I recently returned from an eleven-day trip to Venezuela, traveling with fellow students from Rutgers University. The country has been the scene of intense political strife and polarization throughout the nearly ten years that Hugo Chávez’s government has been in power, and during our stay we witnessed various aspects of this conflict. We arrived in Caracas in the midst of enormous controversy surrounding the government’s decision to not renew the license of Radio Caracas Television (RCTV). RCTV’s license expired on May 27, and daily protests by the opposition were still occurring when we arrived on June 1. In addition to witnessing the aftermath of the RCTV decision, which was heavily covered by the U.S. media and provoked unanimous condemnation from the U.S. Senate, our group traveled to rural areas of the country learning about its agrarian reform, something not as heavily covered and typically distorted when it is. Our trip was coordinated with the Bolivarian government, which may elicit the reaction that we only saw “one side.” True, we did not meet with landowners to hear their perspective. If the reader of this article wants access to vociferous criticism of Venezuela’s revolutionary process, it should not be difficult to find: simply turn on your television or read the New York Times. The dominant media provide one side, and we got to see the other.
On June 2, we were in Caracas for the massive pro-government demonstrations that were organized to defend the RCTV decision in particular and the Bolivarian Revolution in general. Virtually everyone in the street was donning red shirts and hats with various slogans on them, the most prevalent being “socialismo o muerte” (socialism or death). I also saw opposition graffiti that read “socialismo es muerte” (socialism is death). The dominant media in the U.S. give the impression that the RCTV closing is a violation of human rights and freedom of expression, but whether we agree with the decision or not, we cannot deny that it has legal justification. RCTV blatantly supported the 2002 coup against Chávez. Just imagine what would happen in the U.S. if a major media outlet supported a coup against a democratically elected government. In fact, the Venezuelan government deserves credit for waiting for the license to expire, rather than immediately closing the station after returning to power on April 13, 2002.
That same day, we met with government officials who explained the process of agrarian reform that the country is undertaking. The land reform law was passed in November 2001 and took effect in December 2002. The basic facts regarding the law: it limits the size of landholdings, taxes unused property, “redistribute[s] unused, primarily government-owned land to peasant families and cooperatives,” and expropriates uncultivated land from private estates, with full compensation to owners at market value.1 The New York Times, in a recent article, distorts the compensation issue. It states that “Landowners say compensation is hard to obtain,” and that “[s]o far only a small group of landowners in Yaracuy . . . has received compensation for seized land.”2 The Times neglects to report the government’s side of the story on this issue, which is that many landowners are unable to prove legal ownership of the land and are therefore not entitled to compensation.3 The Times also doesn’t say that it was only in 2005 that the government announced plans to expropriate private estates; prior to that, only state-owned land was redistributed.4 The Times does correctly report that 160 peasants and eight landowners have been killed so far. Land reform is a crucial social justice issue in Latin America, the region with the world’s highest levels of inequality. “In Venezuela roughly 75 to 80% of the country’s private land is owned by 5% of all landowners. Regarding agricultural holdings, that figure drops to a mere 2% of the population owning 60% of the country’s farmland, much of which is fallow.”5 Any government in Latin America that commits itself to reducing poverty and inequality, as Chávez’s has from the beginning, must tackle the problem of land. Though the process is not without its flaws, the Venezuelan government seems to be undertaking it with significant care and moderation.
First to meet with us was the President of the Agricultural Bank of Venezuela. He outlined the basic principles of Venezuela’s agrarian reform: agroecology, sustainability, and food sovereignty. Agroecology is defined as “the application of ecological science to the design and management of sustainable agrosystems.”6 We were to witness this principle throughout our tour of various Yaracuy cooperatives that are developing organic pest controls and saving their own seeds as an alternative to reliance on genetically modified seeds controlled by multinational corporations. Food sovereignty is a vital concept in a country like Venezuela, the only net importer of food in Latin America. It imports 75% of its food, and food production constitutes only 6% of its GDP.7 Therefore, if the currency were to weaken, thus making imports more expensive, large sections of the population would have more difficulty obtaining food.
The Bank President stated that the Bank’s essential function is to grant loans to small farming cooperatives. Gregory Wilpert reported back in August 2005 that there were problems in ensuring that banks loan to small farmers,8 but the Agricultural Bank, established six months ago, appears to be addressing this problem. Loans are decided upon in conjunction with grassroots community councils, and the only loans approved are those that are likely to have a positive social impact, in other words, to raise the people’s standard of living. He said that most of the bank’s offices are located in the agricultural areas of the country, besides the main one in Caracas. According to the President, the Bank has granted 1,155 loans in its six months of operation. Loans are given to associations, not individuals. There is a five-year grace period before repayment begins, and interest rates are only 5% while commercial banks typically loan at 15%. He again stressed the democratic nature of the process: decisions are made collectively based on the needs of a region.
The next official to meet with us was the Minister of Agriculture. He began by discussing not agriculture, but relations with the U.S. He asserted that Venezuela is not the enemy of the American people or government, but that the U.S. is acting as the enemy of Venezuela, because it is upset by its policies of keeping oil prices high, its refusal to allow military overflights as part of Plan Colombia, and its relationship with U.S. enemies in the Middle East and with Cuba. Our group witnessed a few aspects of these relationships, as we saw Iranian-made tractors on the cooperatives and met Cuban veterinarians, agricultural technicians, and doctors. The Minister said that currently there are 20,000 Cuban doctors and 2,000 agrarian and medical technicians in the country. In return, Venezuela exports cheap, subsidized oil to Cuba.9
One of the major reasons that Venezuela imports so much food has to do with the problem of “Dutch Disease.” The concept is explained by Gregory Wilpert:
The inflow of foreign currency as a result of oil exports has an immediate two-fold effect. First, it increases the population’s purchasing power and thereby fuels inflation. Second, it makes imported products, whether industrial or agricultural, cheaper than domestic products, thus increasing the volume of imports. In Venezuela, comparatively cheaper imported goods — including food — flooded the market and practically destroyed agricultural production, while also putting a brake on industrial development in Venezuela.10
Venezuela has an ideal climate for rice production, but it is not widely consumed, as explained by Richard Gott:
Venezuelans eat more wheat than rice, since imported wheat from the United States is cheaper than home-grown rice. . . Wheat of course is not a suitable crop for a tropical country. . . Chavez will have to change the national diet, promoting rice and maize instead of wheat-based pasta.11
Thus, Venezuela’s farmers have to be protected from competition from imported goods. Wilpert wrote in August 2005 that there are various problems with the land reform, including the fact that government agencies are slow “to provide training, technology, and credit to land reform beneficiaries.” He also reported that subsidies to farmers are not doing much to solve the fundamental problem of Dutch Disease and that import tariffs might be a good policy solution.12 The Minister said that there are various direct and indirect subsidies for food producers. He said that the poorest farmers get zero-interest loans and that they are developing a program of direct subsidies for cereals that are subject to international competition, such as corn and rice. He did not, however, mention any move toward tariffs on agricultural products.
On June 3, we visited a cooperative, or “fundo,” known as Fundo Zamorano Aracal, outside of San Felipe, Yaracuy. There are 150 families that are part of the cooperative, but only about ten live there now. The rest live in surrounding towns, and housing for them is still under construction. According to the president of the cooperative, it consists of 133 hectares and is state-owned land that was expropriated from the large landowners illegally occupying it. This presumably means that they were unable to prove their legal title to the land. The campesinos first occupied the land back in May 2002, but were evicted by the conservative state government. They have since returned, however, as a pro-Chávez governor, Carlos Gimenez, was elected in 2004.13 Currently, they are planting corn, yucca, bananas, tomatoes, and peppers. They also have cows for meat and for milk. The farmers are organized in various production units for different tasks, such as planting, ranching, milking, ploughing, etc. They are also developing agro-ecological practices, and do not use any pesticides for corn. Their corn is sold to a government agency for distribution, and it is also this year being sold to a processing plant that makes flour. The government ensures that they receive fair prices. Their products are also sold in farmers’ markets in Yaracuy and Caracas. They have a democratic, participatory decision-making process and have meetings every Thursday with representatives from each family. Wilpert reported that one of the problems with Venezuela’s agrarian reform is the lack of strong peasant organizations, but the head of this cooperative said there are plans to unite the campesino groups into one national organization, alongside the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) currently being initiated by Chávez.
The next day, June 4, we visited Aracal’s organic pest control lab, named after Manuel Heredia, who died from exposure to chemical pesticides. The main lab was closed, but we got to see their process for breeding butterflies which protect corn from pests. The breeding cycle is controlled in order to maintain the right proportion of butterflies in the corn fields. Rather than buying expensive pesticides that kill farmers, these campesinos are using a simple, effective, low-tech process of pest control. That same day we visited a processing plant run by the Venezuelan Agrarian Corporation (CVA), which purchases beans and corn from cooperatives and then packages and distributes the products. We were told that there are five plants such as this one in the country, and that this particular one distributes food to about 500-900 families through Mercal, a series of government-run stores which sell food at significantly lower prices than major supermarkets. Rather than simply expropriating the major food corporations, the government is competing with them by creating a parallel economy. The majority of Mercal’s food is still imported, but it is slowly branching out to regional and local producers.14
The next day we visited the Fundo Zamorano Bella Vista, located in the Urachiche municipality. The land was recovered on July 5, 2005. The president of the cooperative, Lola Mujica, gave a speech denouncing U.S. imperialism and defending the RCTV decision. She said that, during the coup, people in the countryside at first did not know that Chávez had returned to power because of a media blackout. She suggested that the United States needs a political revolution, that it needs a popular government that serves the needs of the people, just like Venezuela. The cooperative consists of 213 hectares, has seventy members, and is also working towards agro-ecological practices. The New York Times points to Yaracuy’s 40% drop in sugar cane production as a problem with the land reform,15 but this is simply a consequence of the government’s effort to diversify the economy, to grow products that feed the people. A man from the cooperative alleged that sugar was only grown in order to justify the importation of food and that it damages the soil. We also visited the Bella Vista planned community, which has homes for 83 families. Residents pay nothing for five years, and then after that they have twenty years to pay for their house. The community has a radio station, high-speed internet access, a reading center, and a school.
On June 6, we visited the El Pereño cooperative, which was formed and given title to the land in 2003. It consists of 58 hectares. The president, Irma Lobaton, explained the cooperative’s process of conserving corn seeds. They pre-select the best-quality corn cobs, which are conserved so they don’t have to buy their seeds from multinationals. They initially received the seeds from a global nonprofit organization; they keep 70% of their seeds and give back 30% to the organization, which are distributed to other communities. The cooperative also has a vermiculture center, where worms are raised to produce organic fertilizer. The same day we visited another cooperative, just established two months ago. There were many elderly people there who had been displaced from the land in the 1950s under the Jiménez dictatorship and have now returned. They gave a demonstration of the traditional method of planting corn, which is now unnecessary because they have heavy machinery imported from Iran.
On the 7th, we traveled to the Centro Genético Productivo Florentino, in Barinas, the home state of Chávez. It was established in September 2005, on a former latifundio of 8,400 hectares. The center is run primarily by the Ministry of Agriculture and Land, but in cooperation with other government agencies. Their mission, as explained by the director, is to create their own seeds, develop techniques to increase milk production in cows, and develop various other agricultural techniques to teach to campesinos. There is an internship program here for the children of campesinos, and students from the Latin American Agricultural Institute come here for residency. The director said the former landowners didn’t use any of it to grow food, but now 800 hectares is used for corn and 24 hectares for Yucca. He said that transgenic crops are completely forbidden in Venezuela and that the country is no longer importing any corn. He affirmed that the population’s eating habits have to be changed from wheat to corn, in order to achieve food self-sufficiency. On the issue of ethanol, he said that they are importing some from Brazil to use as an environmentally responsible additive to gasoline and that also 300 hectares in Venezuela are being used to grow sugar for ethanol. They do not plan to use corn-base ethanol, as in the United States. At this center they also produce coffee, using the more environmentally responsible shade-growing technique. Also grown here are cedro trees, which are prized for their high-quality wood and are now subject to environmental protection laws. The wood is not allowed to be sold, and farmers who have them on their land need permission from the environmental ministry to cut them down.
The next day we traveled to the state of Carabobo, where we toured various social programs in the Municipal Libertador. We visited a government-funded orphanage which cares for children age 0-12 who have been separated from their parents, typically in cases of abuse or economic difficulty. We also visited a home for pregnant girls, most of them age 15-17. They are taught how to sew their own clothes and given information on health and nutrition. They also produce various crafts to be sold, and I purchased a figurine of Simon Bolivar. We ate lunch at a senior center, where the elderly can come daily for social activities but still live with their families. We then toured a health clinic that is part of the oil-for-doctors program with Cuba. We were shown around by a Cuban doctor, who helped establish the clinic nine months ago. This was only one of four clinics located in the municipality. Phase 1 clinics provide basic care, but the one we visited was a Phase 2, providing more advanced care focused on physical rehabilitation. They treat children with cerebral palsy, have an electro-therapy department, provide ultrasounds, and offer various other services related to physical therapy. Services are free of charge. Our trip focused on agriculture, but in this municipality we had the opportunity to witness other facets of the Bolivarian Revolution. After Carabobo, we returned to Caracas and visited a popular market, where Fundos come to sell their products. There were a few other markets such as one located in the same neighborhood. They are supported by the government, which guarantees that it will purchase any surplus products. On June 11, we flew home.
In my travels I witnessed the stark polarization between rich and poor. In the cooperatives and communities we visited, support for the government was overwhelming. And naturally so, because this government is the first to bring about genuine social reform since neoliberalism began its devastating onslaught in 1989, under the presidency of Carlos Andrés Pérez. But the manager of a hotel where we stayed was very critical of the government. And the owner of a shop in Caracas where I bought a painting also said she did not like Chávez. She said, “Right now it’s a very difficult situation for the people.” I was mystified. Considering that Chávez received a 60% majority in the 2006 elections, to which “people” was she referring?
I came away from this trip with many criticisms, but also with the feeling that my understanding of Venezuela has been deepened. I support the goal of endogenous development and achieving food sovereignty, but the government needs to do a lot more to lessen its dependence on oil revenue. Basing your political support on social programs funded by a finite resource subject to price swings makes for a very precarious situation. Furthermore, Chávez’s face is everywhere, on posters and billboards, and this personalization and dependence on one man indicates that the Revolution has yet to be firmly institutionalized.16 But despite my criticisms, I do think that this government has a genuine desire to achieve social justice in Venezuela. It is firmly allied with the poor. I am reminded of Malcolm X’s statement: “truth is on the side of the oppressed.”
The dominant media in the United States, however, is filled with negative appraisals of the Bolivarian Revolution. A recent commentary in the New York Times claims that “dissent is silenced” in Venezuela.17 Yet the government that is allegedly “silencing dissent” allowed students from both sides of the RCTV issue to have a debate in front of the National Assembly.18 And if the Times really supported democracy in Venezuela, why did it editorialize in favor of the 2002 coup?19 What hypocrisy! I do not deny that there are limits to freedom of speech in Venezuela, but stating that “dissent is silenced” is a gross exaggeration, and it is absolutely reprehensible for the Newspaper of Record to print such a blatant lie. Here is some food for thought:
[A] 2005 Latinobarometro poll shows that Venezuelans are an exception to the region’s growing disenchantment with democracy. When Latin Americans were asked to rate the level of democracy in their country on a scale of 1(not democratic) to 10 (totally democratic), more Venezuelans considered their country to be “totally democratic” than the citizens of any other nation. The average Venezuelan gave their country a rating of 7.6, while the regional average was only 5.5.20
Privileged citizens have a responsibility to pay attention to what their government is doing to the world and to speak out against its crimes and its lies. As university students, our group consisted of relatively privileged individuals. It is therefore our duty to counter the anti-Venezuelan propaganda generated from the highest levels of our government and to act against its efforts to destabilize the country. Of course Venezuela’s policies should be evaluated with critical scrutiny, and there are many elements of the Revolution of which I am critical. But this does not negate the fact that Washington has no right to meddle in its affairs. And it is blatant hypocrisy for spokespersons of the American Empire, whether Condoleeza Rica or the New York Times, to lament the “decline of democracy” in Venezuela, because American imperialism has long subverted democracy around the world.21 We should stand in solidarity with the Venezuelan people’s desire to be free from Washington’s economic and political domination.
1 Seth DeLong, “Venezuela’s Agrarian Land Reform: More like Lincoln than Lenin,” Venezuelanalysis.com, 25 February 2005.
2 Simon Romero, “Clash of Hope and Fear as Venezuela Seizes Land,” New York Times, 17 May 2007.
5 DeLong, op cit.
7 Wilpert, op cit.
9 Nikolas Kozloff, “Venezuela’s Chavez: ‘Oil is a Geopolitical Weapon,'” Venezuelanalysis.com, 29 March 2005.
10 Wilpert, op cit.
12 Wilpert, op cit.
13 Romero, op. cit.
14 Sara Wagner, “Mercal: Reducing Poverty and Creating National Food Sovereignty in Venezuela,” Venezuelanalysis.com, 24 June 2005.
15 Romero, op. cit.
16 See Steve Ellner and Daniel Hellinger, eds., Venezuelan Politics in the Chavez Era: Class, Polarization & Conflict, New ed., Boulder: Lynne Rienner, July 2004.
17 Patricia Cohen, “An Unexpected Odd Couple: Free Markets and Freedom,” New York Times, 14 June 2007.
20 Terry Gibbs, “Business as Unusual: What the Chavez Era Tells Us about Democracy under Globalisation,” Third World Quarterly 27.2, 2006, p. 268.
Alex Bannwart is a senior at Rutgers University majoring in Political Science. He was part of the student group who published “Traveling Rutgers Students Share Their Views on Developments in Venezuela” in MRZine.