By Paul Dobson
(venezuelanalysis.com) – Incumbent presidential candidate Nicolas Maduro prioritised visits to dissatisfied campesino communities this weekend where he met with El Maizal Commune spokesperson Angel Prado.
As part of the XII National Bolivarian Sheep, Goat, and Craft Farming Festival held in Carora in the rural western state of Lara on Saturday, the president approved 397 micro-credits for small-scale farmers worth more than 500 billion bolivars (USD $7.2 million at the official exchange rate, USD $625,000 at the black market rate).
Maduro’s visit comes as part of a campaign strategy aimed at shoring up support in rural communities, who have traditionally voted overwhelmingly for both ex-President Chavez and Maduro and represent a critical constituency for the government in the upcoming May 20 election.
Recent months have seen rising tensions between campesino communities and the Venezuelan state headed by President Maduro, including ever more frequent violent evictions, persecution, and electoral disputes.
One of the recipients of a 64.8 billion bolivar credit for flour production in Carora was Angel Prado from El Maizal Commune, which is comprised of twenty-two communal councils located on the border between Lara and Portuguesa state.
Prado stoked controversy in December’s municipal elections when he ran on a left-wing ticket without the backing of the ruling United Socialist Party and beat the government’s candidate with 57% of the vote.
He was, however, denied the position of mayor of Simon Planas municipality by the National Constituent Assembly on a bureaucratic technicality, causing tension between grassroots Chavista activists and the Bolivarian government.
El Maizal Commune, which supported Prado’s December candidacy, is one of the best organised in Venezuela, producing significant amounts of milk, corn, and other agricultural products on previously abandoned land. It is currently working towards the construction of a communal city.
Whilst in Lara, Nicolas Maduro made no mention of the December elections nor Prado’s on-going legal challenge to the result, though the encounter between Maduro and Prado is, however, the first time the two have been seen side by side since the dispute erupted.
Before the important visit to Lara State, Maduro made a campaign stop in Merida State where he visited the El Vigia campesino communities, another site of recent friction between Chavista communities and the national government.
This past March, thirty-two campesinos were unlawfully imprisoned for ten days after occupying idle land in El Vigia, prompting a popular outcry that ultimately led to their release.
Following the incident, Maduro announced an official shift in state policy, outlawing forced land removals and ordering preferential treatment for land arbitration cases involving productive campesino communities.
In another instance of the Bolivarian government responding to campesino grievances, the National Land Institute handed over 2,733 hectares of disputed land to previously persecuted rural communities in Barinas State last week. The communities are looking to develop agricultural and cattle farming on the previously unproductive land.
The section of the Gavilan-La Chaqueta farm was taken over by rural workers two years ago with an eye to producing in the fertile area in accordance with Venezuela’s land reform legislation, which empowers campesinos to legally occupy idle private land and put it to use.However, at the behest of local landlords the more than 100 campesinos involved in the occupation were violently evicted and arrested by authorities this past February. They were later released in March following grassroots pressure.
The land hand-over signifies a significant victory for the Barinas rural communities.
These advances have been facilitated by the re-opening of talks between the Land Institute, Ministry of Land, and campesino representatives from seven states this past April 22, with the Gavilan-La Chaqueta land hand-over being the first concrete result.