Guest speakers included Ignacio Ramonet of Le Monde Diplomatique, former Algerian President Ahmed Ben Bella, Bolivian indigenous leader Evo Morales, Hebe de Bonafini of the Argentine Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, Cuban Vice-President Carlos Lage, Shafik Handal of the Salvadorean FMLN, José Amorim of the Brazilian Movement of the Landless, former French Defence Minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement, well-known Chilean-Cuban writer Marta Harnecker, and from Britain, Richard Gott, Tariq Ali, Perry Anderson and Robin Blackburn. Over 800 international participants joined 15,000 Venezuelans in a celebration which resurrected the spirit of Che Guevara, the Chile of Salvador Allende and 1980s Central America.
First anniversary of the coup
The extraordinary events of last April - Chávez' overthrow by a military-civilian coup which installed business leader Pedro Carmona as a 48-hour Pinochet, dissolving parliament and suspending all representative and judicial institutions and starting a witch-hunt which killed over 50 people, followed by an overwhelming popular mobilisation and counter-coup by the progressive military - made it clear to many people that what's at stake in Venezuela is a radical process of popular transformation unparalleled in Latin America since the Sandinista revolution. Chavismo means popular power at all levels, a participatory democracy in which common people are taking the initiative away from bosses, politicians and bureaucrats.
Brazil under Lula and the PT also represents a great hope for change in Latin America, and perhaps also Ecuador under Lucio Gutiérrez, a former army officer who is sometimes compared to Chávez. But only in Venezuela has a radical transformation of the country's power structure really been initiated, with a new constitution, a shakeout of the armed forces, popular organisation in thousands of grass-roots committees known as Bolivarian Circles, and a reassertion of public control over the vital oil industry. The failure of the coup led to a purge of reactionary officers, and the failure of the opposition strike in December and January led to a purge of pro-multinational managers and technicians in PDVSA (the state oil company). The established oligarchy is losing power month by month, which is why the opposition is so desperate and continues to resort to unconstitutional means.
The defeat of the coup last year was an object lesson in popular power and political consciousness. People all over the country came onto the streets brandishing copies of the constitution and demanding the return of Chávez, and surrounded military bases urging the troops to restore the legitimate government. Several military units refused to accept the authority of the coup-mongers, and the "civil-military alliance" became a reality. "Every 11th has its 13th" is now a popular slogan in Venezuela, referring to the date of the coup and the date of the popular uprising which restored Chávez.
An international example
Already this popular victory is being seen as an international example. Chileans present at the Caracas gathering said that Venezuela's victory over the coup-mongers was the vindication of Allende, and Gloria Gaitán, daughter of the great Colombian popular leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán assassinated in 1948, proclaimed that "With Chávez Gaitán is back!" - a reference to the popular chant of "Volvió, volvió, volvió!" (He's back, he's back, he's back!) which celebrates Chávez' return on 13 April 2002.
One of the progressive Venezuelan military officers speaking at the forum, Captain Eliécer Otaiza, declared that he is confident there will be a world-wide "13th of April" in which the peoples of the world will reject the war-mongering policies of Bush and Blair. Hebe de Bonafini of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo from Argentina - one of the countries where for obvious reasons it is most difficult to accept the idea of the military siding with the people -explained how she had been convinced of the revolutionary commitment of Chávez and his comrades-at-arms, and presented the Venezuelan President with the emblematic white scarf of her movement. Chávez swore always to keep the scarf as a reminder of what the military should not do.
The reality of change
The international gathering was not limited to rhetoric and emotion, however justified. There were also thematic panels on the constitution, on participatory democracy and popular initiative, on the environment and health, on the world economy, neoliberalism and the alternatives, etc. Venezuelan and international delegates exchanged views on the struggle to build a different world, in an atmosphere reminiscent of the World Social Forums and other anti-globalisation gatherings.
International visitors were able to appreciate the reality of change in Venezuela: popular education in the Bolivarian schools, community housing and neighbourhood improvement projects in slum areas, agrarian reform, the Women's Development Bank and Bank of the Sovereign People which provide micro-credit for popular initiatives, and alternative media outlets which are breaking the commercial information monopoly. Many foreign delegates also visited popular neighbourhoods around Caracas to see these achievements for themselves.
The Venezuelan revolution has arrived on the international stage. The myths and distortions about militarism and dictatorship under Chávez can no longer have the slightest credibility. This is the first real popular revolution of the 21st century, and the most important message to come out of this gathering is the urgency of organising solidarity.