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The Greening of Venezuela

David Raby is a research fellow at the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Latin American Studies.
This essay originally appeared as “Shanties into Ploughshares” on the Red Pepper Web site.

With all the hullabaloo about Chávez’s alleged authoritarianism, opposition strikes and demonstrations, and a possible recall referendum, you could be forgiven for thinking that nothing constructive is being done in Venezuela and that the nation’s energies are entirely absorbed by political mud-slinging. Indeed, that’s just what the corporate media would like you to think.

But go to alternative Web sites like www.venezuelanalysis.com, www.zmag.org/venezuela_watch.cfm, or www.rebelion.org, and you’ll find reports on literacy campaigns, health clinics in poor neighborhoods staffed by Cuban doctors, community-based housing programs and agrarian reform. Venezuela is undergoing a social transformation the likes of which have not been seen in Latin America since the early years of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua.

Agrarian Cooperatives

In the past fifteen months the government has begun to redistribute uncultivated land from private estates or public lands to poor peasants and landless laborers. In a repeat of the agrarian reform programs carried out decades ago in several Latin American countries, some 2.2 million hectares (5.5 million acres) has already been distributed to 116,000 families organized in cooperatives.

This alone would be remarkable in today’s globalized world, where the very idea of cooperative or collective agriculture has been dismissed as outdated and inefficient, and countries like Mexico have dismantled long-established rural cooperatives and opened their agricultural sectors to the unfettered play of the free market and the consequent domination of private agribusiness.

But the Venezuelan agrarian reform goes beyond satisfying peasant land hunger and alleviating poverty. It is based as far as possible on organic practices and is intended as the foundation stone of an entirely new social and economic model, oriented towards self-sufficiency, sustainability and “endogenous development.”

Fighting Bureaucracy

Chaguaramal is a newly-cultivated strip of land surrounded by tropical forest and isolated poverty-stricken communities, a few kilometers inland from the Caribbean. Here 144 families have so far benefited from the creation of a SARAO or Self-Organized Rural Association. The Ministry of Planning and Development first provided land, funds and equipment, and people from nearby villages began to organize the new community on a cooperative basis.

But at first the ministry delegated implementation of the project to a bureaucratic public corporation, CORPOCENTRO, which imposed technical decisions without consultation. Only in August 2003, when the INTI (National Land Institute) took over responsibility for projects of this type, did Chaguaramal take on the characteristics of community self-organization as originally intended. “We listen to the communities, we open our doors to them so that they can bring to life their own projects and dreams,” says Silvia Vidal, the INTI official now responsible for the SARAOs.

The new settlement (asentamiento) consists of attractive houses built by the residents themselves with materials and technical assistance provided by the state, there are carefully cultivated gardens, a school, a health center and a child care center. A variety of crops are being produced as well as livestock and fish, and we were treated to a delicious fish barbecue. The community prepares its own compost and is already recycling most of its waste.

“I’m a member of the SARAO, I joined on April 15, 2002,” says Gelipsa Rojas. “My area of work is worm composting, which will give us organic fertilizer…so as not to use chemical fertilizers.

“At first [under CORPOCENTRO] they only paid attention to the men, we women stayed at home and only did housework. When the INTI arrived, things changed. There is still machismo but we are gradually getting rid of it. This worm-compost project is run only by women. Now the men help with the housework, we’re both responsible for it.”

Chaguaramal is in the state of Miranda, with a governor ferociously opposed to Chávez and the revolutionary process, and so everything achieved in the new settlement has been done despite systematic obstructionism by the state government. In a neighboring hamlet called Buenos Aires which was not initially included in the project, opposition politicians turned people against the cooperative, saying that it would do nothing for them and would be run on principles of “Cuban slavery.” But now several families from Buenos Aires have been incorporated into the SARAO, and everyone can see its benefits.

Developing the Interior

Hundreds of kilometers away, over the coastal mountains and in the Llanos, the sweltering tropical plains of the interior, we visited a major development project which reflects the aim of the Chávez government to move people and resources away from the coastal cities. The Ezequiel Zamora Agro-Industrial Sugar Complex (CAAEZ) is centered around a state-of-the-art sugar mill now under construction with Cuban technicians and Brazilian equipment, a reflection of the desire for Latin American collaboration. The complex and its associated agricultural cooperatives will produce not only sugar but rice, yucca and other crops in order to promote agricultural self-sufficiency (Venezuela, chronically dependent on oil revenues, imports 70 percent of its food despite having abundant fertile land).

As long ago as 1975 this area was designated as ideal for sugar production—cane yields here are several times higher than in Cuba or Brazil—and a first-class irrigation system was built but then abandoned due to corruption under previous governments. Then in the 1990s a Costa Rican investor offered to go into partnership with local farmers, making loans for them to produce cane and promising to build a mill, only to abandon the project and take the funds, leaving them in the lurch—“I was one of those who sowed cane and waited nine years for the first harvest, and was unable to harvest the cane because of that gentleman…” declared Francisco, a member of one of the associated cooperatives, bitterly denouncing this example of capital flight.

But now the CAAEZ project is well advanced: a huge undertaking which will eventually employ 15,000 workers, it comprises the sugar mill and other industrial plants as well as the agricultural area. Here too organic methods will be favored: among other things, sugar-cane bagasse will be composted and supplied to mixed-farming cooperatives. All of the new social programs are also being implemented here, such as the literacy program (the Robinson Mission) and the Into the Neighborhoods Mission with its health clinics staffed by Cuban doctors.

The Greening of Caracas

But the greening of Venezuela is not limited to the countryside: in the heart of Caracas, just behind the Hilton Hotel, an abandoned strip of land has been turned into an organopónico, an organic garden for the intensive production of lettuces, tomatoes, and an impressive variety of crops for the urban market. Unemployed people from nearby shanty-towns are given work here and trained as agricultural specialists.

Urban agricultural plots like this are springing up in cities across Venezuela and further contributing to the aim of self-sufficiency. When the project began it was ridiculed by the escuálido opposition, who said it was impossible to produce food here, or that it would be uneconomic. But now people from wealthy neighborhoods themselves buy the produce when they can get it (which is not easy since demand is so high).

A New Socioeconomic Model

Agrarian reform, cooperative enterprise, organic agriculture, use of local resources—these are all features of an entirely new socioeconomic model for Venezuela. The model is summed up in a program called the “Vuelvan Caras” Mission (a term almost impossible to translate), which attempts to coordinate all the other programs and missions: it provides government assistance in the form of technical advice and funds derived from oil income, for agricultural, industrial and commercial cooperatives, generating employment and training. It encourages local initiative, self-sufficiency, sustainability and “endogenous development,” development from within and from below, with popular participation. The leading role of women, blacks, and indigenous people is also explicitly promoted.

This new model will take years to develop, but it is already under way and being promoted with great enthusiasm. It does not exclude possible nationalization of some major industries, but it points in a direction which challenges both globalized capitalism and state socialism of the traditional variety. It is also the foundation of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA in its Spanish acronym), which Venezuela is proposing as a progressive alternative to the U.S.-sponsored Free Trade Area of the Americas. This is why Washington hates Chávez: not because of his revolutionary rhetoric, not because of any threat to “democracy,” but because the Venezuelan process offers a real alternative to U.S. plans for the hemisphere.

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