Activists rally against Bush, Iraq war as World Social Forum begins in Venezuela |

Activists rally against Bush, Iraq war as World Social Forum begins in Venezuela

CARACAS, Venezuela – To the beat of drums and trilling whistles, thousands of activists from around the world showed their opposition to globalization and the Iraq war at the opening Tuesday of the World Social Forum backed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.The six-day conference got under way in Caracas amid a light drizzle as activists paraded along wide avenues chanting “Socialism, yes! Imperialism, no!” About 80,000 people signed up to attend the forum, including tens of thousands from outside Venezuela, organizers said.Cindy Sheehan, an American peace activist whose son was killed in Iraq, addressed a sea of people from a stage set up alongside a Venezuelan military base, starting a chant of “No to the war!””We need to bring our troops home immediately,” Sheehan told the crowd. “We need to hold someone responsible for all the death and destruction in the world. We need to see George Bush and the rest of them tried for crimes against humanity.”Sheehan, a 48-year-old from Berkeley, Calif., gained international attention when she set up a protest camp near U.S. President Bush’s ranch in Texas last year.Organizers emphasized the event was not intended as a rally for Chavez, though the event was backed by funding from his government.A red government truck led the march, and activists stepped aboard to shout slogans, many praising Chavez and shouting “Long live the revolution!”Daniel Poppe, a 27-year-old German activist, said he believes in Chavez but felt uncomfortable about the truck and the slogans. “I don’t like nationalist propaganda,” said Poppe, who wore a red Che Guevara T-shirt.The marchers included several Palestinians who held an Iraqi flag, and others who stretched out the wings of a giant dove made from white sheets. Several marchers from Syria chanted “Down, down U.S.A.!”Others held banners focused on women’s rights, indigenous rights or the environment.The World Social Forum was first held in Brazil in 2001 and coincides with the market-friendly World Economic Forum of political and business leaders, which begins Wednesday in Davos, Switzerland.Those at the social forum, in contrast, traditionally criticize free trade and denounce the evils of capitalism.Chavez, a fierce critic of the U.S., was expected to address activists on the sidelines, soaking up the spotlight as a leading radical voice of the Latin American left.Canopies promoting Chavez’s myriad social programs for the poor lined a major avenue in Caracas, while a dozen Venezuelan-made military jeeps were on display, along with a tractor made jointly by Iran and Venezuela.Chavez has funneled million of dollars from booming oil profits into programs for the poor, making him an inspiration for like-minded activists from Canada to Chile.”He’s the one who has most influenced the alternative vision in Latin America,” said Oliviero Orjuela, a 36-year-old Colombian activist. “Bush embodies the opposite vision – the commercial vision that sees the world as a business.”This year’s social forum is being held in three countries, including a smaller gathering that ended Monday in Mali and another two months from now in Pakistan.Some 2,000 events – including seminars, speeches and concerts – will be held across Caracas this week. Well-known speakers include the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, the Argentine Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel and former French first lady Danielle Mitterrand.Venezuela deployed 3,500 soldiers and police across Caracas to help keep security.—Associated Press writers Natalie Obiko Pearson and Christopher Toothaker, in Caracas, contributed to this report.Vail, Colorado

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