A separate forum

By NATALIE OBIKO PEARSON: Associated Press — The World Social Forum started as an alternative to the market-friendly World Economic Forum, but now there’s an alternative to the alternative – Annoyed by all the focus on Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, some anti-globalization activists have split from the World Social Forum to hold their own “Alternative Social Forum” in the Venezuelan capital.

Disgruntled activists complain the ubiquitous red T-shirts of Chavez’s party and rows of promotional booths are everywhere at the main event, stifling debate and undermining the forum’s capacity to act as a catalyst for social change.

“The World Social Forum was born as an alternative,” said Luis Silva, 35, an organizer of the dissident forum. “But little by little it has succumbed to political parties and governments. It’s acting as a stage of support for Chavez.”

The seven-day alternative symposium shares some of the anti-capitalist themes dominating the World Social Forum, which has drawn more than 60,000 people from around the globe and coincides with the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

But the dissident event is taking up issues that resonate in Venezuela, like the dangers of authoritarianism under a military strongman. The theme could easily be taken as criticism of Chavez, a former paratroop commander accused by political opponents of running roughshod over democratic institutions. It is off-limits in the main forum, said Nelson Mendez, a Venezuelan engineering professor who has helped organize the dissident event.

Participants at the six-day main conference have heaped praise on Chavez’s social programs for the poor and applauded him for standing up to U.S.-backed free trade initiatives.

The Venezuelan leader, who insists his policies have not undermined democracy but given voice the poor, welcomed activists to the main forum Thursday, saying the ideas being discussed have raised awareness and helped “pulverize” free trade proposals.

“These ideas have been pulverized by history,” Chavez said in a televised speech. “That’s why the World Social Forum that is happening right now in Caracas is so important.”

Helped by Venezuela’s armies of street vendors, Chavez’s image has permeated the World Social Forum. Masks and talking dolls of the president provide a fresh alternative to the staple posters of Cuban leader Fidel Castro and revolutionary icon Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

“I usually buy only reading material at these types of events, but I had to have one,” said French activist Rene Villepin, shelling out $30 for a doll sporting Chavez’s signature red beret. At the push of a button, the doll booms: “It’s your dream, it’s your hope and it’s your job to be free and equal.”

Organizers of the World Social Forum insist the event is nonpartisan, saying it’s in keeping with tradition that Chavez’s government has spent roughly $465,000 for administrative costs.

As for Chavez’s plans to speak during the forum, Brazilian organizer Nalu Faria said simply that he was “invited by some of the movements.”

The World Social Forum was first held in Brazil in 2001. It has grown into what organizers call one of the world’s premier gatherings of anti-globalization activists. But as it goes into its sixth year, critics say it has lost much of its spontaneity and grass-roots activism.

At the alternative forum, activities in university classrooms include talks on Venezuela’s military buildup, the role of transnational corporations in the country, and a march against coal mining in Indian regions of western Venezuela.

Although far smaller than the primary event, it has drawn hundreds of academics, artists and students _ mostly Venezuelans but also speakers from other Latin American countries including Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay.

They emphasized they are not aligned with Venezuela’s opposition or any other political interest, describing themselves as freethinking leftists, communists and anarchists who feel the World Social Forum no longer represents them.

But they questioned the prevailing idea at the World Social Forum that Chavez is helping create a new economic model at the vanguard of a leftist swing in Latin America.

“The revolution doesn’t exist,” Silva said, suggesting Venezuela needs more radical economic changes. “It’s a government with a nationalist discourse.”

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