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Greg Morsbach, "Caracas Excels As Left-Wing Haven"

Caracas Excels As Left-Wing Haven

Greg Morsbach,
BBC News

Venezuela has been put firmly on the map of global left-wing activism this week, as more than 100,000 people take part in this year's World Social Forum which is being held in the capital city, Caracas.

Students, trade unionists, politicians and academics from 54 countries have arrived at hotels, hostels and Venezuelan host families.

Delegates from around 2,000 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are now taking part in an intensive programme of workshops, panel discussions and seminars which are critical of the free-trade policies at the heart of the World Economic Forum (WEF) being held this week in Davos, Switzerland.

Caracas is by now used to staging big events for foreign visitors, many of whom oppose what they call "neo-liberal" economic policies and are critical of plans to set up a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

"It's obvious why Venezuela is such a magnet for tens of thousands of visitors," said Professor Edgar Lander, one of the main organisers of this year's World Social Forum in Caracas.

"The revolutionary process being carried out by the government here has captured the imagination of the world."Leftist 'hang-out'

The government of President Hugo Chavez, an outspoken critic of the Bush administration, the FTAA and "neo-liberalism", regularly invites like-minded guests from overseas.

The American singer and civil rights campaigner, Harry Belafonte, is a regular visitor to Venezuela, as is the US actor and racial equality campaigner, Danny Glover.

Guests from overseas are welcomed by the Chavez government

In June last year, Caracas hosted an international youth festival which was part-organised by Venezuela's Communist Party. There are also annual summits of Latin American indigenous groups here, hosted by Venezuela's government.

"It's my third time in Caracas within the space of two years," said Kate Fox, a 21-year-old anti-globalisation activist who has travelled from Washington DC.

"Venezuela is without a doubt the new Mecca of the Left. It used be Havana, but Venezuela is definitely the place to hang out now if you're against capitalist exploitation."

However, street sellers in downtown Caracas have also realised the potential of exploiting the huge market for left-wing souvenirs.

Many of them have switched from selling pirated DVDs and CDs to T-shirts showing the face of President Chavez or old classics like Che Guevara.

Hero worship

"The Chavez T-shirt is my bestseller," says Luz Castillo, who owns a little stall next to the conference centre for the Caracas World Social Forum. "I've sold six shirts within the space of an hour. I'm making a profit of $7 per item."

Street vendor Luz Castillo with her best-selling Hugo Chavez T-shirt
Hugo Chavez T-shirts are a hot fashion item at the forum

Other street vendors are selling Chavez posters, watches, books, flags, audio tapes and even toy plastic dolls of Venezuela's charismatic leader.

"Chavez is cool," said Alejandro Montoya, a student from Peru, who explained that he had paid $1,500 for a tailor-made tourist package to take part in the Social Forum.

"Is it a lot of money? Yes, of course, but just remember it's a chance in a lifetime for me to come face to face with my hero, Comandante Chavez."

However, there is also a cheaper option available for visitors on a shoestring budget. For $1, they can hire a tent to be close to the Hilton Hotel, one of the main venues of this week's anti-globalisation gathering.

Five hundred metres away from the Hilton, homeless people scavenge in dustbins for what little food they can find. Sometimes they find a half-eaten hamburger or sandwich thrown away by one of the visitors staying at the hotel.

Homeless sceptical

Carlos, a middle-aged man, who has spent the last three years sleeping rough on the streets, shrugs his shoulders.

"If you ask me, it's all very well for these people to fly in from abroad, to buy their T-shirt and then disappear," he says. "Nothing changes for me and the five other guys who sleep on these park benches next to me."

Carlos does not share delegates' enthusiasm for the event

The Venezuelan government started an ambitious programme some 10 days ago to tackle the problem of adults and children living on the streets. But President Chavez himself admits it will take him until the year 2011 to eradicate poverty in Venezuela.

Many visitors to the World Social Forum from Europe and the US say their governments should take a leaf out of Venezuela's book.

"If only Mr Bush would come to see for himself what good this government is doing," said Cherie Honkala, leader of the US-based Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign.

"He would be amazed to find the illiteracy rate has been cut down to almost nothing and poor people are getting free healthcare."