Venezuela, January 2020: Hardship and Resistance

Illustration by Nathaniel St. Clair

This January I went to Venezuela with a group of North Americans to see for ourselves how economic “sanctions” are affecting people’s access to food. We wondered how the Venezuelan popular classes are responding to the massive attack on their economic well-being.

We saw a complicated scene, with virtually every kind of productive activity crippled in many ways, some not so obvious on the surface. Nevertheless, people have had time to adjust to the situation; they have been creative, energetic, and determined. Communes are growing, the government is surviving, and “It’s not as bad as it was in 2017” was a common refrain. These are some of the stories we heard as we met people working to achieve food sovereignty for their country.

The biggest problem, getting adequate food to the majority of people, is the same as it is all around the world: food production and distribution is still done mostly through a capitalist system. Venezuela is governed by a socialist party which has socialism as its goal. But the capitalist sector controls an estimated 80% of the economy; the government’s share is mostly in oil and some heavy industry. Stores and restaurants are well stocked with food, but the price is too high for most people to easily afford. Up to last year there was a system by which the government controlled the prices that merchants could charge, selling dollars at a discount to importers, in order to make low retail prices possible. Massive corruption on the part of the importers and others made that system unsustainable, and once the economic war ramped up it collapsed, since the government bank had no more dollars to sell.

The government’s response was to set up an alternative system to eliminate at least some of the middlemen whose scarcity-based profits were making food unaffordable.

Food is acquired in quantity by the government, and packages of basic things like rice, lentils, beans, tuna, cooking oil, pasta, corn flour, sugar and milk are assembled. These are distributed through committees set up by communal councils, which are made up of about 200 households in a neighborhood (fewer in rural areas.) Recipients pay a nominal price of about 50 cents. This system is called CLAP (Committees for Local Supply and Production).

We encountered places where packages don’t come regularly, some not at all, and at times certain items are missing. We were told that Mérida and Zulia in the west are examples of places experiencing serious hunger. Nevertheless, CLAP has saved many lives; about 6 million households depend on it, 60% of the population.

The Bolivarian volunteer militia has been put in charge of distribution of the food, but the government still has to rely on commercial channels to obtain the products. The US strategy of economic war includes making it nearly impossible for Venezuela to do business with the capitalist world. Big Venezuelan corporations like Polar control much of the food business. These are serious obstacles, but the program continues.

Schools, factories, universities and other institutions have facilities that provide meals. Many communes operate a system to feed people. Our group visited one far up a steep hillside in Caracas, Altos de Lídice. In areas of elevated poverty and malnutrition casas de alimentación—food housesare established. Householders are found who are willing to run a facility that can provide cooked meals for up to 200 people. The government provides funds to upgrade their kitchen with appropriate equipment. Food is supplied partly by the government and partly by the commune, and the team of cooks are paid for their work.

The commune has the responsibility of running these kitchens, including strict accounting: the books are open to the community, to eliminate corruption. This transparency is fundamental to all communal enterprises. In Altos de Lídice we saw their pharmacy, a sewing business, and other productive projects. Community members participate in keeping the books as well as doing the work.

Eliminating the profits that capitalist intermediaries in the food chain extract is a big part of the solution. There are farmers’ markets, direct links between rural and urban communities, and arrangements by which consumers advance money to farmers to provide them with the capital they need (similar to CSA’s—community supported agriculture—in the US.) But many of the most productive agricultural areas are far from urban centers.

Spare parts for trucks and cars are often impossible to obtain, and many are out of commission. Altos de Lídice is one of many communities that have had to deal with a shortage of trash compacting trucks. Chemicals essential in refining crude oil into gasoline are no longer available from the US, which has led to a fuel shortage. These things make transportation a serious problem in the food supply. Many farmers who would prefer to sell their products directly to consumers have no option; they have to sell them to merchants.

Soon after Chávez became president, trawling by giant factory ships was banned within Venezuelan waters. The ecology of the sea floor was no longer disrupted, and fish became more abundant. They are now harvested from open boats. But replacement parts for outboard motors are also unobtainable due to the blockade. Boats from Choroní and Chuao, which we visited in the central part of the country, have managed to actually increase their catches nevertheless, since they have begun to use technology that enables them to locate schools of fish in the depths. Those along other parts of the coast do not have the devices yet. Again, trucks are also needed to get fish to consumers. And these trucks need refrigeration, which may need repairs. Many of our appliances are built so we can’t fix them. Venezuelans can’t fix them either, but they can’t buy a new one.

Seeds are another bottleneck. The imported seeds that Venezuelan farmers have relied upon are no longer available. We visited farms in Yaracuy, for example, that could not use all of their land for lack of seeds. Even people of the very urban Altos de Lidice commune in Caracas were very eager to get a share of the seeds that I brought along in my luggage. They have terraced a hillside too steep to have been built on, and they have been growing corn and other things. Now that they have seeds for things like beets and carrots they can let some plants go to seed and create a seed bank.

To learn more about the Venezuelan government’s views on food production we interviewed Diana Castillo, Office Director of the Ministry of Science and Technology, and Miguel Ángel Nuñez, an activist/scientist who has been a leader in the struggle to establish agro-ecological, organic, non-GMO practices in Venezuela.

They outlined a radical departure from agricultural policies of the past. Nuñez spoke of a science/peasant alliance, respecting the way peasants live on their land, the knowledge of plant and soil ecology that is implicit in their practice. The garden that a peasant family lives from, a conuco in Venezuela, a milpa in Mexico, is a sustainable form of production, a model for a new kind of agricultural production. The Ministry is focusing on seeds as a key component in a comprehensive program to use ecological methods to build soils, control pests, and improve production.

One notable achievement of this approach has been the development of potatoes adapted to local conditions. Centers to provide certified seed potatoes have been established in 24 locations in the Andean state of Merida, and 21 in other states across the country.

Science and Technology has to work with other ministries to deal with security, in every sense of the word. One of their concerns is contamination: genes from GMO plants getting into the seed banks, imports contaminated with plant or animal diseases, organisms that damage the soil. The heritage varieties and the biodiversity of Venezuela is an asset that needs to be protected. There are political threats, too. Guaidó’s people have already drawn up a law to bring in transgenic seeds. Land reform would be reversed and monoculture encouraged by the neocolonial government the US is attempting to re-establish.

Land reform began in earnest with Chávez’s election, but it has been a bitter, continuing struggle. We visited a farm in Yaracuy run by a collective of 15 to 20 families. Its ten hectares had been part of a larger parcel, which was not producing food, and thus was subject to redistribution according to the land reform law. It took years before their legal right to farm the land was recognized, while they suffered attacks of vandalism and an attempted assassination. They expect that the former landowner will try to drive them off if there is a change in government.

The farmers told us their tactics have always been non-violent; they have gained support by showing how much food they can generate. But they are determined to defend what they have created. They pointed out that after the coup in Bolivia the Venezuelan government distributed weapons to units of the volunteer militia. The farmers said their fellow campesinos consider the changes brought by land reform to be irreversible. They are prepared to take to the hills to defend what they have achieved.

A recent census found that 51% of Venezuelans self-identify as Afro-descendants, many of whom are concentrated in certain areas, such as Veroes, a town centered around a sugar refinery in Yaracuy. The mayor of Veroes and others spoke to us, starting with all the reasons they have benefited from the Bolivarian process, summed up by referring to the enormous “social debt” that had been paid. As to the current situation: “We have been cimarrones for centuries,” aluding to Veroes’s history as a self-governing community of people who escaped from slavery and fiercely defended their freedom. The refinery was running under capacity due to lack of fertilizer and farm machinery parts needed to grow sugar cane. They were able to get seed, but certain acids needed in refining were lacking. They are moving forward by diversifying; we saw rice paddies in various stages of growth.

The refinery is “social property,” with an integral relationship to the town. When we arrived we saw young people training in a field facing the office building. We were told that the area produces sugar, tobacco, coffee, and baseball players. Right now there are seven players in the Major Leagues who started in the town’s program. Big league players would come back to coach the kids in off seasons. They can’t now, due to “sanctions.”

Many campesinos have turned to sophisticated organic methods to replace imported fertilizers. At another farm we were told about power surges during the cyber-sabotage that caused massive blackouts last spring. The surges destroyed essential refrigeration and air conditioning equipment in the laboratory where these micro-organisms are cultured. Electronic devices throughout the country were affected, another less obvious consequence of the covert war against Venezuela’s ability to produce food.

The United States has frozen the assets of countless Venezuelan officials, declaring them to be engaged in corruption, drug trafficking, etc. Superficially, this tactic seems to affect only the individuals involved. But in reality it is another way to attack the livelihood of everyone in the country. If the US designates an official as “corrupt,” then any transactions that they engage in automatically become suspect, even if the accusation is not true. A company doing business with that official’s enterprise or ministry risks prosecution or penalties for dealing with someone the US has designated a “criminal.” This intimidation is another way of economically isolating Venezuela for resisting imperial domination. It hurts the individuals named, and its effects are felt in countless everyday problems for the popular classes who depend on officials being able to do their jobs.

El Hatillo is one of the five municipalities that make up greater Caracas. Its small but charming Plaza Bolívar is surrounded by stores and restaurants catering to tourists and prosperous Venezuelans. The municipality also encompasses a rural area of steep hills and deep valleys, with small growers who can take advantage of the relative proximity of the city. We visited some families with members who are professors, students, or recent graduates of the University of Simón Bolívar, one of the most prestigious in the country. But inflation has reduced the value of their salaries, and they need another source of income.

These were Chávistas, all engaged in agricultural production that they take to a farmers’ market—a wine maker fermenting berries, growers of cassaba who also make bread and flavored crackers from the nutritious root, and growers of herbs who offer advice on their medicinal uses. There is no commune in their area; their neighbors are too diverse politically and socially. They are professionals who are solidly on board with the Bolivarian revolution, producing for the people-to-people economy.

Chavistas often criticize President Nicolas Maduro for many things, depending on their point of view. Many think he should arrest Guaidó, in spite of Guaidó’s parliamentary immunity. Some see him as too conciliatory toward the bourgeoisie. Rural communes want more protection and support in their struggles with big landowners. But these people in El Hatillo are remarkably positive in their assessment of Maduro’s overall performance.

They praise him mainly for being able to keep the Bolivarian government in control of the country, thereby preventing the opposition from restoring Venezuela’s 20th century status as a neo-colony. They see programs such as CLAP and the housing mission (which has built over 3 million homes to date) as the continuation of Chávez’s concern for the welfare of the popular classes. They appreciate the introduction of the crypto-currency, the Petro, as an innovative response to the attack on the national currency, the Bolívar, Maduro’s acceptance of dollarization as simply being realistic.

I suspect that their spirited defense of Maduro is partly due to the virulent anti-Chavismo at the elite USB that they have had to deal with routinely. A recent graduate spoke of being harassed and put down by students and professors alike, grades reduced for political reasons, a raid on the office of the scholarship students’ association that featured feces and urine in their files.

We were in town when the National Assembly replaced Guaidó as its president. As usual, accounts of the event that we heard in Caracas were quite different from those in the US press. But the activities of right wing politicians never came up in conversations unless we asked. We found no indication that they have significant credibility among the popular classes, even those who have complaints about the government.

The economic war is certainly effective in making life more difficult for ordinary Venezuelans. But instead of dejection and despair, we observed a surge of grass roots organizing: communes, farmers’ markets, collective farms, city-country direct exchanges, community building in many forms. The activists we met this January share a cautious optimism, a sense that the Bolivarian process that Chávez initiated might survive this economic war. Meanwhile, a new kind of society, one based on communal values of cooperation, social solidarity, and mutual support, is emerging.

Peter Lackowski is a retired Vermont school teacher who has been visiting and writing about Latin America, including Bolivia, since 2004. See his CounterPunch report from Venezuela this May.