25 August 2005 Edition
A tale of two festivals
EOIN Ó BROIN
From the 5 to 13 August 20,000 people from 144 countries from every continent gathered in Caracas, Venezuela for the 16th World Festival of Youth and Students.
Organised by the World Federation of Democratic Youth (WFDY), the theme of this year's conference was For Peace and Solidarity, against Imperialism and War.
WFDY is essentially an international communist network bringing together political parties and governments who at another time would have been under the political influence of the USSR. It provides a space for discussing and debating where the international communist movement is at and what strategies and campaigns it can adopt for the immediate future.
If this was the sole function of the World Festival then it would hold little of interest for Irish republicans. However, in recent years the conference has also been host to a broader and more plural range of radical movements. As a result the World Festival is an important and exciting meeting place for those looking for alternative solutions to the inequalities and warmongering of contemporary society.
Of particular interest this year was the location of the festival in Venezuela, the site of one of the most important political struggles in the world today. Since the end of the 1990s, Venezuela has been host to a popular struggle against neo-liberalism, corporate greed and US-sponsored imperialism. And against all the odds, including a failed military coup, the left-wing government of Hugo Chavez continues to command substantial popular support for a process of radical political and economic transformation, in what is one of South America's most wealthy yet unequal countries.
The vibrancy and popularity of the left in Venezuela gave the 16th World Festival of Youth and Students much of its life. In a sense there was two festivals which ran parallel, and at times overlapped, but throughout the 15 days they remained relatively separate. Those debates which were dominated by the old communist left seemed almost of another era, filled with rhetoric and self-delusion. But the meetings dominated by the Latin American left, or which dealt with South American politics had an energy and an excitement which was genuinely invigorating.
A number of meetings I attended on issues of Latin American Integration and campaigns against free trade agreements in the Americas were among the most interesting. The level and quality of participation from the floor, particularly from the younger activists was inspiring, as was the willingness of many to challenge the prevailing status quo, whether left or right, in the search for real alternatives.
Stateless people's protest
There were also some important fringe meetings, including one hosted by a Kurdish delegation exploring issues of stateless nations. What became clear during the course of the meeting, for the Kurds, Basques and Catalans was that even here, in Venezuela, at a conference against imperialism, there was little space for those peoples without states. They were denied official status as national delegations and had to travel as part of other delegations. They even had difficulty finding a meting room and in the end we held the meeting in a corridor of a busy shopping centre. A declaration protesting against the treatment of stateless peoples was drafted at the end of the meeting and signed by a number of delegations including Sinn Féin.
Outside of the meetings was the equally important business of networking and building up knowledge and experience of peoples and struggles from every corner of the globe. In addition to learning directly from the experience of Venezuelans and other Latin Americans I also had the opportunity to meet with delegates from Turkey, Cyprus, Greece, Kurdistan, Germany, France and Spain. The general state of the left, the question of the European Union and broader strategies for combating war and imperialism and what we could learn from the Venezuelan experience were the main topics of discussion.
Alongside the formal and informal business of the Festival, the Venezuelan preparatory committee organised a series of day trips for delegates. Our group had the opportunity to observe the country's municipal elections, the result of which was a resounding victory for the left-wing government parties. We also had the opportunity to visit some of the social projects funded by the government, including adult education and literacy projects, free health care and food centres in the shanty towns and a cultural centre which promotes Venezuelan music and dance.
Meaningful change in Venezuela
What was most striking about these projects was the participatory way in which local communities determined their needs and forwarded requests to their political leaders. Through community networks known as Bolivarian Circles, local people would come together, debate their needs, consult with the local community and then contact local or central government with requests for funds or support. The net result was not only levels of state funded service provision unimaginable under previous governments, but a real sense of ownership and community spirit in the process.
While not everyone in Venezuela supports the new government, there is no doubt that things are changing for the better. In countless conversations we were told again and again, both by supporters and critics of the Chavez Government, that the last six years have seen real and meaningful change, both in the attitude of the most marginalised sections of society and in the material conditions of their lives.
Venezuela remains a deeply unequal country and there are many vested interests who are using all their power to maintain the status quo, but there is little doubt that change is taking place and in some places at a very rapid rate.
The experience of attending the 16th World Festival of Youth and Students was an interesting and rewarding one. The fact that it was in Venezuela, made it all the more exciting. Rather than just talk about how to transform our societies we were able to witness first hand the efforts of one of the world nations who are trying create a more democratic, a more equal and a more just society.