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World Social Forum

I am attending the sixth Polycentric World Social Forum in Caracas, Venezuela from January 24-29, 2006.

Saturday, January 28, 2006


A week before the World Social Forum was to begin in Venezuela in January, a bridge on the freeway between the airport and Caracas showed signs that it was on the verge of collapse and had to be closed. The government diverted traffic onto an old winding road through the mountains and poor neighborhoods separating the airport on the coast from Caracas, turning a safe and quick fifteen minute trip into a potentially dangerous trek of at least two hours.

The bridge could be seen as a metaphor for the forum. After having a good five-year run that significantly advanced the agendas of social movements around the world, it seemed to be in danger of collapsing under its own weight.

Chavez was everywhere but nowhere in the forum. Lining the streets around meeting spaces, vendors sold all sorts of Chavez memorabilia–hats, t-shirts, watches, and even dolls. But Chavez banners and chants were not an overt presence at the forum’s opening march, with the focus remaining on the traditional issues of broad ranging social movements.

Although the WSF is supposed to be an expression of civil society, it is impossible to pull off such an event without governmental support. Chavez had a crew of people at the airport to meet delegates upon their arrival and to usher them through immigration, into a waiting room, and onto buses that the state oil company PdVSA provided for free to shuttle them into the city. Once in the city, the government provided free transportation on the metro system, tents for the meetings, and even free bottled water.

This reflects a fundamental contradiction in the WSF. When it grows larger than what civil society can maintain on its own, the government steps in at the last minute to save the day. The government either keeps the bridge from falling, or provides viable alternatives that allow the program to continue as planned.

Engineers have known for almost 20 years that the bridge was beginning to collapse. Previous governments never took any corrective action, but now when it is too late to do anything the Chavez government bears the brunt of the blame. Likewise, the WSF attempts to correct the abuse of centuries of imperialism but is faulted for not making quicker progress against problems that are not of its own making.

But there is also hope in the bridge metaphor. It reflects a certain amount of flexibility, both on the part of the government and the forum, to adapt to changing circumstances. It is this creativity that brings a good deal of strength and power to the WSF.

In addition, the freeway from the airport to Caracas was a quick ride that flew past the countryside. On the other hand, the old, slow road allowed delegates to view Venezuela in all of its beauty. Although cracks in the forum’s organization could be very frustrating for delegates, it slowed the pace down enough to allow participants to savor the flavor of the event. People also came together to overcome the difficulties.
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