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      Fire This Time in Caracas, Venezuela at the Sao Paulo Forum

      "The Only Thing that Guarantees Triumph is Unity!"

      By Alison Bodine & Tamara Hansen

      The 25th International “Foro de São Paulo” or Sao Paulo Forum (SPF) was held this year in Caracas, Venezuela. Fire This Time Movement for Social Justice (FTT) was honoured to be invited to participate in this large anti-imperialist conference which brought together thousands of people from Venezuela and around the world.

      As members of the Editorial Board of Fire This Time Newspaper we (Tamara Hansen and Alison Bodine) were excited to travel to Caracas as two of the five delegates who attended the Sao Paulo Forum from Canada. This was both a chance to learn from people from across Latin America and around the world, as well as to share about the consistent work of the Fire This Time Venezuela Solidarity Campaign.

      This report will delve into the themes and questions raised by the SPF and our experience as invited guests at this monumental international event. We will also collaborate on a second report about our observations and experiences in Venezuela, where we met with a wide cross-section of Venezuelan people. That second report will also include various interviews we recorded with Venezuelans from all walks of life: youth, students, human rights advocates, community organizers, and members of the Venezuelan government.

      We hope these reports and interviews will give a better sense of what the mainstream media in Canada and the United States is purposely ignoring about Venezuela today.

      What is the Sao Paulo Forum?

      The 25th International Sao Paulo Forum was held July 25-28, 2019. The forum ended July 28 celebrating what would have been the 65th birthday of the late Comandante Hugo Chávez Frías, President of Venezuela 1999–2013 and leader of the Bolivarian revolutionary process.

      It is important to note that for the last eight months the democratically elected Venezuelan government of Nicolás Maduro has been fighting off a U.S. and Canada backed coup by right-wing opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who auto proclaimed himself President of Venezuela on January 23, 2019. The coup has been widely panned as a failure, as Guaidó is not recognized by any level of Venezuelan government. However, he has been dangerously recognized by about 50 countries (either imperialist or those who are easily bullied by imperialism). Meanwhile over 120 countries worldwide continue to recognize the government of Nicolás Maduro. The Maduro government is also recognized by the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, the Non-Aligned Movement, and many other international institutions as the legitimate government of Venezuela.

      Organizing the SPF in Venezuela – which was strongly attacked by right-wing forces in the U.S. and Latin America, because of its commitment to defending the self-determination of Venezuela and the democratically elected president, Nicolás Maduro – was yet another sign that his government is safely in control and continuing with the Venezuelan people to build the Bolivarian process.

      The forum’s central theme, "For Peace, Sovereignty and Prosperity of Peoples…Unity, Struggle, Battle, and Victory!" included several other demands against imperialist intervention in Latin America and in favor of building relationships based in solidarity and mutual respect. The nearly 2,000 delegates to the forum came from Venezuela and around the world. Representatives from 190 organizations participated, including political parties, social and workers' movements, elected officials, intellectuals, artists, and personalities such as the grandsons of Nelson Mandela and Salvador Allende.

      Opening of the XXV Sao Paulo Forum - July 25

      During the opening plenary of the Sao Paulo Forum, Julio Chávez, a vice-president of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and a deputy to Venezuela’s National Constituent Assembly explained the history of the SPF and the need for the SPF today. He expressed, “25 years after the first Sao Paulo Forum there are two conflicting visions of the world: the vision of the Monroe Doctrine, driven by Donald Trump, inspired in the doctrine of domination and of a unipolar world ruled by the hegemony of the United States, versus the Bolivarian doctrine that proposes building a multipolar world.”

      The opening session was chaired by Julio Chávez and began with over a dozen greetings from international guests representing many regions of the world. Alison was invited to address the crowd as the coordinator of the Fire This Time Venezuela Solidarity Campaign as well as a representative from North America. In her talk she outlined the responsibility of people living in the U.S. and Canada to fight against the blockade and U.S. intervention, in defense of Venezuela's sovereignty and self-determination. She also proposed organizing a united international day of action around the world against imperialist aggression against Venezuela and called people to action in the streets in defense of Venezuela. Alison thanked the organizers with the Cancillería (the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry) for inviting her to speak on behalf of North American delegates.

      During the opening plenary an invited panel also gave more in-depth speeches on behalf of many countries throughout Latin America including Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, Chile, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Cuba.

      Tamara arrived in Caracas just in time for the forum’s opening evening event. The hall was bustling and crowded with hundreds of people networking, being interviewed by international media, reconnecting with old co-organizers, and waiting in anticipation for the event to start. When the event began people from around the world were formally welcomed to the forum and Caracas. We heard the strong words of Adán Chávez, the Venezuelan Ambassador to Cuba, Vice President of International Affairs of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), and the brother of Hugo Chávez. The event was concluded by Diosdado Caballo, the President of Venezuela’s National Constituent Assembly. He expressed, “This is an extraordinary event for the unity of popular movements and parties from all over the world. Nobody is able to defend themselves against imperialism on their own, they will be able to fight battles and struggles [...] but the only thing that guarantees triumph is unity!”

      At the end of the event we rushed to the front of the hall and were able to share a copy of FTT Newspaper and Alison's book “Revolution & Counterrevolution in Venezuela” (Battle of Ideas Press) with Diosdado Caballo.

      The Second Day of the XXV Sao Paulo Forum - July 26

      Part of the forum was an Expo showcasing the extraordinary art, culture, social, and political life in Venezuela. There were Indigenous artisans and women’s cooperative workers sharing their foods and crafts; areas dedicated to seniors and youth; and displays with construction workers, the agricultural sector, scientists, the oil industry, and much more. We collected materials about the achievements of Venezuela’s various social missions such as “Robinson” (for literacy), “Ribas” (for political education), and “Gran Misión Vivienda” (for housing).

      As we walked through the Expo we were interviewed by many journalists who were interested in a North American perspective on the SPF. Among others, we spoke with the PSUV’s Cuatro F Newspaper and web channel, Vive TV, the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry’s web channel, and EFE.

      That morning there were two dynamic forums in the women’s area, the first on women in the Bolivarian revolutionary process and the second on the impact of U.S. sanctions and blockade on the LGBTQ+ community in Venezuela.

      In the afternoon there was a large youth forum held to discuss the gains and challenges of the Bolivarian Revolution. Here a passionate speaker outlined the history of the struggles faced by young people in Venezuela prior President Hugo Chávez coming to power in 1999. The event was attended by 500 dynamic youth who were mostly from different sectors in Venezuela. There were speakers from Venezuela, Cuba, Chile, Brazil, Honduras, and Argentina who each spoke about the challenges facing youth in their countries. Tamara met some of our young Venezuelan compañeras and compañeros who we have gotten to know over the years through our solidarity work. She had a chance to share a pizza and hear about their ongoing challenges within Venezuela, where a counter-revolutionary opposition continues to destabilize Venezuela (with the support of the government of the U.S. and Canada), but also their positive outlook for continuing to struggle for a more just future.

      In the late afternoon Jorge Arreaza, Venezuelan Minister of Foreign Affairs, addressed the forum. He spoke with determination and vision about the impact of sanctions on Venezuela and the need to unite against the right-wing in Latin America. He concluded his talk on the importance of working together, but also the fundamental principal of independence. He explained, "Our Socialism has to be the heroic creation of our peoples, with our conditions and in our circumstances, but there must be some basic agreements with the left on which we can build and share!"

      During the SPF, Fire This Time was also invited to join the Embassy Protection Collective (EPC) on a tour of Caracas. The Embassy Protection Collective are a group from the United States who for 37 days protected the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington, DC from an unjust and illegal take over by supporters of the U.S.-backed puppet Juan Guaidó. EPC members were violently attacked by right-wing thugs for their important organizing and four were arrested and are currently facing unjust charges in the United States (to learn more about this important struggle read our interview with EPC members in FTT Volume 13 Issue 6).

      While on this tour to see firsthand the many creative ways that the people and government of Venezuela are responding to increasing U.S.-led blockade and threats of war, Alison visited the “El Panal 2021” Commune along with the EPC. During this visit Alison participated in children's musical performances, a visit to a bakery, a small clothing factory, and a community radio.

      The Third Day of the XXV Sao Paulo Forum - July 27

      This day began with the gathering of working groups discussing points to add to the final resolutions of the SPF, as well the creation of their own working group reports to the final assembly. There were meetings for parliamentarians, women, people of African descent, Indigenous people, and youth.

      The meeting on youth was attended by 100 youth from around the world. The meeting focused on how to best inspire youth to join the struggle and how the specific issues youth are facing could be reflected in the working documents of the SPF. Tamara intervened as a member of the Fire This Time Editorial board and the coordinator of Vancouver Communities in Solidarity with Cuba (VCSC). Tamara spoke about how the gains of the revolutions in Venezuela and Cuba can inspire young people. She also outlined the solidarity work happening in Vancouver, Canada and motivated for the SPF to organize an international day of action in solidarity with Venezuela.

      We also caught the end of the women’s meeting and had the chance to meet an important revolutionary Venezuelan woman and octogenarian, María de Lourdes León, member of the National Constituent Assembly and leader in the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Her writing has been previously featured in the "Our Heritage" column of Fire This Time Newspaper. María was kind and encouraging when we explained to her the work of the FTT Venezuela Solidarity Campaign and was happy to receive the FTT Newspaper and a copy of Alison’s book “Revolution & Counterrevolution in Venezuela”.

      In the afternoon there was an anti-imperialist march and rally organized. Thousands of Venezuelans participated as well as hundreds of international guests. We joined in the rally and were consistently approached by Venezuelans who wanted to take photos with us and know where we were visiting from. The rally featured many international speakers who energetically spoke about the need to continue the struggle for a better world despite obstacles, such as the U.S. blockade on Venezuela and other ongoing aggressions against Venezuela’s sovereignty.

      The Final Day of the XXV Sao Paulo Forum - July 28

      On the final day of the SPF Alison was invited to a radio interview with YYKE Mundial, a national public radio station in Venezuela. Alison spoke alongside, Graça Xavier of the União Nacional por Moradia Popular (National Union for Popular Housing) in Brazil, about what they had experienced at the SPF and what they would be taking home with them.

      The closing plenary of the 25th International Sao Paulo Forum was organized around mid-day with a final declaration being read, as well as many reports from the various working groups including parliamentarians, women, people of African descent, Indigenous people, and youth.

      Soon we were loading on to buses towards Miraflores, the presidential residence in Venezuela. On our way we stopped at the famous Escalinata del Calvario (the Calvary staircase now known as el Parque Ezequiel Zamora, a Venezuelan independence fighter from the 1800s) where we took a giant group photo as a beautiful symbol of friendship and unity of the forum.

      From there we walked to Miraflores where we gathered with hundreds of people to await the arrival of the special guests for the formal closing ceremony. We were very excited when Adán Chávez and Diosdado Caballo arrived along with Mónica Valente, Executive Secretary of the Sao Paulo Forum from Brazil; Miguel Díaz-Canel, the President of Cuba, and Nicolás Maduro, the President of Venezuela.

      In President Díaz-Canel’s remarks he celebrated the 65th birthday of the late Comandante Hugo Chávez. He said, “As those attending the forum have documented and discussed, it is necessary to articulate resistance to neoliberalism and imperialism in our respective communication strategies: create and nurture networks of truth against the offensive of lies. […] On the 65th birthday of Chávez, that extraordinary communicator who emerged from the heart of Bolivar's homeland to bring us back the words and dreams of the Liberator, there can be no better tribute to his living memory than a progressive movement of the left, democratic and diverse as the parties and social groups that compose it, unleashing the unlimited creativity of the people to write their own recounting of history, and make history itself in the common struggle for justice. Happy birthday, Comandante!”

      President Maduro explained many of the challenges of organizing the Sao Paulo Forum with a sense of optimism and fighting spirit. He explained, "The right-wing shouted in desperation making declarations, statements, and pronouncements about the Sao Paulo Forum. Phoning deputies, governors, leaders to tell them not to come. [In a mocking North American accent] 'The US embassy would see it very positively if you did not go to Caracas.' If 2,000 had not come. However, courage, bravery, truth, love and solidarity prevailed. And I am sure - with work, with patience, and with all this spiritual strength we have - I am sure that, just as we lived through a first stage of resistance against neoliberalism and stopped the FTAA; I am sure that, just as we lived through a second stage of popular, successful and superior governments; I am sure that, just as we are living this stage with dignity in the streets fighting; there will come a new and fourth stage of counteroffensive of the peoples of Latin America of the Caribbean.”

      As the events of the SPF came to their natural conclusion, delegates from Canada were honoured to meet with the Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs for North America, Carlos Ron. This was a chance to discuss our perspectives on building a broader and more diverse Venezuela solidarity movement in Canada. It was a positive way to unite the delegates from Canada, with new ideas and plans for moving our work forward.

      As the delegation from Fire This Time Movement for Social Justice attending the Sao Paulo Forum, we cherished this important opportunity to learn about how poor and working people are resisting in the face of growing U.S. aggression, sanctions, and threats of war. Our participation further highlighted our responsibility as people living in the U.S. and Canada to force the government of U.S. and Canada off the necks of those fighting for sovereignty, independence and self-determination in Venezuela, across Latin America and the Caribbean, and around the world.

      Follow Alison on Twitter: @Alisoncolette
      Follow Tamara on Twitter: @THans01

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