From four hours before young people in their thousands streamed towards the Gigantinho ("Little Giant") stadium in the sweltering Summer heat.
world social forum 2005
Chavez speaks to twenty-five thousand
The queue snakes as far as the eye can see, its progress designed to take advantage of any shade that exists along the way – under trees, shop awnings, and doorways. And as time progresses, the expectation rises perceptibly. For these thousands have come to see Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela, speak of the rebellion against neo-liberalism and US imperialism. Unlike the Lula meeting earlier in the week where PT supporters were bussed in, all expenses paid, all those here come of their own volition and are youth.
And talking to those who have come to listen, you know that what the majority want to hear about is revolution – a radical alternative (but with no real clarity about how this is to be achieved) for the struggle against the brutality that capitalism provides for Latin America.
Many of these young people are Brazil’s (and Latin America) new generation of fighters in the making. They have broken with any illusions in Lula and capitalism; they are anti-capitalist and anti-war as are many of their generation in other continents – but there is an important difference: they have come through the experience of what has been a continental-wide rebellion in the last few years against neo-liberalism. In some countries this has stopped privatisation in its tracks and also entailed mass insurrectionary movements of the working class and poor peasantry.
And so they come into struggle not just brimming with confidence, energy and vitality but amongst an important section of them, a thirst for revolutionary and socialist ideas and a developed political level.
The Hugo Chavez meeting held on 30 January was perhaps the most significant at the WSF. It was sponsored by the CUT leadership (the heads of Brazil’s corrupt and right-wing Trade Union Federation) and the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (MST – the biggest of landless organisations in Brazil although it still generally supports the Lula government while criticising some of its economic policies).
This meeting followed the speech by Lula which further politically polarised those attending the WSF. Clearly especially the CUT leadership wanted to use the appearance of Chavez in attempt to reverse the bitter hostility most trade union activists and radical young people view them with. This was why the leader of the CUT was scheduled to speak alongside Chavez, clearly hoping that some of the Venezuelan President’s authority would rub off. The governor of the State of Parana, Roberto Reqiao, and a Lula supporter, was also an invited speaker.
Members of the MST compered the event but it was clear that they took account of the character of the audience and were aware that some of the other speakers might get a hostile response. And so from the time people began filing into their seats, the MST comperes led the way with revolutionary and socialist slogans.
The Gigantinho meeting in partially represented in microcosm, Brazilian politics today: a polaristaion between those who still have some illusions in Lula (enthusiastically encouraged by the trade union leadership, the PT bureaucracy and the NGO’s) and the bigger layers who feel absolutely betrayed by Lula and have been radicalised by recent developments in the continent.
By the time the auditorium was full, huge red flags were being waved in the air – a large PSOL contingent took up the left bank of the stadium and led the way chanting anti-Lula and anti-imperialist slogans. And when the compere started off the chant "Brazil, Venezuela, Central America, a socialist fight is international" and followed it by "Down with imperialism – Long Live socialism", the hall erupted in a roar of approval as political electricity filled the air and series of Mexican waves swept through the crowd. This response shows how in other parts of the world, the shadow left behind by the collapse of Stalinism within the mass of the population and the effect this had on consciousness will be swept aside as a result of the mass struggles that will develop against neo-liberalism
However, the radical nature of the most of the crowd became clear for everyone to see when a small group of Socialist Youth (the youth section of the Partido Comunista do Brazil – PCdoB – who are part of the PT government and are seen as Lula’s political thought police) started chanting pro-Lula slogans and waving their party flags.
In literally seconds a seething anger and a bitter hostility fills the air as thousands of people shout for them to be kicked out. The chant goes up "pelego, pelego, pelego". "Pelego" is a cushioned blanket put on horses’ backs underneath the saddle to allow the animal to be controlled. It is used allegorically in the Brazilian workers’ movement to describe the "yellow" trade unions role in being used by the bosses to control the working class.
A wall of sound greets Chavez’s arrival on the stage. But anger amongst the audience once again explodes as the President of the CUT, Luis Marinho, starts to speak. The CUT is seen as being complicit with Lula of implementing major attacks on education and workers rights through the Trade Union reform legislation and the Education reform.
When Marinho criticises the audience for attacking those who are against privatisation and arwe the friends of the workers movement as opposed to fighting the bosses, his voice was drowned out by the booing of almost the entire fifteen thousand strong audience. He received no respite despite reminding those who were listening that the CUT was one of the only trade union federations who protested against the attempted coup against Chavez in 2002. For those in the hall from outside Latin America, the sight of a leading trade union bureaucrat being met with such a hostile audience was unprecendented.
The only other time that the audience was almost completely united in the slogans it was chanting was after the PSOL delegation began to shout slogans against the education and trade union reform packages proposed by the Lula government.
It seemed that Marinho finished his speech early and went back to the relative safety of his seat next to Chavez. The former Governor of the state of Rio Grande Do Sul and presently a minister in the Lula government, Olivio Dutra received only a little better treatment particularly because of his constant praise for Chavez partially protected him from the same kind of animosity that Marinho received and also because he is seen as having more of a left approach than others. The Governor of the State of Parana did not even attempt to address the audience.
The mood changed again completely when Chavez began to speak – as those in the audience waited eagerly for the message of struggle they hoped he would give.
Undoubtedly, Chavez is a charismatic figure and speaks with the authority of having mass support amongst most sections of workers, the urban poor, and the poor peasantry of Venezuela. Therefore when he said during his speech "I am not here as the President of Venezuela. I do not feel like the President. I am only President because of particular circumstances. I am Hugo Chavez and I am an activist as well as a revolutionary. Because to break the hegemony of capitalism and that of the oligarchs, the only way is revolution", the crowd roared their approval. He also speaks in the language of the working class with no fear about attacking US imperialism in front of an audience such as this.
However, Chavez typifies all populist politicians, bending ot the mood before him and picking and mixing from many different forms of political ideology to present himself as all things to all people.
During the first part of his speech he listed most of the leaders of anti-colonial/ anti-imperialist uprisings in the Latin American continent from those amongst the indigenous peoples in the 16th century to Fidel Castro. He even repeated previous comments about Jesus Crist being the greatest revolutionary that ever lived.
He emphasised the fight of the Southern continents against the rich north. However, unfortunately he did not raise this in the context of the struggle between the classes internationally and quoted the work of the non-aligned group of nations in the 60s and 70s favourably as an example of what could be organised amongst the Latin American nations today.
During this part of his comments he quoted Mao saying "it is important in the struggle to know who your friends and who your enemies are". Members of Socialismo Revolucionario (Brazilian section of the CWI) explained after the meeting that this was an implicit criticism of the audience for their response to the CUT leader. What is significant is that even Chavez was not prepared to explicitly make this criticism.
The latter part of Chavez’s speech was perhaps his most radical yet to an audience of this kind. But any activist looking back at his comments will realise that while Chavez made many valid points the radical parts of his speech appeared to sandwich more dubious comments that he made.
His comments on the effect of the collapse of Stalinism reflected in their foundation those that Marxists have made since the collapse of the Berlin wall and he made an impassioned attack on global warning.
Significantly, he then moved on to quote Trotsky commenting that the coup against him illustrated the point made by this leader of the Russian Revolution that "every revolution needs the whip of counter-revolution". However, this is not the end of the question. For Hugo Chávez has faced at least three serious attempt to overthrown him. These have been defeated by the masses. However, unless the revolution is taken forward and capitalism overthrown through the adotpion of revolutionary socialist policies the counter revolution will strike again and will succeed if capitalist is not overthrown.
But he also spoke warmly of his close relationship with the Chinese regime and Colonel Gadafi while he described Putin as doing a good job in standing up to US imperialism.
In one of the most significant parts of his speech he explained "There are only two alternatives: capitalsim and socialism. Capitalism can only be transformed via genuine socialism – a just and equal society but this can only be done through democracy. But we have to clarify what we mean by democracy and it is not the type of democracy practised by Bush".
Chavez’s final comments showed an attempt to use radical rhetoric to prepare the ground for making positive comments about Lula when he commented "There are people within my country. Good people, but people who say I don’t go fast enough or that I am not sufficiently radical. But these comrades have to realise that this is a process, a process with phases and rhythms. Remember we are taking on a world system which is a big task. I know that I am at risk of being booed but Lula is a good man and a friend of ours".
And Chavez was booed but this was partially drowned out by the applause he received as he ended his speech.
The most conscious political activists who left the meeting would have noticed that there were more radical comments in Chavez’s speech than usual. However, they would have also been aware that what was lacking was a genuine socialist and revolutionary explanation of how capitalism and imperialism can be defeated in Venezuela or throughout the continent.
It was clear to CWI members at the WSF that the Chavez meeting would be huge – all those at the WSF searching for radical ideas would be there. As a result CWI members arrived at the venue four hours before the start of the meeting to set up stalls, distribute leaflets and sell papers and pamphlets. Our aim was to discuss with as many people as possible the tasks of how the Venezuelan revolution can be carried through to its completion.
While other left parties had their material available, the campaigning work by the CWI before the meeting was the most visible by far. Teams of CWI members walked up and down the long queues talking to people and selling material. We went into pubs and cafes around the venue. CWI members inside the venue sold and distributed material. In all 200 pamphlets of the Spanish version of "Socialists and the Venezuelan Revolution" by Tony Saunois, all that were printed, were sold. In some cases, young people attending the meeting bought one and came back with their friends for more. Over 6000 leaflets were distributed before, during and after the meeting