February 15, 2006

Worshipping False Idols

The Hugo Chávez-subsidized absurdity of the World Social Forum.

Sacha Feinman

I truly believed I was strong enough for this lifestyle. During the month leading up to my departure for Venezuela, I tried my hardest to prepare for every possibility: Being mugged or kidnapped. Being accosted by the police and bribing my way out of trouble. Waking up to find the military in the streets and a coup underway. Molotov cocktails, burning cars, anarchy, Uzis...

I meditated on it all for a long, long time while still in the comfort of Tucson, and resolved that whatever may pass, I would handle it. Such are the realities of the world, I rationalized, and I was desperate to escape the sheltered predictability of my life thus far. After all, there are only so many options for a man after he has been fired from waiting tables at a pretentious pizzeria named Sauce. Once you've been informed that you aren't good enough to serve rosemary-dusted potato-and-olive-tapenade pizza to a bunch of pimply high schoolers, there really aren't that many options for you. Caracas, Venezuela is one of them, however. A lot of luck, combined with a few strategically placed phone calls, got me hooked up as a newspaper writer there. It might not be a promised land of milk and honey, but at the very least, I thought, it represents an escape from insulated ignorance.

I was wrong. My God, was I wrong.


For those who've been keeping abreast of recent events, the sixth annual World Social Forum (WSF) was held last month in Caracas. The WSF is meant to provide a leftist, grassroots alternative to the World Economic Forum, which took place this year in Davos, Switzerland. Born in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2001, the WSF has grown from a relatively intimate festival into a massive gathering in which hundreds of different political agendas and causes combine to create a carnival atmosphere, drowning out one another as they compete for attention. The result is that the WSF doesn't really stand for anything except vaguely defined notions of anti-imperialism and anti-globalization.

I knew I was in trouble on Monday morning. The reek of patchouli mixed with urine was thick in the air when I woke up. More than 100,000 hippies had descended on Caracas over the weekend, arriving for a week of solidarity that the Chávez government was declaring would "demonstrate that the tide was turning against the global forces of imperialism and capitalism." That's right: A group of men and women with no real understanding of their surroundings had just flown, voluntarily, from the far corners of the world just for the honor of being turned into two-bit sock puppets defending the integrity of a one-party state. And I had seven straight 18-hour days of mind-numbing interviews to conduct. The horror, the horror...

New Orleans photos
Single male autocrat seeks single female activist to share beautiful Caribbean sunsets and nationalized oil rigs. Bush hatred a must.
Speakers and rallies were planned for every day; militancy and organization were promised. This would be, President Hugo Chávez pledged, one of the defining moments in the rise of a "21st century socialism." But this "forum" was not simply the off-key exercise of an ignorant and out-of-touch population, though it was certainly that. This "forum" was definitive proof that my generation lacks any original insight into the state of geopolitical affairs.

Covering these events as an "objective" member of the press was an exercise in one's ability to tolerate sheer stupidity. What was supposed to be an apolitical affair instead proved to be of a week's worth of propaganda paying homage to the glories of Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro. In speech after speech, press conference after press conference, the dialogue inevitably devolved into pure drivel.

Sadly, there were few, if any, compelling and articulate voices of the Left in town for the week. Instead of a real debate about the political and economic options available to the developing nations of the world, spectators were invariably treated to one of the following:

Governmental apologists: Yes, Chávez and his allies have rewritten the Constitution, packed the judiciary, taken control of every single seat in the 167-member legislature, and discussed seriously the idea of staying in power until 2030—but that's just how democracy works in Venezuela.

Simple-minded lunatics: Cindy Sheehan, did you really just address the possibility of organizing a boycott on oil with a straight face? How the fuck do you think they paid for your plane ticket? As an anti-war activist, how do you justify taking a position of solidarity with a government seeking to transform civil society with the "patriotic participation" of the armed forces? Do you often travel across the globe in order to kiss military officers who have led attempted coups against democratically elected civilian governments?

And bizarre spectacle: There was a little play preceding Chávez's speech in which campesinos with plastic machetes bum-rushed a group of teenagers holding signs reading "Microsoft" and "Coca-Cola," pretending to hack them to death as thousands of Cubans on all sides of me screamed their approval. It was so upsetting that I fled to the refreshment stand to buy a pack of Marlboros and quench my thirst with an ice-cold Pepsi.

Grotesque as all of this was, I can't say it was wholly unexpected. I've been here eight weeks, more than enough time to absorb the fact that this government subsidizes absurdity. What no one prepared me for was the willingness of the many literate, educated, and articulate people I met to overlook completely that this country is slipping into dictatorship. "Chávez doesn't like George W., and neither do I," most people's reasoning went, "so how bad can Chávez really be?"

It's that old "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" reasoning that has led the Left astray so many times. I expected the Americans, at least, to be a little wiser than that. After all, that idea's cousin, the "anyone but Bush" philosophy, didn't exactly work out in 2004. But, no, my countrymen and countrywomen (I'm looking at you, Cindy Sheehan) were just as guilty of pardoning Chávez's sins as the rest.

Don't get me wrong. My heart does warm to the sight of hundreds of thousands of youth protesting the war in Iraq and the policies of George W. Bush. But why has my generation, not just in the U.S. but around the world, been so willing to part with its integrity in return for a convenient political alliance?

The generations before us had Martin Luther King and Václav Havel. Why have we settled for Cindy Sheehan and Hugo Chávez?

Sacha Feinman is a freelance correspondent for the Caracas Daily Journal.

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Article by Sacha Feinman

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