[Latin America] Venezuela and Its Revolution 2016 - A Campesino-informed Perspective


IntroductionDuring the past 15 years, Venezuela has been a part of the Bolivarian Revolution. For the first 11 of those years, the revolution was led by its founder President Hugo Frías Chavez. Following Chavez’s death in March 2013 his appointed successor, Nicolas Maduro, has led the country. I was privileged to observe this revolution from the perspective of a small group of campesinos (small-scale family farmers) first-hand during four month-long visits to the Venezuelan countryside between 2010 and January 2013. In January and February of this year, I returned to Venezuela and spent a month living with three campesino groups and their communities.

While the majority of the people I spent time with, support and benefit significantly from the revolution, they represent a broad cross section of Chavistas. On this visit, my Chavista contacts included: middle-class professionals working with campesinos; previously marginalized family farm owners and farm laborers working individually and collaboratively in farming cooperatives; community leaders working in community councils; local government officials working in agriculture and food distribution; researchers and academics working with campesinos, farming students, and future farming leaders; and a wide range of families, friends, and supporters of farmers.

What follows are my observations of the current state of the revolution informed mainly by my experiences with these communities, and my conversations with the campesinos, their families and supporters.

Inhibiting Factors Within days of my arrival and throughout my trip, it became clear that among the many issues facing Venezuelan campesinos-- as supporters and beneficiaries of the Bolivarian revolution-- were two closely related issues: The success of the right wing opposition in the December 2015 National Assembly elections; the terrible state of the Venezuelan economy.

Right Wing Political Power The right wing coalition party [referred to as “La Derecha” (the right)] won a majority of seats in the National Assembly in the December 2015 elections. For the first time since the revolution began, there was a major shift in political power to the right-wing forces. Although the Maduro government still controls the government, ministries, and judiciary, the right-wing majority in the National Assembly means that the capacity of the government to control the progress of the country and the revolution is seriously hampered. Already La Derecha has unambiguously signaled their intention to pass legislation that will not only dismantle many of the revolution’s social, cultural and political advances, but also take over the presidency and the government. For many on the right, their goal is to return Venezuela to its pre-revolution, pre-Chavez status.

A Serious Financial Crisis A definitive analysis of the current disastrous state of the Venezuelan economy is beyond the scope of this discussion. Briefly, however, the main issues are 200 to 300% inflation chronic lack of basic essentials. Exacerbating the situation is the reduction in spending of all government-sponsored social support programs. The causes of the crises are internal and global. The most obvious is the plummeting price of crude oil which provides Venezuela 95% of its export revenue.[1] [Although gasoline prices have been kept low at US$0.02/liter (US$0.075/gallon)]. The US, World Bank, and IMF have been directing an economic war that the opposition has been facilitating. Domestically, a grossly inefficient government bureaucracy, a lack of accountability, a history of over-expenditure on and exploitation of revolutionary social programs, widespread corruption, and an entrenched culture of contraband allegedly run by the Colombian mafia have been identified as causing the fiscal problems.

In February 2016, President Maduro declared a state of economic emergency in a desperate attempt to address the issues. The right wing opposition has put forward multiple proposals for neoliberal style economic recovery. However many Venezuelans believe that short of an immediate return to oil prices above US$100 per barrel, the economic situation will continue to deteriorate, and no one on the left has offered viable options to resolve the crisis.

Perceptions and Responses Interestingly, while the majority of the people I spoke with were concerned about the new power of the anti-revolutionary right, they expressed no real surprise about the election result. The phrase “the people voted with their stomachs” reflects a commonly held view that the right won because previous supporters of the revolution had lost faith in the ability of the government to improve the situation. As a result, they turned to the opposition in the hope that they could bring an end to their suffering from the high cost and lack of availability of food.

Some of the campesinos who had changed their vote (if not their allegiances) cited a litany of ineffective government initiatives and failed support structures as the impetus behind their decision. Mercals, the state-run supermarkets that provide subsidized food staples, used to be the main purchaser for local producers and provided essentials to the poor; now, they are open only sporadically, with very limited inventories, and purchase less local products. The state-owned Agropatria (previously privately-owned) - Venezuela’s largest agricultural supply company, supplying subsidized organic fertilizers, seeds and agrochemicals, and credit to producers - now has very high prices, near-empty shelves, and no money for loans. Due to government spending cuts, a large number of government-run food processing plants are only partially functioning or not operational at all.

However, while some had changed their vote, the vast majority I spoke with across the social spectrum remained in support of the revolution and its ideals. Many saw the rise of the right as a clear signal for the government to take immediate action on the most obvious problem areas.

Alejandro (an economist turned revolutionary campesino) works on his small, mixed-crop family farm with his wife Carolina, and is the Financial Director of the Paulo Freire Latin American Institute of Agroecology. He remains resolute. While citing a return to US$100 per barrel of oil as a requisite factor in any economic recovery, he was still hopeful that the revolution could succeed with some fine-tuning of practical implementation processes. Alejandro confirmed the views of many that a major implementation flaw of the revolutionary progress was the inadequate accountability mechanisms for the money and resources provided in the majority of the government’s social and support programs.

A lack of accountability was highlighted as both a driver of inefficiency and vehicle for corruption at all levels: in the areas of individual repayments for subsidized housing loans; scrutiny of the outcomes of development grants provided to the communal councils; budget review processes for government education and research institutions; and the monitoring and evaluation of the procurement and distribution systems of food and medicines.

Many others also suggested that the lack of accountability, as a result of inadequate or inefficient mechanisms or deliberate obfuscation by highly placed ”enemies“ of the revolution, had created a culture of entitlement. In other words, the 15 revolutionary years of massive social transformation and support programs where both individuals and organizations received extensive money and resources without qualified and quantified expectations had given people the impression that they were entitled to seemingly endless government support. Everyone flagged greater government expectations of and mechanisms for accountability as critical for the survival of the revolution.

Haydee a dairy farmer and her husband Alfonso, a partner at that PROLESA dairy cooperative and leader in the Jabillos community council, talked extensively about the rise of the right. She called the imminent threat to the future of the revolution a wake-up call for revolutionaries about their responsibilities and roles. Her views were echoed by Jabillos community members who said that the people had a responsibility to support the government. They should not only support elected officials at the polls but also by making the best use of government help. While a greater levels of government accountability were necessary, it was also important that the beneficiaries of the revolution demonstrate to the 50% of the Venezuelan population who never or no longer support the revolution, that individual and community accountability and positive, sustainable outcomes were key elements of the revolutionary process: Local farmer groups were re-organizing and collaborating to reduce dependence on medicine and food resources for their dairy herds. They shared knowledge and equipment and are developing more natural farming methods. The members of the community council, who recognized the need to be proactive in developing their community, were organizing to send a local delegation to Caracas to present their program of past community development, and their plans for greater independent sustainability in the future.

The need for a change in attitude and in action was reflected in the discussions I had with the campesinos, their families and supporters at the Las Tres RRR Cooperativa in San Felipe, Yaracuy. The cooperative had long been identified as a model for the government’s cooperative farming program and as such had received substantial financial, material and technical support. This support had been in slow decline over the past three years and was almost non-existent at the time of my visit. Four partners of the cooperative agreed that the election result was a signal to all campesinos across Venezuela. They should no longer depend on government support. If they were to survive these very difficult economic times and prosper in the future, they would need to develop both economic self-sufficiency and food sovereignty.

The partners, with their families, farm workers, supporters, and other local campesino cooperatives were in the process of undertaking a major review of all of the cooperative’s operations. Their discussions included plans for repairing and maintaining (rather than buying new) farm buildings and equipment; increasing and sharing their local seed reserves rather than depending on government or outside seed suppliers; developing more natural farming methods which would reduce the need for outside inputs, developing collaborative, local, direct marketing strategies rather than selling the majority of their produce to government processing plants; and finally developing a community support program. The community support program would provide access to a portion of their 50 acres and free or cheap food to community members who did not have the land or ability to grow their own food. The partners wanted to demonstrate their role as community leaders with this program by building and strengthening their community relationships.

Conclusion While the communities of Las Tres RRR, Jabillos, and Barinas, have always had new ideas, worked hard, and acted collaboratively, their shift in attitude is clear. All now recognize that if the great Bolivarian revolution is to survive, there is a real need for national reform and immediate action, particularly in the area of government accountability. However, this view is now complemented by an increasing realization that the survival of the revolution, and Venezuela’s future prosperity requires higher levels of individual and community responsibility and action. In February 2016, the revolution may be in crisis and struggling, but it appears revolutionaries in Venezuela’s countryside are not going back, and now have a renewed vision and energy.

by ISC Advisor Dr. Scott John


[1] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-02-17/venezuela-raises-gasoline-prices-for-first-time-since-1996-ikrf0ppn