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.

andres leighton/ap/file

The "hot corner" stands in the center of Caracas, in Plaza Bolívar. It's a makeshift booth papered with fliers that marks itself as the "launching point to the revolution." There militants rail against imperialism and greedy Yankees all day.

But this is not the excesses and exuberance of a few hometown activists. Across Caracas, appeals for social revolt are the city's constant background music. No matter what you do during the day – jog, ride the subway, simply cross the street – it's there. The murals and banners that drape the city – of revolutionaries "Che" Guevara and Simón Bolívar, of Fidel Castro, and now, of course, of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez – are the curtains onto the hottest stage along the "revolutionary circuit" in the world today. And leftists from everywhere are swarming in to see the show.

Caracas in the early 2000s has become what Petrograd was under Lenin in the early 1900s. It's what Havana was in the early days of the Cuban revolution. It's what Chiapas, Mexico, became for a time in the 1990s when "Subcomandante Marcos" launched an armed struggle to help the indigenous people there – a magnet for socialists and students, radicals and revolutionaries, leftists and a few Hollywood luminaries.

Until recently, they didn't have anywhere to go. Socialism was in retreat, "revolutions" scarce. Then along came Mr. Chávez and his gambit to forge a "21st century socialism." Suddenly, Caracas is the new leftwing petri dish. "This is the most interesting social experiment in the world taking place today," says Fred Fuentes, an Australian who moved to Caracas last July, as he sips from a mug with the government motto "Rumbo al Socialismo" (On the way to Socialism). "Venezuela is the key place to be observing."

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Since being sworn in as Venezuela's president in 1999, Chavez has championed the cause of the poor, making them the protagonists of his policies. He calls his crusade the Bolivarian Revolution, after Simón Bolívar who helped liberate Venezuela from Spain in the 1800s. His supporters say he is the only one who has ever cared about them. Critics call his peasant-class evangelism posturing – a man with too much oil money using politics as a personal sandbox.

Either way, he has given a sense of hope to and unleashed a fervor among millions of Venezuelans. "This is truly a revolution," notes Cira Mijares, a Caracas resident who says she found her voice when she joined a community council, a Chávez initiative to boost the poor.

It is this same sentiment that foreigners are arriving to steep in. At the International Miranda Center, which sits on the top floor of a hotel suite that houses large numbers of Cubans, who have been in Venezuela providing medical care and baseball training to the poor, visitors from around the world – with government aid – prepare conferences and papers on the merits of the country's social revolution. They talk politics, quote Lenin, and discuss the new cooperatives and councils.

For some, it's been a personal revolution as much as a political one. Julia Mariano Pereira, a Brazilian who works at the center, was employed as a software consultant for an American company in Chile when some friends invited her to Caracas. She had her doubts. Unlike her peers, she harbored no deep political convictions. "I didn't see that I could help much.... People asked me, 'are you Chavista?' I'm not exactly sure."

Still, she reasoned, no better college exists for a budding leftist than Caracas, where the articles of the Constitution hang at subway stations and new laws are sold as paperbacks at newsstands. Now she's reading Marxist theory, Mariategui – she says she didn't even know who the late Peruvian socialist was – and Brazilian philosophers.

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.

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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.

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