COLUMBIA, Mo. — Nearly 100 students and community activists attended “Forum Venezuela” here March 7 at the University of Missouri-Columbia. The forum, organized by the Columbia Peace Coalition, Mid-Missouri Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Columbia Young Communist League (YCL), shed light on the tremendous changes taking place in Venezuela.

Participants discussed Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, the building of “21st century socialism,” medical, educational and social “missions” and the need for political unity in the region.

The idea of political change echoed around the room. Students from Venezuela, Guatemala, Mexico and Cuba shared their perspectives on 21st century socialism.

Cesar Valdivia, a student from Mexico, said, “We [Mexicans] have lived under this system for a long time. It’s not working. Maybe its time we tried something different.” Valdivia spoke against Nafta and how it has impoverished Mexicans, forcing undocumented immigrants into the U.S. to work low-wage jobs with the constant fear of deportation.

The forum opened with the award-winning film “The Revolution will not be Televised,” which documents the attempted right-wing coup against Chávez in 2002.

Following the film, Tony Pecinovsky of the Missouri/Kansas Communist Party, who traveled to Venezuela in 2005, gave a brief presentation about Chávez’s policies, which include free health care and education, subsidized food programs and land redistribution.

With the help of Cuban medical personnel, he said, 75 percent of Venezuelans receive free health care, and currently thousands of Venezuelan students are training in Cuba to become doctors and will provide free health care upon return.

Millions of Venezuelans have learned to read and write within the past few years, and those previously excluded from education because of poverty are seeking higher education for free — another aspect of Chávez’s 21st century socialism.

“Chávez realizes that if you want to get rid of poverty, you need to empower the poor,” Pecinovsky said.

Kaveh Razani, chair of the St. Louis YCL, spoke about his visit to Venezuela during the 16th World Festival of Youth and Students. Razani, along with 700 other youth from the U.S., joined over 17,000 youth from 130 different nations to discuss the struggles against war, corporate globalization, attacks on workers’ rights, racism, sexism and homophobia.

“International youth solidarity was a major part of the festival,” said Razani. “The Venezuelans were very excited to see U.S. youth at the festival. They see us fighting in the ‘heart of the beast,’ and know that the policies of the Bush administration are not the policies of the American people.”