Venezuela hosts World Social Forum in Caracas

Europeans and Americans browsed through rows of booths lauding President Hugo Chavez's socialist revolution while Venezuela welcomed tens of thousands of activists to a massive event Tuesday protesting globalization and the war in Iraq. Activists gathering for the six-day World Social Forum in Caracas include anti-war protests, Indian leaders, campaigners against free trade and environmentalists. But all appear united by one thing: their strong opposition to U.S. President George W. Bush.

The forum was set to begin Tuesday afternoon with an "anti-imperialist," anti-war march through Caracas. Organizers said more than 60,000 people had signed up to attend and tens of thousands more were expected at the forum, about half of them from outside Venezuela. Anne Hess, an activist from Oslo, Norway, said she hopes the meeting will summon opposition to Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the war in Iraq.

"We need to stop the war in the Middle East," she said Monday while collecting Venezuelan government pamphlets. "We need the whole world out in the streets again to stop Bush and Blair, and their crazy imperialist dreams." Some visitors ran into difficulties. Danish union leader Jens Borking, 53, said he and his wife were stuck in traffic for seven hours after arriving at the airport last week because an unstable bridge forced the closing of the main highway into Caracas.

They also lost US$300 (Ђ244) to swindlers posing as moneychangers who gave them false bills, but Borking said it hadn't dampened his enthusiasm for Chavez, or for Venezuela. "It's an amazing country; it's filled with contradictions," Borking said, adding he hoped to hear Chavez speak. The Venezuelan leader is expected to address activists on the sidelines, soaking up the spotlight as a leading radical voice of the Latin American left. Chavez has recently strengthened ties across South America as left-leaning leaders have won power in countries from Argentina to Bolivia. He also has frequently clashed with the U.S., accusing it of plotting to overthrow him and warning that Venezuela, the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, would cut off crude shipments if the United States were to attempt an invasion. U.S. officials dismiss that idea as ridiculous.

Chavez has used a windfall in oil profits to funnel millions of dollars into programs for the poor, something that has made him an inspiration for like-minded activists. Organizers of this week's social forum took pains to emphasize the event was not intended as a giant rally for Chavez, though it was backed by government funding as in past years.

The World Social Forum was first held in Brazil in 2001 and coincides each year with the market-friendly World Economic Forum of political and business leaders in Davos, Switzerland. Venezuelan authorities in Caracas closed a main thoroughfare and lined it with displays where government officials handed out pamphlets about Chavez's social programs.

Street vendors sold T-shirts, keychains and watches bearing images of Chavez, Cuban President Fidel Castro and revolutionary hero Che Guevara. "It's nice to see the energy that's going here," said Catharine Quinn, a 34-year-old health activist from Chicago, who picked up a Che watch and a small Chavez flashlight.

She said the U.S. could use the free health care now available in Venezuela with the help of Cuban doctors. Groups from Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil also were coming to the forum in caravans of buses and cars. Some 2,000 events will be held this week in Caracas, including seminars, speeches and concerts.

Well-known speakers included Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, Argentine Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel and American anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq in 2004 and who set up a protest camp near Bush's ranch in Texas last year, reports the AP. N.U.