Leftwing activists flock to Venezuela to soak up the socialist 'revolution'
Like Havana, Cuba, and Chiapas, Mexico, before it, Caracas draws liberals from around the world who want to experience Hugo Chavez's experiment in socialism.
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Her colleague, Janet Duckworth, an Englishwoman with deep roots in the Socialist Workers Party, was already an old hand at revolution. She spent most of the 1990s in Cuba working as a translator for the state-run newspaper Granma International. She's run into many of her fellow leftists from both Havana and Nicaragua. "Now they are all here, into the Bolivarian revolution," she says.Skip to next paragraph
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Throughout history, the motivations of traveling leftists have remained the same – a mixture of rebellion and romanticism. "They are disgusted with their own society," says sociologist Paul Hollander, whose book, "Political Pilgrims," traces the itinerant movement. "They are idealists." That, he says, often results in a gauzy view of the host government.
The waves of wandering leftists usually co-incide with domestic upheaval in their own country. In the 1930s, when many trekked to the Soviet Union, it was widespread economic collapse around the world. In the 1960s and '70s, the Vietnam War and social unrest drove some dispirited Americans to socialist outposts. More recently the Iraq war has caused people to pack up their political tenets, such as Cindy Sheehan, the peace activist, who visited Chávez in 2006.
Other high-profile people have made brief appearances here, too, including actors Danny Glover and Sean Penn. But most are people like Jordan Winquist, who was working as a waiter in Philadelphia after college. One day searching Craigslist he found a job teaching English in Caracas. But politics was the real reason he journeyed here in 2006.
"I wanted to see it for myself," he says, now back in Philadelphia. He also volunteered at one of Chávez's "misiones," to teach carpentry, plumbing, and electricity, mostly to women. "It was really inspirational, really intense."
Even private groups are tapping into the fervor, offering a version of "revolutionary tourism." Organizations like San Francisco-based Global Exchange, a human rights group that runs reality tours around the world, began booking packages in Venezuela a few years ago. Instead of beaches and bars, these tourists visit slums, workshops, and protest centers.
Venezuela differs from other stops on the activists' tour. Its revolution has been largely peaceful, absent the armed conflicts that marked other class-oriented upheavals. That brings challenges, analysts say: The movement didn't grow out of a well-defined ideology. Venezuela is also a major oil producer, which can yield a strange mix of capitalism and socialism.
When Ms. Duckworth arrived two years ago, she found the amount of wealth jarring – especially after a decade in Cuba. "You walk down the street," she says, "and you don't feel very revolutionary." Instead you see fast-food chains, foreign banks, and ads for plastic surgery.
But you can certainly feel it at San Carlos, the old political prison on a hill overlooking the presidential palace. It is now a museum. Poster-size photos of Chavez, Castro, and others hang outside. Inside, the walls are papered with condemnations of US involvement in Iraq and propaganda from the Anti-Imperialist Foundation Manuel Ponte Rodríguez.
Dario Azzellini, a documentary filmmaker from Italy, is teaching a seminar on community councils. Over the years, he has ventured to all the Latin American countries in the midst of social change. He came to Caracas in 2003. "I always go where I can give the most to the social processes of transformation," he says.