Venezuela positions itself as a salon for the left
CARACAS, Venezuela: The Nepalese Maoist smiled as he glanced around the lobby of the Hotel Alba Caracas. To his left, West African delegates to the World Meeting of Intellectuals and Artists in Defense of Humanity chatted in French. To his right, the Egyptian author of a book on President Hugo Chávez puffed on a cigarette.
"This has been a most enjoyable forum, allowing us to learn from the glorious heritage of socialist revolution in Latin America," said the Maoist, Chandra Prasad Gajurel, 60, a Politburo member of the Communist Party of Nepal, which put an end to that country's monarchy in elections this year.
Gajurel joined some 200 other leftist thinkers from around the world who convened here for a few days in October to discuss transitions toward socialism, even as many people in advanced Western countries were losing sleep over the spreading financial crisis of global capitalism.
In hotel corridors where oilmen in business suits once hatched deals over glasses of whiskey, delegates in Birkenstocks and guayaberas discussed Marx and Antonio Gramsci, the leftist Italian writer. Such meetings have become a staple of life in Caracas, with Chávez's government flush, at least for now, with petrodollars that can be used to attract sympathetic members of the chattering classes the world over.
Officials here have organized international encounters for philosophers, women's rights advocates, the government spokesmen of nonaligned countries, poets and, in September, specialists in body painting.
Another event, Venezuela's annual international book fair, began with fanfare here last week with the theme, "The book in the construction of Bolivarian socialism." That was a bit toned down from the previous year's fair, which had delegates pondering the question, "The United States: a possible revolution?"
Amid all the variety, few of these conferences offered as much optimism about shifting international events as the meeting for intellectuals a few weeks ago, which involved guided tours of Caracas's slums for the delegates and panel discussions examining the evolving financial crisis.
"We must help the current capitalist model collapse, for on its own this will not happen," José Déniz Espinós, an economist from Madrid, told attendees. "I do not know of one system that has collapsed on its own. For this reason, we must not succumb to euphoria."
The conference, like most of the others, was held in the Alba, a luxury hotel taken over by the government last year from the Hilton chain. It is this country's equivalent to the Hotel Habana Libre in Cuba: a drab complex once associated with American power that serves as a symbol of revolutionary change.
Not far from the welcome stand in the hotel lobby, the Alba's curio shop featured souvenir statues of Chávez for 315 bolivares, about $147 at the official exchange rate (about twice the black market rate).
Those on a tighter budget could also stroll outside, where sidewalk vendors could regularly be found hawking a range of Chávez-emblazoned knickknacks for under $10. For the more daring, there were T-shirts championing Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, the Venezuelan terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal, who is serving a life sentence in France.
"It is wonderful to be in Caracas," said Mostapha el-Gammal, 56, an Egyptian and author of a new book, "Chávez: Charisma, Revolution, Dialectics." "The city has some nice nature, and less traffic than in Cairo."
Revolutionary tourism notwithstanding, Gammal said a highlight of his trip was the opportunity to debate his book, which he said the Venezuelan government was planning to translate from the Arabic and publish here. "Is Chávez a mere populist or a genuine revolutionary?" he asked, rhetorically, in an interview. "I dismiss the first idea."
And he got a call-out from Chávez himself when the president addressed the conference. "Chávez spoke my name into the microphone and told me, 'Thank you,' " said Gammal, beaming.
Venezuela's government also earns high marks from some foreign scholars for its creation of the Miranda International Center, a policy research outfit in a high-rise across the street from the Alba, and for prizes like the Liberator Prize for Critical Thinking. Franz Hinkelammert, a German-born theologian living in Costa Rica, was the first winner of the $150,000 prize in 2006.
The conferences, the prizes, the slum tours with a government security detail: it is all too much for Chávez's doubters, people like Fernando Mires, a Chilean historian and philosopher who was here for a separate conference at the Central University of Venezuela.
On his way out of town, Mires, 65, was detained by security forces and exhaustively interrogated about his visit before he was allowed to board the plane. Mires, an outspoken critic of Chávez, who described the incident in an article in a local newspaper, said he viewed the conference at the Alba with resignation.
"Yesterday it was Mugabe or Castro; today it's Chávez," Mires said in a telephone interview. "Many of the attendees to these events are emerging from political frustration and see a chance for their ideas in an impoverished country that has been democratized through intimidation."
Still, some in attendance at the Caracas conference seemed prepared to cast a critical gaze on their host, but maybe with a wink.
"It's admirable, but there are also so many questions to see whether this process is sustainable," Vinod Raina, a theoretical physicist from India, said of Chávez's Venezuela. "The important point is that he has taken on the mantle of crystallizing forces in opposition to the empire."