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San Fransico Bay Guardian: Contrasting conferences

A pair of high-profile international conferences last week divided the Bay Area's opinion shapers – one group seeking fundamental social change, the other a way to maintain control over the economic system.
The 30th annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, drew the likes of Google's Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson, Web-service entrepreneur Paul Sagan, and San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom. They joined at least seven heads of state, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Bill Gates, the presidents of Harvard and Yale, John Kerry, and at least two US governors, three crown princes.
But while a few of the Bay Area's elite went to Davos, Bay Area progressive activists headed south last week to Caracas, Venezuela, for the World Social Forum, scheduled (intentionally) to conflict with Davos.
“I went because I think it's the one place, once a year, we can connect with like-minded people,” said Global Exchange's Medea Benjamin. Benjamin said she goes because she can learn about new social movements, problems in need of solutions, and “campaigns to make the world better.”
Benjamin said an amazing 90 Bay Area activists went, including contingents from Media Alliance and the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, as well as individuals like Ethics Commissioner Eileen Hansen.
Some political observers, such as San Francisco State University professor Rich DeLeon, wanted to know why Newsom chose Davos over Caracas. “A lot of San Franciscans on the progressive side would be happy if Newsom showed as much curiosity about Venezuela as Davos,” DeLeon said.
Venezuela has become a rallying point for the left since Hugo Chavez was elected to the presidency of the oil-rich country in 1998. In April 2002 the country's pro-American business interests (with at least tacit approval from the Bush administration) staged a coup d'état, and Chavez was ousted. Forty-eight hours later, after mass street demonstrations, Chavez returned to power.
Since then, other leftists have come to power in Latin American countries that were once under the thumb of the United States, including Evo Morales, who was last week sworn in as Bolivia's first indigenous leader, and former political prisoner and socialist Michelle Bachelet, who this month was elected Chile's first female president.
So Venezuela is leading a gentle progressive revolution in the western hemisphere. “It's a place where billions of dollars of oil money is being used to teach people to read and write,” Benjamin said.
Chavez gave an hour-long closing speech in the city's Polihedro Stadium to what delegates estimated was at least 50,000 people. The next day Benjamin went to the presidential palace with her Code Pink cofounder Jodie Evans, antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan, and Sheehan's sister for a two-hour sit-down with Chavez.
The talk, she said, ranged from the war in Iraq to global warming. While Venezuela produces three million barrels of oil a day, Benjamin said 60 percent of its electricity comes from hydropower.
“They're changing all their lightbulbs to energy-efficient fluorescents,” Benjamin said. “They're really taking the environment and energy seriously.”
By contrast, in Davos, Royal Dutch Shell head Jeroen van der Veer said that the market and existing energy companies will be able to handle energy problems. “There is no reason for pessimism,” he declared.
Newsom (who was named a “Young Global Leader” at Davos last year) distinguished the views of San Franciscans from the policies of the Bush administration and talked about entering into an agreement with 130 other mayors to reduce carbon emissions at the city level, according to official WEF reports.
But the World Social Forum in Caracas, said SF State professor DeLeon, is the sort of place where left-leaning San Franciscans should feel right at home, and where San Francisco, DeLeon said, “should consider sending an official delegation.” (Joe Dignan)

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