outside the US embassy on sunday
Hands Off Venezuela's Week of Solidarity started off on Monday night with the opening of the 'Latinamerican Liberation' exhibition (later renamed 'Pachamerican Liberation', see Thursday, below) at the rampART creative centre in Whitechapel. Many inspiring and haunting pieces of art were on display, and we were able to hear from the artists themselves on the meaning behind their work.
Particularly striking was the collection of skeletons arranged at the feet of a white, mirrored, electronic goddess, which artist Victor Carlin explained was inspired by the Mexican 'Day of the Dead'. Raul Piña's shamanic performance upstairs, which lasted til the lights went out, was also not to missed. Teresa Teran, the Venezuelan artist who curated the exhibition, created the perfect inspirational environment for our week of debate and discussion.
Downstairs, after a brief Q&A about the 'Bolivarian Movement' in Venezuela, we watched the seminal new documentary by Marcelo Andrade, "Venezuela Bolivariana: People and Struggle of the Fourth World War", which set the keynote for the week. This film has caught the global activist scene alight since it was shown at the PGA conference in Belgrade last month, and is the first to explain the Venezuelan process from an anarchist/autonomist perspective.
Having watched this movie, the reality of class-conflict in Venezuela and how the government there is defending its people against corporate-colonial greed, became impossible to ignore and even the most sceptical of minds would've been won over. "Caracas-style" veggie hot-dogs (with salad and crushed crisps) also went down very well with the fifty or so people there.
Tuesday was a day in solidarity with Cuba and Venezuela, highlighting the special relationship these countries have, both being 'liberated' from US imperialism. In the afternoon at the rampARTs we showed Oliver Stone's film "Comandante", which is the result of three days of interviews with Fidel Castro and which certainly opens the eyes of anyone who's only heard the US propaganda about this popular and charismatic Cuban leader.
Following that was a documentary about Cuban hip-hop artists, "Hip Hop Cubano", and we heard from Basi Amodu about the sizable (and growing) hip-hop community there. After initial suspicion by the government, the movement in Cuba is treated with respect and supported as the revolutionary culture it aims to be. The film includes interviews with the band 'Orishas', who were recently denied a visa to travel to the Grammy music awards in the US (which they had won).
After a brief talk and Q&A about the film, we moved chairs round to form a circle of about forty people, and launched a broader discussion of Cuba and Venezuela. JJ from Rock Around the Blockade, which raises money with parties here to take sound-systems out to Cuba, spoke about the historical connections between the two countries and how the revolutionary spirit of the Cuban people is complemented by a love of music, dancing and passionately celebrating life.
Alan Woods from Hands Off Venezuela underlined this by pointing out that "revolution is the biggest fiesta there is", before explaining how capitalism effectively destroys this joyful spirit. He gave plenty of examples and an almost scientific analysis of the destructive nature of capitalism, as well an understanding of how grassroots activists and trade-unions could unite into an unstoppable force, though some of us proposed that the traditional marxist language used might need to be updated to appeal to the supposedly "apathetic youth".
Beat-poet Paradox awed the circle with some rapping on this very subject, and as the debate heated up delicious Venezuelan food appeared. The discussion continued informally over arepas, black beans and rice, washed down with Caribbean rum and fruit juices. Properly fueled, sambistas from Rhythms of Resistance, and other drummers, starting banging a Bolivarian beat, and Rob (the Rub) and his mic-ed up acoustic guitar joined in with some brilliantly political songs, continuing the theme of 'democratic revolution'. Us politico stiffs had the chance to get out of our heads and into our bodies, on the dancefloor, while GM Baby MC-ed and DJ-ed CDs til everyone got too drunk to remember anything more.
On Wednesday, the exhibition at the rampARTs was open in the afternoon with a new reading room upstairs filled with books, posters, magazine articles and internet print-outs about Venezuela. Then at 7pm the action shifted to the London School of Economics, where Rock Around the Blockade had arranged a meeting on "Creating a Caring Economy". Niki Adams from the Global Women's Strike Bolivarian Circle read a speech prepared for us by Nina Lopez, who was in Caracas as an invited International Observer of the referendum process.
Among the many common-sense yet radical initiatives taking place in Venezuela, such as the new Women's Bank, she told us about how Article 88 of the new constitution recognises housework as an economic activity and as such guarantees housewives social security. Then Hannah from RAtB explained how Revolution transformed the lives of the Cuban people, from being massively exploited to controlling their own economy and sharing the fruits of their own labour. She also gave an overview of the common criticisms levelled against the Cuban revolution and explained how each of them were totally bogus.
But, partly as a counter-example to these progressive economies (which Nora Castañeda, head of the Women's Bank in Venezuela, describes as being "at the service of people, rather than the other way round") and also to show what the US considers a "correct" economy, Sarah from the GWS told us about the reality of life in Haiti. From the atrocious sweat-shop exploitation of the people there by US corporations to the massive slaughter following the recent Bush-backed coup against President Aristide, a very grim picture emerged, and one made worse by the lack of any mainstream media attention.
The Q&A afterwards was very lively, with an agreement that it was vital to raise the level of awareness about what's happening right now in Haiti, and also in Colombia. There was the hope that these countries might follow in the direction that Cuba and Venezuela have gone, towards creating a caring economy. The evening ended with a strong desire by the different groups present to work together more in the the future.
On Thursday we were back at the rampARTs with a round-table on the future of the Latinamerican solidarity movement here, with contributions from Colombia Solidarity Campaign, Bolivian Solidarity Campaign, Hands Off Venezuela and others. The talking circle started off with a debriefing from David Rhys-Jones of the CSC on the flashpoint border region of Arauca, on the Venezuela/Colombia border. This ultra-dangerous area (known as the "laboratory of war") is crawling with left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, the Colombian army and US special forces, with more than a few "narco-trafficers" thrown in as well.
That night we were horrified to hear that in Arauca, just one week previously, three trade union leaders had been extra-judicially executed by the Colombian Army. Their names were Héctor Alirio Martínez, Leonel Goyeneche and Jorge Prieto, and they were shot on their knees, bare-chested and without shoes, as they had been whilst sleeping. The Army claim the three were guerrilla fighters who ran out of their house shooting. Their relatives and solidarity supporters worldwide are demanding there is a Civil rather than Military investigation into these murders.
Then after the topic of Colombia's drug economy was brought up, Amancay Sonia from the BSC, which had earlier held a meeting upstairs in the reading room, talked about how coca cultivation was vital to Bolivians (many of who live in the high mountains) and explained that coca and cocaine were as different from each other as sugar and alcohol, although they come from the same plant. She also highlighted how Coca-Cola have always used coca, in different forms, in their products, thereby overly-stimulating and addicting kids and others to their fizzy sickly drinks.
The topic returned to Colombia, and Jenny James from the Atlantis community shared with us some of her experiences living in the jungle there, both tragic and hopeful. Her daughter Louisa performed some beautiful and heart-breaking songs in english and spanish on her guitar, and gorgeous food was served up by the rampARTs resident chefs. The thirty or so activists continued for a couple more hours, informally networking and planning future meetings and events.
At one point the issue of language was raised, and I introduced the word "Pachamerica" to the group. This is the replacement label for "Latinamerica", which is as colonial a term as "Red Indian" to describe native americans - after all, there's nothing very "Latin" about central and southern americans. Although this new word caused a little confusion at first, after hearing about its indiginous roots ("Pachamama" means Mother Earth) everyone generally got the idea, and there were no objections to renaming the art exhibition "Pachamerican Liberation".
Friday was our day on the media, and all afternoon we screened documentaries about Venezuela at the rampARTs, including "Another Way is Possible... in Venezuela" and Marcelo's brilliant "Venezuela Bolivariana..." (again). From that we went straight into a huge talking-circle of at least sixty people, starting off with Javier and Ana from indymedia speaking about the lack of reliable info from Venezuela, a theme that was picked up on many times by several of us that night.
The evening was used to unofficially launch the new Venezuelan Indymedias, a spanish-speaking one temporarily hosted in Puerto Rico and an english-language site here in the UK. Many of us expressed interest in helping to work on the new UK site, and in fact I received basic indymedia training myself later that night. Unfortunately Tariq Ali never showed up as promised, but as we all agreed, we don't need no big names!
Yummy veggie burritos were prepared by my favourite Venezuelan vegetarian chef in London, complemented with Pachamerican folk music and a fast internet access point in the corner of the room, where we could update the new indymedia sites and monitor all the latest news. With only two days to go til the referendum, the excitement and tension in Venezuela could be felt all across the planet.
Saturday's workshops at the European Creative Forum, held at Project 142 in Clapton, went far beyond any of our expectations. We all got our hands messy painting T-shirts with FunkyGandhi, who brought some excellent-quality "ethical" shirts for us to experiment on (100% organic cotton, fairly-traded) which all the kids there especially enjoyed. ("Is this on tomorrow?" one of them asked as she left.) The creative mood continued right up until the end of the night with us all taking turns painting a striking and colourful banner for Sunday's demo which read, "No to US Intervention, Yes to Bolivarian Liberation, Hands Off Venezuela!"
Roberta and Gareth from the International Caravan, which had just returned from Colombia after taking the "Coca-Killa" exhibition on tour there, led a horrorfying yet inspiring discussion about how Coca-Cola have a secret history of Nazi collaboration (which puts their current sponsorship of right-wing death-squads in Colombia in context). The works of art from the exhibition, which make this link pretty explicit, were on display around us and all the artists present were invited to contribute to the collection. The workshop seemed to capture everyone's imagination, and we moved into the centre room after our smaller studio became too crowded.
At the ECF in the evening the Global Women's Strike premiered their new documentary, "Enter the Oil Workers", about how Venezuelan oil workers, women and men, broke the lockout and sabotage of their industry by the bosses and corrupt union officials, and ended up running it themselves even better than before! This inspiring film sparked an in-depth and fascinating discussion afterwards, and many of the artists present learned first hand how women in Venezuela and the UK, and around the world, are joining up and forming a kind of super-union of carers and creators, and how this union is vital in defending the Bolivarian revolution and spreading it worldwide.
Sunday was the day of the referendum, and armed with banner and GWS battery-powered soundsystem we all met up in Hyde Park. The summer sun was shining down on us as three Bolivarian camps formed near Speakers' Corner: the picnickers with bagels and freshly-made Atlantis-style salad, the pink-n-silver sambistas from Rhythms of Resistance getting their marching band together, and a growing crowd around Speakers' Corner regular Heiko Khoo, rousing the rabble with his description of life in revolutionary Venezuela, from which he'd just returned.
At 2pm, the three Bolivarian blocks came together and we set off through the park towards the US embassy, samba booming out all the way. Even though we moved quite slowly it took us less than ten minutes to get there. The four cops who met us outside were very polite and gave us hardly any interference, and in fact seemed to be genuinely enjoying the speeches and music. One was even spotted shaking her hips to the revolutionary tropical beat!
An open-mic was hooked up and we heard from around a dozen speakers, including activists from Hands Off Venezuela, Rock Around the Blockade, the Global Women's Strike and Payday network. These were interspersed with songs from Louisa plus samba from the band, and the atmosphere pretty soon turned almost carnival-like. Some Venezuelans who had just voted for Chávez joined us and even provided a CD of the classic "Ooh! Aah! Chávez No Se Va!" song which we played, loudly, a few times before joining in with the english translation: "Hell No! Chávez - He Won't Go!"
The picket came to a natural conclusion around 4pm, and the ninety or so protesters moved on, some to a pub nearby which was next to the house in which Simon Bolivar stayed. We regrouped later in the evening at the rampARTs for the closing party of the "Pachamerican Liberation" exhibition, full of excitement and anticipation of the referendum results from Venezuela. With the internet connection we could keep up with the latest news, upload reports, pictures and a video of the demo, and read about solidarity actions that happened in Edinburgh, Stockholm and other places around the world.
Unfortunately because of the delayed poll closing in Venezuela we had to leave before the final result (eventually announced 9am Monday our time). However news was coming in all night, and we all left confident of a Chávez victory. The whole week had been leading up to this, and we knew we had all done something special to raise the issue of Venezuela up the activist agenda. When I heard the next morning that Chávez had won I knew that, barring any more desperate acts of sabotage, the Bolivarian Revolution was here to stay, and was personally very happy just to play a part in supporting it, from here in London.