Leaders with a social reform agenda are increasingly popular across Latin America, while Chavez's own "revolution" for the poor has become an inspiration for like-minded activists everywhere from Canada to Chile.

 

Organisers predict that as many as 100,000 people will attend the World Social Forum in Caracas, including environmentalists, Indian leaders, human rights activists and campaigners against US-style free trade.

 

Their views span a wide spectrum, but most participants appear to be united by strong opposition to the US government and its war in Iraq.

 

The forum will begin with an "anti-imperialist" march on Tuesday through the streets of Caracas, with protesters likely to aim their chants against George Bush, the US president.

 

On Friday, Chavez said: "Venezuela has become an epicentre of change on the world level. That's why [US] imperialism wants to sweep us away, of course ... because they say we are a bad example, but they haven't swept us away and they won't."

 

The Venezuelan leader is expected to address activists on the sidelines of the gathering, taking the spotlight as a leading voice of Latin America.

 

The alternative forum

 

The World Social Forum was first held in Brazil in 2001 and coincides each year with the market-friendly World Economic Forum of national leaders in Davos, Switzerland.

 

"[US] imperialism wants to sweep us away, of course ... because they say we are a bad example, but they haven't swept us away and they won't"

Hugo Chavez,
Venezuelan president

Those at the social forum, in contrast, traditionally criticise free trade and the evils of capitalism.

 

Jeff Monahan, a 32-year-old organic farmer from Battle Creek, Michigan, said: "The US government, especially under the Bush administration, has been trying to force its own economic polices on developing countries, and I think all of us here agree that must stop.

 

"I'm sure there will be plenty of Bush-bashing when this gets under way."

 

Some 2000 events - including seminars, speeches, concerts and craft fairs - will be held across Caracas during this week's forum.

 

Participants

 

On Monday, organisers said more than 60,000 participants had signed up. But an estimated 100,000 in all were expected for the six-day event, said Carlos Torres, a Chilean organiser based in Montreal.

 

"The world is changing, and I think leaders like Chavez can provide interesting examples of what can be done to ensure it changes for the better"

Moritz Lange,
Forum organiser

About half the attendees were expected to come from outside Venezuela.

 

Moritz Lange, 24, who came from Bremen, Germany, to help to organise the forum, said: "The world is changing, and I think leaders like Chavez can provide interesting examples of what can be done to ensure it changes for the better."

 

Others expected to attend include Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan writer, Adolfo Perez Esquivel, the Argentine Nobel Peace Prize winner and Cindy Sheehan, the American anti-war activist, whose son was killed in Iraq in 2004.

 

It remained unclear whether other leaders from Latin America would come, but some activists said they hoped to see Evo Morales, the Bolivian president, or Fidel Castro of Cuba.

 

Ideas exchanged

 

The recent rise of reformist governments in Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile makes the event a timely forum to exchange ideas, said Miguel Tinker Salas, a Latin American studies professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California.

 

The forum is being held in three
countries this year including Mali

Tinker Salas, said: "It's an opportune moment, given what's happening in Latin America and the fact that it brings together these various political forces on the left."

 

This year's social forum is being held in three spots around the world, including one ending on Monday in Bamako, Mali, and another two months from now in Karachi, Pakistan.

 

Groups from Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil were coming in caravans of buses and cars, while two Colombian environmental groups were pedalling bicycles hundreds kilometres to Caracas.

 

David Torres, from the Freedom Horizons Foundation, and one of the cyclists said in an email during a stop along the way that his group hopes to promote bicycles as an environment-friendly transportation alternative.