They’d received their summons and were out in force. The stalwarts of the British left-wing movement gathered on Saturday at central London’s Conway Hall for a day of workshops and discussions on Venezuela. One woman sported a top with an image of a beret-clad Hugo Chávez and the revolutionary slogan “Patria o Muerte” (Fatherland or death). Elsewhere, a bored-looking child in a bright red PSUV (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela) t-shirt fiddled with his iPhone.
The day had been organised by the Venezuelan Solidarity Campaign and queues of speakers, from Temir Porras, vice-minister for foreign affairs, to Juana García from the Venezuelan National Women’s Institute, filed up to the main hall microphone to extol the virtues of the Bolivarian revolution.
Love or hate Chávez – and Venezuela is deeply polarised – there is no doubt that the country’s vast oil wealth has been mobilised to genuinely advance the social standing of large swathes of the population.
The audience was bombarded with positive figures, such as the reduction of malnutrition levels from affecting 7.7 per cent of the population in the 1990s to the current figure of 3.7 per cent (against a Latin American average of 6 per cent). Then there were the huge advances in women’s rights: “Men now look after children, do the washing and clean the house,” assured García.
But why a Venezuela conference here in the UK? In recent years, brand Venezuela has taken a battering. Chávez may have briefly been toasted as the darling of the left-leaning mainstream press but his fall from grace has been absolute. Nowadays you’re more likely to read about his controversial comments in support of Gaddafi, soaring crime rates in Caracas or out-of-control inflation than any feel-good story.
And none of this negative coverage does much good when there’s a small matter of the presidential elections in 2012. Speaking to Monocle, the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign’s secretary, Francisco Domínguez explained. “In the last two months, the corporate media have launched a vicious campaign against Venezuela – they’ve done it before,” he said. “We believe this is in preparation for the 2012 elections. So we decided to rally our troops and make sure people understand what is ahead. We can’t influence what happens in Venezuela but at least we can make sure that the country gets a fair hearing over here.”
They want the revolution to continue – and that means Chávez. It was a shame, though, that the day wasn’t more of a two-way conversation. Apart from the last session Q&A, the rest of the workshops were dedicated to the pro-Chávez lobby pushing their cause. Here was an event preaching to the converted, when it should have been prepared to address some of the less savoury aspects of the revolution. So what about those controversial Gaddafi comments? “You’ll have to ask Chávez about that,” replies Domínguez, smiling.