Poolside, Caracas Hilton.
I had never been to the World Social Forum, the anti-globalization movement’s answer to the White Guy meeting of the corporate elite in Davos, Switzerland. So when offered a ticket by Randy Hayes, I jumped at the chance. I wanted to check out an event that brought the grass roots leaders of the world together for a week of meetings, workshops, speeches and fun.
We took the flight from San Francisco to Houston where we met Floyd and K-Baum in time to board the redeye flight to Caracas. We arrived in the early morning and caught a bus to the city by way of a detour because the main bridge from the airport had collapsed. This turned what would have normally been a 45-minute ride into a three hour excursion through forested canyons, over foggy mountain passes and across congested suburbs where precariously perched houses of cement and bricks seemed to completely cover the steep hills, making the mountains resemble gigantic dilapidated pyramids.
Finally we arrive in the city, a collection of tall concrete skyscrapers and streets teeming with noise, smoke and life. We disembark in the university district, where the World Social Forum (WSF) was in full swing.
The smell of revolution was in the air. So was the inescapable smell of petroleum, which has helped to fuel this country’s revolt against the established order of international oligargs and cleptocrats.
Everywhere there are booths and tents and pavilions buzzing with activity. Vendors are peddling everything imaginable, most of it festooned with the blazing images of the great revolutionary Che, and Hugo Chavez the President of Venezuela and major Bush antagonist. I buy a pair of Che socks and some Hugo Chavez boxer shorts from a guy in a red beret.
Aside from scene at the university, much of the action is at the Hilton Hotel. It’s a strange sight to see so many leftists, hippies, Rastafarians, and every sort of social activist commandeering a major outpost and symbol of capitalism. At the hotel we learn that a very good five-dollar breakfast can be had for about eighteen bucks. And, if you stare hard enough at the wait staff, you can even get a refill on your coffee, which is not as good as the coffee you can get on the street for a fraction of the price.
The rooms are actually pretty inexpensive at the Hilton, which is owned by the Venezuelan government, who has supported the forum. Most importantly, the rooms at the Hilton have Internet access, crucial for today’s anti-global activists, which our hotel, the fabulously misnamed Waldorf, does not. At the Waldorf, our rooms are spacious and totally devoid of any furniture or decorations save for a small bare light bulb, a bunk bed and a badly functioning toilet. It has a large window with a single pane of glass. If you slide it to the right the window is half open. When you slide it to the left, the window is half closed. The real attraction of the Waldorf is not only that it is twenty dollars a night (for a 3-person room). It is situated next door to a very nice bar where the locals gather to watch their baseball team, the Lyones, which were in the process of sweeping the national grand finals. Every time the Lyones scored a run, the bar erupted in the team fight song; LEEEE OHHH-NEY, LEEOHHNEY! The score was 12-0, but they cheered every play as if it was a go ahead run in the ninth inning. These fans love their baseball and drink their Scotch out of twelve-ounce tumblers like it was ice-tea. At one point, two inebriated pugilists staged a separate contest to settle the question of the relief pitcher’s manhood.
The bar empties as the contest moves to the sidewalk, and later the two battered contestants return to their drinks, one of them sporting a very nice shiner.
There are reportedly a few hundred Americans among the 70,000 or so registered participants, but they are harder to spot then you might think. And certainly not by their dress or skin pigmentation, as most everyone here is in traditional western dress, mostly jeans, slacks, and athletic wear. One can see all the logos, from Adidas to Tommy Hilfiger, ironically just about everything but Patagonia. Many of the representatives from the Indigenous organizations are in traditional dress, as were many of the hippies.
Most of the gringos here seem to be fluent in Spanish. I’m not. So I spend much of my time walking around smiling at people and graciously accepting leaflets that I cannot read.
The most surprising thing of all about this event is the number of hippies. And I do mean hippies; dreadlocked, nose-pierced, tattooed, bare mid-rifted, drum-banging, bong-toting hippies. And they are not Americans. They seem to hail from every corner of the globe. At the youth camp, the Bob Marley t-shirts are moving faster then the Hugo Chavez shirts, which few of the students are sporting.
The sound of samba drums and the smell of ganja floats in the breeze and I follow it to a group of students who are displaying a legalize marijuana placard. In broken Spanish I tell them I am a hippie. They go wild. They explain that normally they couldn’t smoke in the park, but today was different, the park was liberated. I yell VIVA WOODSTOCK, and they understand and enthusiastically agree.
From reading some of the discussion papers presented, there is some tension around the “hippie question”. The WSF has always been decentralized and without any dictatorial structure,
the gatherings often have a festive, celebratory atmosphere.
There are now some voices calling for the Forum to get more serious and more involved with the struggle for political power. Others believe the event should be maintained within a non governmental and non-party space. In order to preserve the character of the organizations and movements that started it, which were mostly grassroots political pressure groups, not political entities.
By far the most visible American organizations were Global Exchange, Public Citizen, and the International Forum on Globalization. Their combined U.S. delegation was made up of many battle-hardened veterans in the anti globalization struggle; Media Benjamin, Lori Wallach, Deborah James, Juliet Beck, Victor Menotti, Randy “Hurricane” Hayes and dozens of others. This was an impressive group of Americans representing us in a country that basically hates our government. Of course some of these gringos were in the business of hating the U.S. government when Hugo
Chavez was still in diapers.
The great Philippine organizer, Walden Bello, was also here updating info-seeking crowds on the outcome of the recent WTO meeting in Hong Kong. It’s wasn’t good news, but not totally bad either. Last time I saw Walden was 1987. Hayes and I shared a jail cell with him in Washington, D.C. I guess
the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund didn’t appreciate his opinions of them that day. Now here he is, rightly respected for his role in building the movement that makes such gatherings as the WSF both possible and important.
I have attended a few international conferences before. I have even visited a few countries on the brink of or just after an important social revolution. But this gathering was certainly different, a strange combination of Fidel Castro, Gandhi and Bob Marley.
I believe something like this just might catch on someday, and evidently so did the 70,000 other people who registered. This should forever bury any claims that this movement lacks diversity and sophistication. The attendees literally represented millions of people from oppressed and oppressorcountries. And the spirit is that of a smart, united global front.
I was in the rooftop bar, poolside, at the Hilton having a beer with famous freedom fighter Tom Hayden. Actually he was having a coffee and reading a thick stack of laser printing.
I am having a beer. I go over to his table and ask him if I can interview him for Lowbagger. He asks me if I had a tape recorder and I said no, I would just scribble a few notes on some bar napkins and if I couldn’t decipher them later I would just make shit up. He said, “That was fine, but just don’t quote me.”
My first question was what he thought about the differences between the New Left that he helped define in the 1960’s and today’s anti-globalization movement. Here is what he said.
“First, in 1960, the environmental movement didn’t exist. Independent media didn’t exist. Today we have far more leadership from women and a much more diverse cultural make-up. Today the movement is more global, not as ideologically rigid, more flexible on goals and platforms, more movement than political party.”
Then I asked him if he had any criticism of the U.S. anti globalization movement either because of their counter-cultural image and their perceived association with street violence.
He said, “No.”
Tom went on to explain that when the government develops new tactics to deprive political movements of their voice, the movements usually responds with new tactics to overcome the disadvantage. He believes that there is an “inner intelligence that movements display when they face such a crisis, and you need to learn that given enough time, this intelligence will manifest itself.”
I asked him what he thought of the recent arrests of eleven environmental activists on grounds of domestic terrorism. Did he disapprove of such tactics? Hayden responded by placing the blame squarely on the authorities. He said that historically, it was inevitable that when people are deprived of a voice, and refused the ability to make an impact, when the government uses all of its power to isolate and humiliate them, people will adopt more militant tactics. I silently drink a toast to Avalon, who’s December jailbreak in an Arizona prison was both heart-breaking and inspirational. A spirit like his can never die. I thanked Tom and let him get back to his coffee and laser printing. I repeated my promise not to quote him. He replied, “Good!”
Later, El Presidente Hugo Chavez addressed the Forum at a large sports stadium where 40,000 people listened to a three and-a-half hour speech. The only part I could translate was the he repeatedly referred to America’s El Presidente as “Mr. Danger” and made a point of saying hello to Fidel Castro.
Tomorrow Floyd, Hurricane, K-Baum, Brian Stasinsky and I are going to see Angel Falls or something.
There is a faction that wants to go to the beach so I still don’t know. Wherever we go, I hope there are some hippies there.
MIKE ROSELLE hopes there will be hippies in heaven. In the meantime, he memorializes his time on this earth at Lowbagger.org