March 24, 2013

The Day We Met Chavez

The 16th WFYS
Chavez funeral

By Johan Boyden

When the news came it was probably natural that almost all of us from that delegation thought about our experience, eight years ago. When I bumped into some of the delegation at International Women's Day events, since his death came so close to IWD, it seemed natural to talk about it.

It was 16th World Festival of Youth and Students, in Caracas. I remember we got off the airplane after our long flight, arriving late at night, and immediately stepped into a wall of hot and humid air. A bit tired, we stumbled into the darkness with our bags.

And then, there they were. A welcoming party of Venezuela youth. Some were holding roses. Each woman in our delegation got a rose as she stepped onto Venezuela soil.

I remember noticing what they were wearing. Bright red t‑shirts emblazoned with the slogan: "Another world is possible, and that is socialism!"

I have difficultly describing the impact of these few words on a t‑shirt. After all it seems that today, with the economic crisis, more and more young people today are opening their eyes. The most popular searched words in the online Merriam‑Webster Dictionary last year were "socialism" and "capitalism."

During the "Dirty Thirties," in a speech advocating for public health care, Dr. Norman Bethune once said that "Twenty five years ago it was thought to be contemptible to be a socialist. Today it is ridiculous not to be one."

Well, that dark night at Simon Bolivar International Airport felt a bit like the twenty five years had just ended.

It was, I think, a quote from President Hugo Chavez. A clear statement. Here, in Venezuela, thousands of young people are debating a profoundly different future. Over the next two weeks we would learn that their truly was a serious, vibrant, and exciting argument.

Up to that point, the link between socialism and the Bolivarian Revolution had been far from clear. Only days before had Chavez made the connection as necessary. Over the next few days during the World Festival of Youth and Students, Chavez would speak and develop this pro‑socialist perspective in more detail.

It seemed ground‑breaking. It was.

It took us ages to get out of the airport, to the "bed city" where we stayed and finally, down to a giant parade ground for the opening ceremonies. Who would have known, just a few years later, we would be looking into the newspaper and recognize the very same parade ground where his funeral procession would go, surrounded by hundreds of thousands.

Those parade grounds are at the bottom of a valley. The city is all around, then big steep hills rise up which become giant mountains in the distance. The hills are covered with the communities of the poor, the barrios.

Dusk fell. Then came the deep, black tropical darkness. Moving as a group, we slowly walked what seemed like a few miles, finally turning past a big podium. And then there he was. Hugo Chavez. The man himself. Full of life, surrounded by other youth leaders, welcoming the youth of the world who had assembled to raise high the banner of the festival: "for peace and solidarity, we struggle against imperialism and war."

It seemed the procession was regularly interrupted. Chavez had a few people from some of the delegations brought up to the podium. The US delegation's flag‑bearer, for example, received a giant bear‑hug. And then he spoke. For our tired bodies it seemed long. There was no translation.

"I was so young, I didn't appreciate how we were witnessing history," one former delegate told me the other day.

We looked up at the hills, and realized that the twinkling tiny network of lights in a few small areas must generally outline the rich communities with electricity, hostile to the Bolivarian Revolution, while the slopes which had fallen into darkness were its social base.

The festival was beginning. I personally didn't glimpse him again. But over the next week, in the voices and stories of all the youth involved in the Bolivarian process, it kind of felt like we were meeting with Chavez.

As the World Federation of Democratic Youth said, "the ones who die for life, shouldn't be called dead." Today those youth we met are eight years older. If they retain a tenth of the energy they had then, I am confident I will meet Chavez again.

Johan Boyden is the leader of the Young Communist League of Canada, which is helping organize a cross‑Canada delegation to the 18th World Festival of Youth and Students taking place late this year in Ecuador.

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