31 January 2005
"Ole, ole, ole, ole, Chavez, Chavez!" Rock stars don't get the kind of adulation that the president of Venezuela Hugo Chavez received as he strolled to the mike before the15,000-strong crowd that crammed Gigantinho stadium in Porto Alegre this evening. The speech was powerful, passionate and ideologically loaded. "Know your enemy," Chavez warned. "Don't underestimate the empire, but be aware of its weaknesses," he advised. The current enemy, lo and behold, is American imperialism. And I cannot recall seeing a democratically elected head of state antagonize the United States this openly -- ever. But the beginning of his two-hour speech was just as lighthearted as the end was heavy. Chavez began by sending an (affectionate? populist?) "hug from the bottom of my heart to all of you here." A few minutes later, he announced he'd be speaking in Spanish due to his weak 'portunhol' (a mixture of Portuguese and Spanish) and his "absolute ignorance of English". The crowd laughed. Then he launched into a candid greeting to Fidel Castro, who he said would be "certainly watching over in Cuba." "How are you, Fidel?" Chavez asked. "What's going on?" If you weren't too sure as to who'd inspired his self-proclaimed 'Bolivarian Revolution', Chavez made sure to let you know. The list is long and popular -- at least amongst most Forum attendees. Simon Bolivar. Luis Carlos Prestes. Fidel Castro. Emiliano Zapata. Pancho Villa. Tupac Amaro. And, naturally, guerrilla leader and WSF cultural icon Ernesto 'Che' Guevara. In fact, Che is so high up Chavez's roster that the president amused the crowd by launching into a five-minute rendition of a song dedicated to 'El Che'. Bizarre -- but also refreshingly candid in a political world awash with photo-ops, Teleprompters and spin-doctored speeches. While many have criticized the intellectual relevance of the event, Chavez defended it strongly. "This is the most important political event in the world," he spewed to a roaring response. "We came to converse with you and learn how we can do things even better back home. The WSF offers a unique platform for excluded voices to debate ideas, express their concerns and share their desires." The audience loved it. The Washington Consensus and US foreign policy – never-to-be-touched taboos in many a politician's script -- were aggressively addressed. The IMF copped it hard. Neoliberalism got a serious beating. And American empire -- a major obstacle in Latin America's struggle for 'self-determination and freedom' -- received the thrashing of a lifetime. While this might be typical pocketbook rhetoric for many a left-wing activist, political leaders rarely venture into such open and radical criticisms of capitalism. "We can only end imperialism through revolution," cried Chavez. "We need to resist George Bush. If we don't, the whole world will head towards destruction." There was more: "I have no doubt we need to transcend capitalism. But capitalism won't be defeated from within capitalism -- only through socialism. If we want to be free, 'they' cannot stop us." There was even a message to Americans themselves. Chavez sent a 'hug' to all North Americans and added that "some day the empire will crumble and the people of Martin Luther King will be free." He wrapped with a word of support for 'comrade' Lula, whose popularity has been tested at this year's Forum. Chavez advised the crowd to give their president more time to implement the deep social changes advertised in the campaign. "Quiero a Lula! Es un hermano! Es un companero!" A few jeers were heard, but most people screamed their lungs out in support. In the end, whether you like Chavez or not, you've got to hand it to him -- the man can sure work a crowd. By shattering discursive taboos and offering a passionate revolutionary speech, he lights the fires of change in the hearts of those who believe that, as the Forum's own slogan goes, 'another world is possible'.