next year.
And there's a new buzzword flashing across television and internet screens across the continent: regional integration. Farmers across the hemisphere uniting in the Via Campesina; poor people's movements gathering in the network COMPA; anti-free trade groups organizing together through the Hemispheric Social Alliance.
Venezuela is taking this vision of people's integration and putting real governmental resources into giving it a scope incredible to imagine. Under the banner of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, Venezuela has developed a real alternative to the defeated FTAA. The wide variety of ALBA projects prioritize real development, social equality, and strengthening national economies - rather than structurally adjusting their economies around multinational corporate interests. One of ALBA's first achievements is the health care-for-oil program involving 20,000 Cuban doctors and nurses providing primary, preventative community health care across Venezuela - in exchange for cheap oil that keep Cuban cars and factories running.
Chavez, along with President Lula of Brazil, led the effort for the southern cone nations to unite with the Andean countries to birth the South American Community of Nations last fall, a promising new endeavor. Venezuela, along with Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina, and Cuba, recently launched the first Latin American news channel, TeleSur, to offer an alternative to foreign corporate media. And they are working to establish PetroAmerica- the first fully integrated, Latin American energy company.
Flash back to January, 2003, Brazil
I'm attending the WSF for the first time. Glancing out the window of our hotel, I'm surprised to see security swarming the parking lot. Why on earth would the secret service stake out the World Social Forum? It finally dawns on me: Chavez has arrived. Stepping out of the elevator I see him, chatting amiably with the crowd as he tries to make his way across the lobby. I know nothing about Venezuela, and just take snapshots from a distance. Finally, I screw up my courage. "Compañero Presidente!" I call.
He turns around. He talks with Medea Benjamin and me for a good ten minutes. We are trying to stop the war in Iraq before it starts, we say. (We failed.) He is fighting a war in his country against poverty, he says. (He is winning.) He invites Global Exchange to bring a delegation of women for peace to Venezuela.
Was that really the president of Venezuela?, I ask myself. He seems like such a regular guy. Four months later, I'm on a plane.
The weekend of my first trip, we travel to a tiny village near the Andean city of Merida to film Al Presidente, his weekly four-hour live traveling talk show. We visit a research facility for potatoes, an Andean staple. He explains to me as we walk among the baby plants, "we in Venezuela import potatoes from Canada, while our own farmers don't have work. Now we are investing in the necessary technical assistance for farmers to produce food for our own people. That is food security."
A scientist describes the "new varieties" being developed that fit Andean soil and climate, resist disease, and produce prodigiously. Ignorant of traditional plant splicing techniques, I inquire skeptically about to the process involved in developing these so-called new varieties. The researcher looks confused. "She's concerned about genetic modification of the plants - because that leads to corporate control of the food supply," Chavez tells the scientists.
My jaw drops to the floor. Here is the leader of the country with the biggest reserves of oil outside the Middle East, and he sounds like one of us. More important, except of course for the not-so-negligible fact that he's the president, he acts like one of us. Challenging the corporate, conservative way of thinking; visioning alternatives based on people's human needs; and organizing for change. In fact, Venezuela's implementation of land reform, credit and technical assistance for small farmers, sustainable agriculture, and subsidized food for the poor represents various aspects of the agricultural model advocated by progressive communities for years. In Venezuela, I learn, food is to eat, not just to export.
Another World Is Possible: And it is Happening in Venezuela
On my next visit a month later, I witness the beginning of a true revolution in education. In Cuba, the night before the launch of the literacy campaign with Presidents Chavez and Castro, the former tells me that "based on their own successful literacy campaign, the Cubans developed the model pedagogy, and trained all of our literacy facilitators. They are also printing a small family library - a dozen volumes of literary giants - for each graduate. And now more than 50,000 Venezuelans are volunteering in their communities to teach - and to eradicate the scourge of illiteracy in our nation."
To live in a country where all of the grandmothers can read! The excitement gleaming in his eye shines like a beacon. A few months later I visit a literacy center, and speak with 70 year old Ana. "I'm learning to read and write now because Chavez has called on me - on all of us - to study. We old people need to be educated so we can participate in the rebuilding of our country. I've never voted in my whole life, but nowadays even old grannies like me count - you can bet I'm going to vote next election!" Two years later, the program has taught over 1.5 million Venezuelans to read and write, and the country is now certified as illiteracy-free by UNESCO.
Later, I visit a high-school equivalency program for adults. Roraima is a 36 year old mother of two who's worked as a maid her whole life. Now she has a future, she tells me. "I had to drop out of high school in 9th grade to work, so my brothers could go to school. Now I'm getting my GED, and then I will go on to the Mission Sucre [the universal college access program] to study to become a social worker. Then I will be able to help others as Chavez has helped me, and give back to my community." Her voice quakes with the honor of it all as she tells me, "do you have any idea, any idea at all, what it means to me, a dropout maid, to become a high school graduate of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela?" Tears well up in my eyes every time I think of her.
The literacy campaign, the high school and college education missions, the health care for all program, these are the backbone of a wide series of programs putting oil money to use for the benefit of 24 million instead of a few thousand. Massive land reform and rural assistance programs combined with subsidized food stores that reach over half the population are building food security and food sovereignty step by step.
The Confederation of Indigenous Nations of Venezuela fought hard for Chavez in the referendum, proud of the new rights they consolidated in the national Constitution, including language rights and land rights in Mission Guaicaipuro. And Afro-Venezuelans have used participatory democracy to demand that the entire grade school curriculum include the contributions of African descendants - and won.
And one of the most innovative programs combines state investment in strategic industries with job training and regional cooperation agreements, to build opportunities for Venezuelans and diversify the oil revenue base. Rather than "stifling business" or "choking the economy" as free trade fundamentalists predicted, employment has taken a dramatic upturn and the economy is growing faster than any other in Latin America.
Bringing in all home: U.S. Policy towards Venezuela
These ambitious programs have distinguished Venezuela as one of the most progressive democracies in the world. Nonetheless, the Bush administration continues to fund coup leaders in their efforts to destabilize the government. Even the Organization of American States and Carter Center's certification of the August 2004 referendum as free and fair, and presidential approval ratings topping 70% this summer, haven't convinced the Bush administration to back off.
That's because the threat that Venezuela represents to the Bush agenda isn't in the false claims of supporting terrorism, supposed laxity on drug trafficking, or any alleged lack of democratic credentials. It's precisely because in Venezuela, like at the World Social Forum, people engaged in participatory democracy are creating a world based on life values, not money values - and the movement is growing.
After Hurricane Katrina, Venezuela offered to send 2,000 emergency personnel to New Orleans to help, an offer that was never accepted by the U.S. Government. On a recent New York visit, President Chavez visited poor communities in the Bronx, and promised to provide discounted oil for poor Americans through the Venezuelan-owned gas stations of Citgo. He denounced of the illegal occupation of Iraq, and received the largest applause of any speech at the United Nations General Assembly meeting.
In response, the Bush administration has so far refused to extradite Luis Posada Carriles, the "bin Laden" of the Western hemisphere, to Venezuela to stand trial for the terrorist bombing of a Cuban jetliner that killed 73 people in 1976.
Now Venezuela, home to a peaceful revolutionary process that has brought education and healthcare to millions through the redistribution of oil profits, will host the World Social Forum this January, 2006. When we dreamed during the first WSF in 2001, that Another World Is Possible, we had no idea we would see it within our lifetimes - in Venezuela.
Here in the U.S., we couldn't stop the war against Iraq. But we can be part of the wave of progressive values and victories spreading across the Americas, and learn from a country where oil is a source of social equality and development, instead of a cause for war.
And who knows, we might even learn how to get a better president.