By Angel Prado and Cira Pascual Marquina – Venezuelanalysis.com
Under siege by capitalist roaders and the bureaucracy, this grassroots leader reflects on El Maizal Commune’s efforts to cultivate the land under new social relations.
Communal leader Angel Prado. (Saber y Poder)
On May 31st, Venezuelanalysis interviewed Angel Prado, a key organizer of El Maizal Commune. The conversation followed hard on the heels of an attempt to jail him and two other local organizers. The conversation sheds light on the current Chavista campesino struggle in Venezuela.
Most Venezuelanalysis readers know about El Maizal, both as an expression of communal popular power and because we covered the conflict in December surrounding your election as mayor of Simon Planas township (position that was subsequently given to another candidate by governmental decree).
Nevertheless, it would be good to open with a brief synthesis of the communal project that you are involved in. El Maizal is a productive commune in rural Venezuela, nested between two states in the center of the country: Lara and Portuguesa. Our commune’s land, given to self-organized campesinos by President Chavez, is high-grade. Year after year, we have been harvesting to meet the needs of our community and the people of Venezuela. We believe that, in a global context that is marked by a profound economic crisis, we can help mitigate the impact of that crisis. We do this in (and for) our own communities, and we hope to do so beyond as well. We also have a work ethic and a deep commitment to the land. The craft of agriculture – to plant and to harvest – is our human condition by birth. It is the world that we were born into.
El Maizal Commune produced over four thousand tons of corn last year. (MATT)
In the last few months we faced a turbulent situation in Venezuela with deep internal and external contradictions. Then, after the May 20 electoral victory, came Nicolas Maduro’s call upon the people to become active subjects in the structural transformations that our country requires. We, who have always taken seriously our roles as subjects of transformation – as Chavista campesinos and as working people – took the president’s words seriously and decided to do our part.So we turned the page and moved forward with an economic, territorial and organizational plan. However, in doing so, we have had clashes with powerful bureaucrats who administer the state’s resources and funding. In these interactions, we have witnessed time and again the conflict between the old bourgeois state and the emerging future communal and socialist state. This clash has become tangible and material again in the last few weeks.
About a week ago, on May 26, the National Guard’s National Anti-Kidnapping and Extortion Command (CONAS) arrived at the Maizal Commune. Their objective wasn’t to support or encourage the collective project. Could you tell us what happened and, more importantly, why it happened?
The CONAS arrived at our commune supposedly following the trail of a group of illegal traffickers who sell, outside of the regular channels, supplies of Agropatria (which is the government-owned and operated supplier of seeds and other agricultural inputs).
But to understand what happened on that day, we have to go back in time…
On April 28, we received state financing directly from the hands of President Nicolas Maduro in Carora, near the Maizal Commune. This funding was granted so that we could go ahead with the sowing of corn in May.
Most of the month of May went by and still we were unable to purchase the seed and inputs that we need through the regular channels. Why? Because Agropatria does not respond to the needs of small and midsize producers. Thus, we were obliged to purchase inputs outside of the regular channels, as most small producers have had to do. In effect, this is because the government is not solving the problem of the illegal trafficking of these inputs.
In any case, as campesinos we have no option but to produce. So towards the end of May, as the planting season was coming to a close, we were forced to purchase seed from unofficial sellers: some 300 sacks of corn seed (in fact, what we actually need is 1500 sacks for the 1300 hectares of our land that are usually dedicated to growing corn).
The CONAS came to El Maizal on May 26. We were already “guilty” in their eyes, having committed the “crime” of purchasing inputs for the seasonal planting. This national police force came into the commune in their typical bullying style. They confiscated our phones. We were held for some six hours and taken to a National Guard jail in Portuguesa state. Eventually, we were released.
Would you say that the CONAS (and therefore the state) is criminalizing small and medium campesinos, instead of going after those who traffic with state-financed inputs?
Yes. Let me illustrate this by way of an example. Yesterday we learned that a campesino from Sanare in Lara, a coffee grower, bought ten sacks of fertilizer outside of the regular channels. When he was going back home, he was detained by a CONAS team. They presented charges against him in court, and he remains jailed [he is still behind bars at the time of publication]. His car was retained, and his mugshot appeared in the local press… It seems as if the objective is to morally destroy those who are trying to produce.
But the problem with the CONAS is not a new one. When we presented an alternative Chavista candidate for mayor in our township last December [Angel Prado himself was the candidate], this state security force persecuted us for a whole day and threatened the people who were working with me, my campaign team, and myself.
In fact, we believe that there is a systematic pattern of threats and harassment against our communal project. We have denounced this, and many social movements and public figures have expressed their solidarity. Of course, the security forces will continue harassing us.
Agropatria was created by President Chavez in 2010 to replace the nationalized Agroisleña, a private corporation that sold agricultural inputs for profit. But there is more to this story. Could you give us some background so that our readers, who are not necessarily in Venezuela, understand the problems with this public company?
Agropatria is in charge of all the state’s importing and distribution of seeds and agricultural inputs. When the company was nationalized by Chavez, he charged it with servicing all agricultural production, from the small to the large producer. But the internal logic of Agropatria makes it almost impossible for the small and medium producer to acquire the seeds and other inputs.
There were always problems, but now the situation has gotten worse. We hear people, government spokespeople, claiming that the problem is the lack of resources or other external factors. That is the explanation they give when asked why the Agropatria stores are empty. But, at the same time, we see illegal traffickers of agricultural material coming through our towns with gigantic trucks loaded with seed and inputs that actually come from Agropatria… and they sell those supplies for a hundred times the official price!
So the question is: who channels the seed and inputs to the illegal market? We want to go to the root of the problem, and we are not afraid of making our accusations public.
The communal project has contradictions with the CONAS and Agropatria, but the problem that you are facing is deeper and more complex.
Right, the problems with the CONAS and Agropatria are not the main issue. Obviously, we will always denounce the CONAS’ harassment and the deep corruption that runs through Agropatria. But the problem goes beyond that.
The many politicians who don’t work for the people is what affects us most. Unfortunately, they are politicians associated with the PSUV [United Socialist Party of Venezuela]. Right now, many of our representatives and functionaries are in fact doing the work of the right: installing the logic of corruption, bureaucracy and clientelism (which are all the same thing in the end). Thus, we daily witness moral and material degradation in the governmental sphere. A reformist logic seems to dominate that landscape.
So we have taken up a twofold task. On the one hand, we are denouncing the corrupt and anti-popular logic of the states’ agricultural institutions (not just Agropatria). On the other hand, we are also making an open call – to communards, the common people, and barrio dwellers – to collectively analyze the situation. Most importantly, we want these groups to make specific proposals about how to save our people in the profound economic crisis that faces us.
We believe that, together, we can produce a methodology and a roadmap, collectively developing a plan. We are convinced that there must be a process of collective reflection and ask ourselves about the role the people should play now. In effect, we must become active so that our government isn’t taken over by right-wingers disguised in red [the color associated with Chavismo], by the bloc that has usurped the state’s resources. Recovering these resources and redirecting them – in part, towards the agriculture and the communes – would be a logical objective.
What you are pointing to is very important. It seems that, faced with the state’s inefficiencies, there are power groups in the government that are hedging their bets on privatization. We have seen this occur before with some of the communally-held land and with public sector companies.
The inefficiency of state undertakings should not make the government turn to the usual capitalist solution, which is privatization. President Maduro should remember that the people who are maintaining this political process are the six million voters who, last May 20, collectively said that we will not disappear as a political current and as a project. It’s not the private sector that keeps this boat afloat!
There is also, in certain government sectors, an idea that state undertakings are always inefficient, and also that small and medium producers (or communes) are ineffective and destined to fail. But, in fact, we are the ones who work and produce in our small plots of land. We are the ones who work on the oligarchy’s land, and at the end of the day we are the ones who know how to milk a cow, drive a tractor, and heft a sack of fertilizer!
It is urgent to maintain the country’s production. As the people who produce, we need to have access to seed, fertilizers, insecticides, etc. These inputs must reach the campesinos, but if they get to us only through unofficial and illegal channels, that is going to impact production dramatically. Whoever allows this to happen is participating in the chaos that has set up shop in this country.
Popular, participative democracy is an aspect of Chavez’s legacy, but for most city dwellers this practice seems to have become history. On the other hand, I understand the agrarian communes to be an expression of direct democracy, the beginnings of the future reorganization of society. Can you tell us a bit about communal democracy as it works in El Maizal?
Chavez always said that the popular movement should not be an appendix of any institution or current, that we must be autonomous. I think it’s necessary that popular organizations understand this now. We must have our own voice. Chavez always respected and encouraged our autonomy. The idea, of course, is not to be rebels without a cause. We are not anarchists. What we must do is be politically coherent and understand our role in history.
We have a legal structure that was fostered by Chavez and the people: the Laws of Popular Power. They establish a framework that is (to be somewhat redundant) popular and thus are an expression of grassroots democracy.
In the commune, the Citizens’ Assembly is the highest space for decision-making, the space where the whole community participates. Then comes the Communal Parliament, a body in which there is deliberation. The Communal Councils delegate their practical decision-making to the Communal Parliament. Again, these practical decisions follow the guidelines of the Citizens’ Assembly.
Some people understand democracy as the way to get access to positions of privilege. By contrast, our participative democracy is based on an assembly that saddles you with responsibilities, and if you do as collectively decided, then you have fulfilled your role as one part of the whole.
Our democracy is the democracy of the people, and that means that, when one is elected, one must separate oneself from any personal interests.
In a nutshell, in our commune the most important decisions are taken by the Citizens’ Assembly, whereas the Communal Parliament plans and executes. Operational decisions are taken at the level of the productive unit. In other words, we don’t call assemblies to solve operational problems. Then, of course, one must render accounts to the Assembly.
This is democracy as it plays out in El Maizal, with its particular mechanisms. But what I can say in general is that in the new democracy that is emerging, sectarian attitudes must disappear, personal power plays must be eliminated, and no one person can impose him or herself in the decision-making process.
The spirit of full participatory democracy lives in the commune.
You mentioned earlier that El Maizal is calling people to participate in a debate that will assess the national situation and, more importantly, make specific proposals about how to overcome the crisis. How do you expect this debate to take shape? Also, is it going to be an exclusively campesino initiative?
There is a saying in my country: the campesino must fight for the land. Sometimes I take issue with this way of putting it, since it is not only the campesinos who need to fight for the land. The people from the city must also fight for the land. After all, what we produce in the rural areas is consumed in the city.
Sometimes, we campesinos wonder why people from the city do not fight with us, since they, too, struggle with bureaucracy. It is true that we have some level of support and solidarity that comes from the large cities, but we need more of it. Sometimes, as campesinos, we feel alone.
In the face of the many obstacles to production, the persecution, and the impositions, we are calling for an assembly not only of campesinos, but also involving the sectors that don’t produce. We must develop proposals together. We want to debate with people from the popular barrios of Caracas, Valencia, and Barquesimento. We want to bring out the communes from the city and the countryside, and we want to debate with cooperatives. This kind of self-organized space is urgently needed. The class struggle that pits organized workers, on the one hand, against the bourgeoisie, the oligarchy and the corrupt functionaries and reformists in our government, on the other, requires the participation of all humble people from all walks of life.
We believe that Chavismo is alive. Moreover, if genuine Chavismo organizes and goes out to the streets, if those of us who really believe in Chavez’s legacy meet, fight, and struggle, if we develop a plan, then, whatever the obstacles, we’ll be able to reestablish the dignified life that we had with Chavez.
In upcoming days, we are going to issue a call to the nation for debate. If the people respond to that call, which I think they will, then we will go forward together. No matter what, El Maizal is going to continue in this fight for the common good, for the communal project, for socialism. We are those of the Comuna o Nada (Commune or Nothing) of Chavez. We will defend our land (and our production) by any means necessary. For that reason, this season’s harvest, by decree of our Communal Assembly, is not going to any silo, private or public. We are going to place what we produce directly in the hands of the organized communities.
We are detaching ourselves from the state’s institutional mechanisms and the those of the private sector. We believe that the commune has to produce for the common people, because they are the ones who need it, and because the institutions have broken the commitments they made with us. We have done our part, and from now on we are going to circumnavigate bureaucracies and the speculative market and work with the people.
 El Maizal Commune is made up of 22 communal councils across Portuguesa and Lara states. Communes are the conglomeration of communal councils, and they are at the core of Chavez’s proposal for a radical and democratic reorganization of society. One of the most successful communes in the country, El Maizal harvested some 4,000 tons of corn last year, and also produces beef, pork, cheese at the same time as it manages gas distribution.
 Angel Prado was denied the electoral victory of December 2017.Receiving half the number of votes as Prado, Jean Ortiz of the ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV), obtained the mayor’s seat.
 One day after the interview with Angel Prado, campesinos from around the country occupied a number of Agropatria stores with the aim of denouncing the problems that have emerged in the past few months. Members of El Maizal, including Angel Prado, participated in these occupations.
In this exclusive article for Venezuelanalysis, community broadcasters TatuyTV examine one of the hot topics in Venezuela in light of food shortages and economic crisis: the state of the campesino struggle and land reform.
The poor peasant: they shoot at him, kill his pigs, tear down his shack, sometimes they rape his daughter, hit his son, and he must die in silence. This is when the things that have happened in the world take place, because people have dignity. (Cuentos del arañero. Orlando Oramas León and Jorge Legañoa Alonso. 2012)
Venezuela is a country with ample, open, and unused rural spaces which enjoy excellent environmental conditions for crop production, cattle raising, and a host of other productive activities. It is a country which has always depended on the land, both through agriculture and later oil, and today, the campesinos sectors form the backbone of support for the Bolivarian Government. But, the struggle to retake the land from the land-owning elites has been, and is, fraught with contradictions and even blood shed at times.
The historic development of Venezuela has been interrupted by diverse violent processes such as the colonial extermination of the material foundations of its indigenous communities and the consequent development of large-landed estates under the control of the landowning oligarchy during and following the Wars of Independence in the 19th Century.
By seizing large pieces of land previously owned by Venezuela’s indigenous population, the colonial powers turned land into the principal mean of production, creating property and the usufruct of agricultural land where “our indigenous peoples had created a thousand-year social agrarian capital”. (Sanoja, 2011, pp.181-182).
The new social-economic agrarian structure founded through the large landed estates the distribution and division of the land, and the ferocious eviction of the original owners, that’s to say, the people, through the indiscriminate exploitation of the labour force and constant persecution.
On the backs of not only this persecution of the indigenous population but also the slave trade from Africa, the oligarchy consolidated itself as the land-owning class. Today, the afro-Venezuelan population, the descendants of the slave trade, form a significant part of the wider campesino movement. Given this context of slavery and servitude, numerous peoples’ rebellions were generated throughout the territory, up until present times.
At the start of the 20th Century, the hegemonic control of the land revenue passed over to oil exploitation, with the ownership of the land by the land-owning oligarchy being ever more important. This is how 75% of the productive land is currently in the hands of only 5% of landowners.
The struggle for the land: campesinos, the Bolivarian Revolution and landowning elites.
The campesinos’ struggle against the regime of the landowning elites created from that moment onwards grew in prominence during the 20th Century, and managed to find a way of disputing ownership of the land with the onset of the Bolivarian Revolution and the coming to power of President Hugo Chavez in 1999. The opportunity to greatly and forcefully advance in this struggle of the historically excluded peoples began with the approval of the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in 1999 and the Agrarian Reform Law of 2001, both of which shifted the legal parameters in favour of the campesinos and away from the landed classes, especially foreign large landowners.
Following the 2001 Law, which importantly legalized takeovers of unproductive idle land by the organized campesinos communities and prohibited latifundios (large land plots), a process of land reclamation began in Venezuela in which the campesinos communities finally saw the possibility of owning the land their families had worked on for generations.
The relationship of mutual cooperation and alliances which began to be woven between the national government, led by Hugo Chavez, himself from the rural community, and the campesino movement provoked an immediate reaction from the landowners, who consistently trampled over the new regulations on landowning rights, insisting that “the private sector are the ones who know how to produce,” that “expropriations are unproductive” and that “large-scale production is the best way to produce”. These are just some of the fallacies through which this power – the landowning oligarchy – has used to try to claw back its ownership over the land, even when “in the current situation, 70% of the food which is consumed in Venezuelan houses is a product of small-scale family agriculture”  – a productive model with undeniable socio-economic benefits.
Today our Constitution says that a system of large-landed estates goes against the interests of society, a right that was fought for and defended by campesinos, sometimes at the expense of their lives. From 2001 until 2006, the number of assassinations carried out by hired killers and paramilitaries as a means of maintaining a monopoly over the land has cost the lives of 300 peasants.
Recently, campesinos reached the landmark of having 6 million hectares of land under their control. Although this seems a lot, it represents just 20% of the total arable land on a national level.
There are still many battles in order to win the war against the landowning class, some of them are already being fought, and many will be for the long haul. For example, “there are around 6000 cases involving the recovery of land which have been opened but never resolved”, meaning that “90% of what has been recovered [by the campesinos] could be lost” . This is what the landowning oligarchy is aiming for, through the complicity of some actors in the state – in the executive, judicial, and citizen’s powers, as well as in the security forces – and through the use of paramilitarism to “persecute and threaten the campesinos”.
Recovery, birth and revolution: Juana Maria
Following this brief historic and geographic summary, we come to the emphatic and momentous recent land takeover carried out by campesinos in the western state of Merida, specifically in Caño Avispero in the Obispo Ramos de Lora municipality.
The takeover of this piece of land, called La Magdalena Ranch up until that point, began in 2017, following a corresponding inspection from regional and national authorities after an official complaint was lodged in accordance with current legal norms. The complaint proved that the land parcels under the control of local landowners- the Celis Aranguren family- were apt for crops cultivation and were being underused, according to Juan Carlos, the lawyer for the campesinos. The total land contains 880 hectares, of which 94.6 percent were in a state of total abandonment, qualifying it for a legal takeover by the campesinos according to Venezuelan law. These were the results of the official technical inspection.
The campesinos who carried out this land-takeover and those of the rest of the country are defending the Constitution, not just for their own benefit, but for the benefit of all Venezuelan people in a context of economic recession, low national production, import-dependency, and significant shortages. Their values include protecting access to food, dignified work, and the preservation of the land against the rent-seeking landowner, agricultural commodification and hunger.
As the following example demonstrates, this is a struggle in which the Venezuelan state is not always clear on its role, which, we argue, should be on the side of the Constitution in the same way as the campesinos. However, for some state-officials from the Land Office in Merida, security force agents – the National Bolivarian Guard (GNB) and the CICPC Special Investigation Police Unit – and even some officials from the Citizens’ and Judicial Powers branches of government, personal benefits are more important than enforcing the Constitution.
During this particular struggle in defence of our anti-landowner Constitution, several peasants were arrested, accused of trespassing, logging, deforestation and resistance to authority. Even though the land rescue was run through the proper channels, local authorities lashed out against peasants, arresting three people with false charges.
Faced with this injustice, the other peasants who were taking part in the land seizure stood up in solidarity and mobilized in defence of those arrested. In the end, all were arrested, 32 of them, which included, and we need to stress this, 6 people over 60 years of age, 2 people suffering from cancer, and a mother with her infant daughter. All of these abuses, harassment, and severe human rights violations had as an end result that in a mere 6 months, something that in other cases was not possible in decades, the legalization of land ownership was achieved, or in other words, the liberation of the land and the emancipation of these peasants and their families who resisted and fought for justice to the very end.
This rescued land plot now bears the name of Juana María, in honour of the little peasant girl who was imprisoned along with her mother. The agricultural and political potential is now being developed through several peasant/political organizations. But it will struggle to reach its full potential without a committed action from a revolutionary state, which includes funding – credit, agricultural support, agricultural supplies, seeds, etc – proper and qualified technical training to keep up with technological progress; economic, physical and psychological security for those struggling peasants that represent the basis for food sovereignty, and who lead through their example of struggle in times when morals, productive work and commitment to the country are the highest demonstrations of patriotism we can find.
Rescuing all of Venezuela
After the “Juana María” land rescue, President Nicolás Maduro expressed on the national stage his rejection of these illegal evictions and prohibited them from taking place, and requested that the National Constituent Assembly (ANC) investigate the evictions and produce a detailed report about the land rescue processes in at least seven Venezuelan states (Barinas, Monagas, Zulia, Mérida, Portuguesa, Lara and Yaracuy).
He also asked peasants to revise their productive plans in the six million hectares which, taking into account the recently awarded 440 thousand hectares, have been handed over to them, in order to approve resources towards a major productive plan. At the end of April a meeting took place between peasants from these 7 states and an ANC commission, the State Prosecutor and the Ministry of Popular Power for Productive Agriculture and Land, to go over the forced and violent evictions in these states, as well as evaluate ongoing and future productive plans.
These meetings have started to bear fruits, for example in Barinas, specifically in the case of Fundo Gavilán – La Chaqueta, where over 100 peasants were evicted in February. An inspection process was initiated by the Venezuelan Land Institute (INTI) to decide on the rescue of 2.733 hectares of land by the Peasant Council “Mil Zamoras Una Patria”.
Land rescues are being “sown” all across Venezuela, and on May 5, the constituent presidential commission and the INTI went to “La Victoria” estate located in Chivo (Francisco Javier Pulgar municipality), of the western Zulia state to initiate an inspection and open the corresponding process to award the land to the peasants that had been denouncing since 2012 the idleness of around 400 hectares out of a total of 642 which until 2016 were under the ownership of María Auxiliadora Bracho de Muchacho.
Nieves Rios, campesino leader from “La Victoria” commented: “since November 16, 2017, access was barred to the peasants. The plot was militarized under orders from landowner Bracho de Muchacho, they brought cattle to get rid of the corn that we had sown in the abandoned areas which through the proper institutional protocols already belonged to the state”.
Beyond that they denounced their treatment at the hands of the GNB: “How is it possible that the GNB comes to evict you at 4 in the morning? It pains us that the GNB, which is said to belong to the people, comes to evict. Some are following orders, but we do not trust the GNB or the local commanding officer,” said peasant leader Luis Rodríguez.
The peasant movement has made strides in showing the national authorities the current condition of this plot that they have reclaimed for years, as well as showing the vulnerability of the peasants if the state does not act accordingly and responsibly to attend to their demands and recommendations.
In the case of the “La Bolívar La Bolivariana” farm located in Santa Bárbara, Zulia state, stretching over 1.474 hectares and made up of 5 socialist peasant councils that represent 500 families, during 6 years of struggle these peasants have been evicted three times. Although these lands were seized by the state in 2008 they were not awarded to the peasants but to the “Maricela” company, then of Mayor María Malpica – whose tenure resulted in abuses and exclusion of the peasants – only to end up under control of the agricultural branch of the armed forces, AgroFANB.
According to Virgilio Sánchez, leader of the peasant council “Pacha Mama”, the peasants decided to return to the land due to it being unproductive: “Maduro said that idle lands are meant to produce”. Their demands are that the government takes them into account, as their major aspiration is to put the land to work to support their families, as well as guaranteeing a food supply that is desperately needed in Venezuela.
The target of six million hectares handed to the peasant movement, as well as headlines such as “renewal of land rescue processes and push for an investigation of abuses” cannot remain confined to a certain electoral effervescence in view of President Nicolás Maduro’s reelection. Instead they should represent the unstoppable advance towards food security and sovereignty, and towards a new productive model based on family agriculture and eco-socialism.
 Sanoja Mario. 2011. Historia socio-cultural de la Economía Venezolana. Banco Central de Venezuela. Caracas.
 La Revolución Bolivariana, Allan Woods – España, 2005
Few countries and political processes have been subject to such scrutiny, yet so generally misunderstood, as Venezuela and the Bolivarian Revolution. This is particularly true today, as the international media paints an image of absolute devastation in the country, wrought by failed policies and government mismanagement. At the same time, the three national elections of 2017 demonstrated a strong show of support for the continuation of the revolution under its current leadership. This seeming paradox, we are told, can only be attributed to government tendencies of co-optation and clientelism, along with a closing of democratic space. Such messages are reproduced many times over, both in the media and in certain intellectual circles.
A benefit of the intense attention paid to Venezuela is that a recurring narrative can be identified, which goes basically as follows. The central character is Hugo Chávez Frías, a strong-armed political leader who enjoyed the double advantage of personal charisma and high oil prices over the course of his presidency from 1999 through 2012. In 2013, Chávez died, and the following year global oil prices plunged. Amid the perfect storm of the loss of Chávez, the collapse in oil prices, and the government’s misguided policies, Venezuela has steadily slid into a state of economic and political disintegration, with food and other necessities growing scarce, in turn sparking social unrest as people take to the streets. The government, headed by Chávez’s less charismatic successor, Nicolás Maduro, is going to desperate lengths to hang onto power, becoming increasingly authoritarian in the process, while maintaining the populist rhetoric of Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution.
However, this dominant narrative does not capture the complexities of what is happening in Venezuela today. There are significant holes in the account, which raise important questions: who are “the people” at the center of this analysis? What, if any, are the different impacts of present challenges on various sectors of society? How should the Venezuelan state be understood, and where and how does the role of capital figure? By focusing on the politics of food as a key area in which the country’s broader politics are playing out—particularly by looking at recent shortages and food lines, as well as what have been presented as “food riots”—a multitude of issues can be better understood. Often-ignored matters of race, class, gender, and geography demand special attention.
We will begin by looking to the past to situate present trends in their proper context. By homing in on the dynamics around Venezuela’s most highly consumed staple foods, we can gain insight into the current conjuncture, particularly the recent food shortages. Some of the main drivers of the shortages come from forces opposing the Bolivarian Revolution, which are increasingly gaining ground within the state. We will then discuss responses to the shortages by the government and popular forces.
Historical Continuities of Extraction
A nuanced understanding of contemporary Venezuela requires going back not to Chávez’s election in 1999, but centuries earlier, to the period of colonization and the inception of interrelated patterns of extraction and social differentiation that continue today. While much has been written on “extractivism” as a key feature of Latin America’s “pink tide” countries, including Venezuela, it is imperative to understand present patterns of extraction as part of a much longer historical continuity dating back to Spanish colonization from the sixteenth into the nineteenth centuries. During this period, a “tropical plantation economy based on slave labor” gave rise to a powerful agroexportation complex, through which cacao and later coffee were supplied to Europe and Mexico. A key feature of this complex was the two-part plantation-conuco system, in which the enslaved and, later, low-wage labor forces of the colonial haciendas depended on family and communal plots (conucos) for subsistence.
Venezuela was among the first countries in the region to achieve independence, but in the early nineteenth century, most social and economic structures established under colonization were little altered. These included patterns of food consumption, extending from the plantation-conuco system to the culinary habits that the colonial elite brought over from Europe. This dietary differentiation was intricately linked with issues of identity and domination, serving to maintain European descendants’ sense of superiority over the indigenous, Afro-descendent, and mestizo majority. One Spanish general remarked that he could “handle anything on this earth except for those wretched corn cakes they call arepas, that have only been made for stomachs of blacks and ostriches.” But even as they disdained indigenous foodways, European elites depended on them, as indigenous knowledge proved essential for the adaptation of European crops to tropical agroecosystems, and food from conucos served as a vital source of sustenance, particularly during war. The plantation economy and the hacienda system lasted for another century after independence.
In 1929, the U.S. stock market crash and the associated collapse in agricultural commodity prices, together with the rise of oil in Venezuela as an export commodity, spelled the end of the agroexportation period, as several new patterns rapidly emerged. One was a flight of capital from agriculture to the emerging petroleum industry, with oil concessions going mostly to the same wealthy families that had dominated the agroexport complex. This was accompanied by mass migration out of rural areas, through mutually reinforcing processes of proletarianization and urbanization, and a subsequent surge in urban poverty, with insufficient employment and infrastructure to absorb these new urban workers. The development of the petroleum sector thus further concentrated wealth among the elite while fostering a “surplus population” of urban poor, but also gave rise to a middle class of professional workers. In response to these changes, owners of the former agroexport complex were able to take advantage of its existing infrastructure, an influx of oil dollars, and the new purchasing power of Venezuela’s emerging middle class to shift from exporting to importing food. Over time, these practices developed into a powerful agro-food import and distribution complex.
Petroleum also broke the plantation-conuco system, rupturing existing patterns of production and consumption. To fill this void, the government in 1936 initiated an agricultural modernization program, funded by petroleum dollars and designed to replace imports of highly consumed foods in the growing urban centers. The push for modernization was part and parcel of the Green Revolution then sweeping much of the global South, part of an anticommunist Cold War strategy among the United States and allies. In Venezuela, the process was ushered in by U.S. “missionary capitalist” to Latin America and godfather to the Green Revolution, Nelson Rockefeller. As the home of Standard Oil’s most profitable regional affiliate, the country held a special significance for Rockefeller, who made Venezuela his home away from home, even establishing his own hacienda.
Venezuela’s agricultural modernization program melded industrial production and white supremacy, manifested in efforts aimed at blanqueamiento, or “whitening.” This was reflected, for instance, in the Law of Immigration and Colonization of 1936, which facilitated the entrance of white Europeans into Venezuela, intended, in the words of agricultural minister Alberto Adriani, to help Venezuela “diversify its agriculture; develop new industries and perfect existing ones; and contribute to the improvement of its race and the elevation of its culture.” Towards these ends, the law supported the formation of aptly named colonias agrícolas (agricultural colonies) of European immigrants on some of the country’s most productive agricultural land, several of which still exist today.
The modernization agenda also introduced another kind of colonization in the form of Venezuela’s first chain of supermarkets, CADA, founded in 1948 and spearheaded by Rockefeller, together with the Venezuelan government. Further solidifying the connections between food consumption, identity, and social status, supermarkets allowed the emerging middle class to enjoy a taste of food elitism, literally and figuratively. This was part of a broader program of modern state-building designed to turn Venezuela into a “reliable US ally with…a solid middle-class electorate.” By many accounts, these efforts succeeded, and Venezuela by the late twentieth century was commonly regarded as “one of the developing world’s success stories, an oil-rich democracy that was seen as a model for economic growth and political stability in the region.” However, “oil never fully transformed Venezuela, but rather it created the illusion of modernity in a country where high levels of inequality persisted.” Indeed, the predominant narratives routinely fail to mention that at the start of the Bolivarian Revolution, more than half of the population was living in poverty, with hunger levels higher than those of today.
Another Side of History
A glance at recent history challenges the depiction of pre-Chávez Venezuela as a model democracy and bastion of stability in a tumultuous region. One particularly revealing episode occurred in 1989, when IMF-prescribed structural adjustment policies proved the final straw for an increasingly fed-up population, sparking the Caracazo, or “explosion of Caracas,” in which hundreds of thousands of people from the hillside barrios flooded the center of the capital in a massive popular uprising that rapidly spread across the country. The military was ordered to open fire on civilians, yielding a death toll officially in the hundreds but believed to be in the thousands—yet the social revolt unleashed by the Caracazo would not be contained.
This brings us to another side of history: every event described above occurred amid tension, and sometimes open conflict, between the elite and the “others” whom they attempted to subjugate and exploit, while never fully succeeding. As recognized by numerous historical accounts, the indigenous peoples, African descendants, and mestizos who make up the majority of Venezuelans have long been a defiant lot, from Afro-descendent rebellions and indigenous uprisings to more covert forms of resistance. Such resistance from below was pivotal to the fall of colonization, once independence leader Simon Bolivar understood the importance of enslaved and indigenous peoples to the struggle for independence, and continued into peasant struggles over land post-independence, and later through the struggles of guerillas, students, workers, and women, among other “others,” during the period of democratization. The rise of Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution can be understood as a direct continuation of the Caracazo and the rebellions before it, through which “the popular sectors…came to assume their own political representation.”
Inequities around food were among the immediate causes of the Caracazo, as the poor endured long lines to access basic goods, while middle-class merchants hoarded these goods to speculate on rising prices in the face of inflation, and the elite carried on with their day-to-day food habits largely unaffected—all striking parallels with the present situation. Just before and after the Caracazo, headlines such as “Prices of Sugar, Cereals, and Oils Go Up” and “Distressed Multitudes in Search of Food” abounded in the national press, while the New York Times reported “shortages of items like coffee, salt, flour, cooking oil and other basic products.” This reflected growing tensions around food access, disproportionately impacting the poor and showing that Venezuela’s “modernized” food system, based on importation, industrial agriculture, and supermarkets, as championed by Rockefeller, did not in fact serve the interests of the majority. This in turn implied the dual, if at times divergent, tasks at the start of the Bolivarian Revolution: addressing the immediate material needs of the more than half of the population living in poverty, while working to shift the historical patterns that had caused deep disparities in Venezuela’s food system.
The importance of food and agriculture was reflected in Venezuela’s new national constitution, drafted through a participatory constituent assembly process and passed by popular referendum in 1999. The constitution guarantees food security for all citizens, “through the promotion of sustainable agriculture as a strategic basis for integrated rural development.” In response to this popular mandate, a variety of state-sponsored initiatives have been established, in tandem with citizen efforts, under the banner of “food sovereignty.” Fundamental to these have been processes of agrarian reform, which have combined land redistribution with a wide variety of rural development programs, including in education, housing, health care, and media and communications. Fishing communities have benefited from similar programs, and from the banning of industrial trawling off the Venezuelan coast. These rural initiatives have been complemented by a range of largely urban food access programs, reaching schools, workplaces, and households. Equally important to food sovereignty efforts are diverse forms of popular organization, from local communal councils and regional comunas to farmers’ and fishers’ councils, that have helped to broaden popular participation in the food system.
Such programs have seen both important gains and limitations. Perhaps most notably, Venezuela surpassed the first Millennium Development Goal of cutting hunger in half by 2015, as recognized by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. From 2008 to 2011, hunger was dramatically reduced, affecting an average of 3.1 percent of the population. Yet such advances, sponsored by oil revenues from Venezuela’s nationalized petroleum industry, came largely from a reinforcement of the agroimport complex, not from alternative systems. In addition, efforts toward agrarian reform in the countryside also received significant investment, but remained largely separate from food security programs. While some important inroads were made in connecting the two initiatives, the Chávez years saw no lasting rupture in the historic power of those who controlled the agrifood system. Thus, more food programs for the poor meant more food imports, which further consolidated the import complex, reinforced through multiple mechanisms of the state. Among these mechanisms was the granting of dollars from oil revenues to private enterprises, at highly subsidized rates, for imports of food and other goods deemed essential. This means that over the course of the Bolivarian Revolution, state funds, while going toward many social programs, have also flowed into the private food import complex, amounting to major subsidies for the most powerful companies. The direct and indirect beneficiaries of this system have little incentive to alter it.
Power in the Food System: The Maíz-Harina-Arepa Complex
These processes of accumulation and differentiation in Venezuela’s agrifood system can be clearly seen in the case of the country’s most widely consumed food, the arepa, a corn patty made from precooked corn flour. By focusing on what we call the maíz-harina-arepa (corn-flour-arepa) complex, we can trace the history of food politics in Venezuela.
The complex dates back to precolonial times, when corn, inextricably linked with the conuco, figured prominently in indigenous traditions, from cosmologies to foodways. With the colonial invasion, the Spanish grain of preference, wheat, together with corn and cassava, another Indigenous staple, helped sustain the Triangle Trade of the colonization project.
Patterns of production, processing, and consumption of corn remained largely unaltered for many years after independence. This changed in the 1960s with the introduction of precooked corn flour, which drove profound changes across the agrifood system. On the production end, corn cultivation moved from the conuco into industrial monoculture production, dependent on certified commercial seed varieties. No less dramatic were changes in the processing of corn for precooked corn flour, in which the kernel is “dehulled, degermed, precooked, dried, flaked, and milled.” In the process, its more nutritious outer layers are removed, yielding a nutritionally poor substance lacking in vitamins and minerals that then requires fortification to meet basic dietary standards. Inevitably, most precooked corn flour was used for arepas, dramatically reducing their preparation time. The food quickly became the principal staple of Venezuela’s poor working class, and within four decades, pre-cooked corn flour came to represent 88 percent of all corn consumed in the country.
Ever since the first commercialization of precooked corn flour, one brand, Harina PAN, has become synonymous with the product—to the point that its name is used interchangeably with the generic term harina precocida. PAN stands for Productos Alimenticios Nacionales, National Food Products, and is a homonym of pan, bread. Despite the humble origins portrayed in the company’s marketing campaigns, its owners, the Mendoza Fleury family, come from a long lineage traceable back to the colonial elite, and have held key posts in both government and business for generations. Today they are among the most powerful families in the country and best known as the owners of Empresas Polar, the conglomerate that supplies the most widely consumed foods and beverages in Venezuela, particularly arepas and beer. Polar, a Venezuelan subsidiary of PepsiCo, is the largest private company in the country, with products reaching global markets, and it controls an estimated 50 to 60 percent of Venezuela’s supply of precooked corn flour. Such a degree of control is only possible through a combination of vertical integration and concentration, strategic links with the state, and well-crafted marketing in both public and private spaces, including the most intimate spaces of everyday life. On the production side, Polar’s Fundación Danac, with more than 600 proprietary corn varieties, has come to control much of the genetic base of Venezuela’s certified corn seeds, influencing research and seed certification. On the distribution end, Polar is a key shareholder in the Cada supermarket chain, and in 1992 partnered with the Dutch firm SHV to launch Venezuela’s largest hypermarket chain, Makro.
Polar’s involvement in the retail sector has secured important distribution channels, but its primary aim was to secure the market. Among its earliest marketing strategies was to target Venezuelan housewives, including training thousands of women to go into their neighborhoods and teach other women how to make arepas from Harina PAN. From there, Polar has employed a wide range of tactics reaching multiple segments of society, from billboards, television, and print media, to sponsorship of key cultural events, to research and publishing (through its Fundación Polar), to a prestigious award for scientists (the Premio Polar) to forms of “corporate social responsibility” that have garnered international attention. Through these and other means, Polar has positioned Harina PAN as “the brand of birth of all Venezuelans.” Given the product’s ubiquity in Venezuelan households, this claim is less outlandish than it sounds. Perhaps most telling of the sheer extent of Polar’s penetration into the everyday life of Venezuelans is the common equation of its products, most of all Harina PAN, with food itself—the idea that without Polar, there is no food. This phenomenon has not been lost on the company, which retains the ability to keep its products off the shelves just as readily as its ability to keep them on—a point to which we will return.
Since its emergence in 1999, the Bolivarian Revolution has had a complex and often tense relationship with Polar, even while forging alternatives within the maíz-harina-arepa complex, particularly through partnerships between state institutions and farming communities. These projects center on nationwide planning and coordination of corn production, coupled with public financing, and primarily involve cooperatives on former latifundio lands recovered through the agrarian reform process. Efforts at reform have also been made in the processing of corn products, though these have yet to reach a significant scale of production.
Polar thus maintains relative hegemony over corn flour production, and beyond its physical control, the company wields enormous cultural and symbolic power as the brand of preference of most Venezuelans. But if relations between Polar and the government have been fraught over the course of the Bolivarian Revolution, they have nevertheless not been entirely oppositional, and deep ties still bind the two across the maíz-harina-arepa complex. This includes the previously mentioned provision of money for food importation at highly subsidized rates, of which Polar is among the top recipients. Today such linkages are being further solidified.
Food Lines and Fault Lines
As we have seen, the Venezuelan food system has long been shaped by the pushes and pulls of capital, society, and the state, in a delicate balance of forces characterized by both deep tensions and deep ties, with repercussions felt throughout everyday life. The fragility of this balance has come to the fore in recent years, particularly since 2013, with the persistence of long food lines that are by now emblematic of present-day Venezuela, images of which are endlessly reproduced by the international press. The next set of images to reach international audiences, first in 2014 and much more intensely in 2017, were of “the people” taking to the streets. The story was one of spontaneous “food riots” that over time combined with more organized “pro-democracy” protests, as part of a global surge of popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes. The riots, according to the prevailing narrative, were sparked by the lines, which were themselves the result of scarcity brought about by the drop in oil prices, combined with government mismanagement. This combination of factors has come to mark what is widely regarded as the current crisis of Venezuela’s food system, part of a broader political and economic emergency facing the nation. However, a closer look at the current situation and its defining features provides a fuller and more nuanced understanding of events.
First, it is important to look carefully at the food lines: their composition, their location, and what products are being sought. The people waiting in these lines have overwhelmingly been poor working-class women—an attack on both everyday life at the household level, as well as on the popular organization of the Bolivarian Revolution, in which women have played a key role. The lines have also largely formed outside supermarkets, where consumers wait to access certain specific items that have mostly gone missing from the shelves. These consist of the most consumed industrially processed products in the Venezuelan food basket, particularly precooked corn flour. The specific selection of these missing items—those deemed most essential to the population—tends not to make the headlines, and this points to a wider gap in media narratives. For while precooked corn flour has gone missing, corn-based porridge has remained available; milk powder disappeared from the shelves, but fresh dairy products like cheeses can still be found, and so on.
Several other important factors point to holes in the dominant scarcity narrative. First, the same items missing from shelves have continued to be found in restaurants. Second, by their own accounting, private food companies, including Polar, continued to maintain steady production levels at least through 2015. In a 2016 interview, in fact, a representative from Polar spoke of the recent addition of new products such as teas and gelatins to their Venezuelan lines. Third, even before the government mounted a widespread response to the shortages (as described below), corn flour consumption levels among both higher- and lower-income sectors of the population remained steady from 2012 to 2015. Thus, while the shortages have undoubtedly caused tremendous anxiety and insecurity, and while accessing certain goods has become more time-consuming and complicated, Venezuelans have indeed found ways to obtain them. In addition to enduring the lines, another channel has been the underground economy, through which goods such as corn flour are sold at a steep markup. While individuals have turned such practices into business opportunities, private enterprises have done so as well, both by hoarding goods for speculative purposes and by smuggling them across the Colombian border. The regular discovery of stockpiles further suggests that goods have been intentionally diverted from supermarket shelves.
There are direct parallels between present-day Venezuela and Chile in the 1970s under Salvador Allende, where the U.S. strategy, in the words of Richard Nixon, was to “make the economy scream.” The United States employed the same methods of destabilization, including a financial blockade, and supported the right-wing counterrevolution, likewise manifested in shortages, lines, and street protests, among other forms of disruption. The depressed prices of Chile’s main source of foreign exchange, copper, parallels declining oil prices Venezuela. While the extent of U.S. involvement in Chile’s counterrevolution would not be fully understood until years later, when key documents were declassified, overt U.S. aggression toward Venezuela is already evident in the intensifying economic sanctions imposed by the Obama and Trump administrations, as well as an all-out economic blockade that has made it extremely difficult for the government to make payments on food imports and manage its debt. As one State Department representative put it:
The pressure campaign is working. The financial sanctions we have placed on the Venezuelan Government has forced it to begin becoming in default, both on sovereign and PDVSA, its oil company’s debt. And what we are seeing because of the bad choices of the Maduro regime is a total economic collapse in Venezuela. So our policy is working, our strategy is working and we’re going to keep it on the Venezuelans.
In Venezuela today, as in Chile in the 1970s, U.S. intervention relies on an ongoing counterrevolutionary effort, with elites using the revolutionary potential of the masses to frighten the middle class. This brings us to another key feature of the present conjuncture: the class dynamics of the street protests, characterized as “food riots” in the dominant narrative, particularly in the latest and most intense round in 2017. While the food lines began to appear in 2013, they grew over time, and are widely considered a key factor in the transfer of control of the National Assembly from the chavistas to an opposition majority under the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) at the end of 2015. Among MUD’s campaign strategies had been its “La Ultima Cola” (The Last Line) commercial, depicting dissatisfied people standing in the “last line” they would have to endure, should they vote for the MUD, which once in power would do away with the lines forever. Of particular note was the working-class slant of the commercial, with the demographic composition of the people in the line reflective of the majority of the population, in contrast to the party’s wealthier, whiter base. It did not take long for the MUD to return to this base, however, upon its electoral ascent, with the Second Vice President of the new National Assembly, Freddy Guevara, openly calling for “the people” (that is, MUD supporters) to take to the streets, “until the only option of the dictatorship would be to accept the less traumatic solution.”
An array of demonstrations ensued, from peaceful resistance to acts of violence. Though portrayed in the media as nationwide, the actions were largely limited to the wealthiest areas of a few cities, and ranged from street barricades and vandalism to picnics and barbecues to candlelight vigils to physical assaults to the hurling of “poopootovs” of human feces. But among this seemingly disparate set of tactics, protesters took precise aim on certain fronts, including a systematic attack on state-run social programs, such as the burning of buses providing subsidized public transportation and vandalism of public health facilities. Especially hard hit was the state agrifood apparatus, as the National Institute of Nutrition was set ablaze, laboratories for the production of ecological farming inputs were vandalized, and supplies destined for government food programs were burned—including one on the order of 40 tons of food—along with vehicles associated with these programs. Also among the targets, tragically, were people, specifically those seen as typical chavistas—i.e., poor and brown-skinned. The most visible of these was the attack on Orlando Figuera, a young Afro-Venezuelan supermarket worker, whose gruesome burning alive, as countless onlookers did nothing to intervene, was captured on video. While Figuera did not survive his attack, another victim from a similar background, Carlos Ramirez, did, albeit with severe burns covering his body. Ramirez later recalled pleading for his life, shouting “Don’t kill me! I’m not chavista! Please don’t kill me!” as street protesters brutally beat him and set him ablaze.
The racial motivations of these attacks associated with violent street protests, known as guarimbas, are apparent, and speak to what has been described as a “class/race fusion” with “deep roots in the country’s history.” The protesters are mostly the grandchildren of the middle class that emerged in the period of modernization and “whitening,” with important links to the country’s elite, forming a middle class-elite alliance known as sifrinaje. The international media has largely ignored these nuances, but a rare and telling exception is a 2017 article in Bloomberg Businessweek on nightlife among young protesters, whose gathering spots include upscale rooftop shisha bars, with one protester quoted as saying “You protest in the morning, but that doesn’t mean you stop living.” While the protesters are not homogenous, those featured in the article challenge the narratives of repressed masses, while also highlighting the differentiated impacts of the protests, as some maintain their everyday lives in relative comfort, while others struggle to survive. The violent protests disproportionately affected people in the poorest sectors, who could not afford to skip work and for whom basic activities became daily struggles, between transportation shutdowns caused by roadblocks and fear of physical violence. Particularly disadvantaged were the domestic and service-sector workers who had to travel each day to and from the wealthier areas where the guarimbas were concentrated. The same areas are also the sites of most supermarkets, further impeding food access for the poor and working class, already strained by shortages, lines, and attacks on government food programs.
The image promoted by the international press has been one of “the people” rising in response to a “humanitarian crisis” wrought by an “authoritarian regime.” In reality, however, the combination of peaceful resistance and blatant acts of guarimba violence has only served to further isolate the popular sectors from the opposition. A look behind the headlines and images shows some glaring contradictions, particularly in the description of guarimbas as “food riots,” given the class and racial composition of the protesters crying hambre (hunger), described above. Furthermore, a quick glance at social media, such as posts by Freddy Guevara and others, dispels any illusion that the protests arose spontaneously. Finally, both the targets and tactics of the guarimbas—including burning food instead of redistributing it (indeed, food designated for the poor), along with violent assaults on the poor and dark-skinned—put the lie to any narrative of the guarimbas as “food riots” of the hungry.
An event far more aptly described as a “food riot” or “food rebellion” was the Caracazo of 1989, mentioned above. At the time, reports in the New York Times and other outlets made few criticisms of the government of President Andrés Pérez, but did include graphic accounts of mass graves, people lined up at morgues in search of loved ones, imposition of curfews, curtailing of civil liberties and press freedom, and death estimates upwards of 600 people, with one doctor quoted as saying “no country is prepared for what we have confronted this week.” Today, in contrast, while government repression is regularly denounced in the Times and elsewhere, a total of fourteen deaths associated with the 2017 guarimbas have been directly traced to government security forces, while twenty-three have been attributed to opposition violence. While any government-sanctioned violence merits concern, attention, and investigation, it nevertheless bears asking why the international outcry has been so much greater than during the Caracazo, and, why, as one media watchdog group has noted, “the imperfect state of democracy in Venezuela” attracts singular attention, even as many atrocities in the world today go underreported.
This brings us back to oil. Petroleum is central to the dominant narrative, which claims that the Chávez government won its popularity on the strength of high oil prices and personal charisma, while Maduro’s relative unpopularity is attributable to the plunge in prices and political ineptitude. Once again, this familiar story distorts the facts in key ways. First, as economist Luis Salas has shown, although oil prices did indeed rise for much of Chávez’s presidency, its peak at or around $100 per barrel was an aberration that occurred in the last stage of Chávez’s presidency, between 2010 and 2012, whereas the average price per barrel over the course of his presidency was closer to $55 per barrel. (This happens to be right around the price at the time of writing.) Second, the shortages that have attracted such interest are in fact part of a broader trend seen over the course of the Bolivarian Revolution, through both periods of high and low oil prices, and particularly at politically heightened moments such as the lead-up to elections. Furthermore, the most recent shortages did not begin in 2014, when oil prices dropped, but before, in 2013, while prices were still high.
All of this complicates simplistic narratives around present conditions and events in Venezuela. But perhaps the most significant gap in such analyses, which tend to center on the government and state, is the key role of capital and its relations with the state. Bearing in mind the revolution-counterrevolution dialectic, it is imperative to look at the role of the elite, whose power extends throughout much of the agrifood system, and who have exploited the current “crisis” to further consolidate their power while simultaneously seeking to dismantle redistributive agrifood policies. These forces have launched a material assault on much of the population, disproportionately impacting the poor and working class while further provoking an already frustrated middle class. They are also attacking the legitimacy of the government, both internally and externally, particularly by discrediting Venezuela’s reputation for exemplary achievements in the fight against hunger and toward food sovereignty.
Resistance: ‘En Guerra Hay Que Comer’
As one Venezuelan food sovereignty activist commented on the present situation: “In war, one must eat.” Responses to the challenges have taken many forms, and while a full discussion is beyond the scope of this article, we will give a broad overview. First, if everyday life is the main battleground on which present problems are playing out, it is also the frontline of resistance. When the shortages began, among the first lines of defense to be activated was a kind of parallel solidarity economy, involving the sharing and bartering of food and other essentials among neighbors as well as a reactivation of survival techniques from the past. These have included a reclaiming of traditional food preparation techniques—by necessity, as the foods missing from supermarket shelves were substituted with foods that remained locally available, thanks to prior public efforts toward food sovereignty: plantains, cassava, and sweet potatoes for processed starches, fresh sugarcane for refined sugar, and so on. Perhaps most emblematic of the early days of the shortages was the substitution of freshly ground corn for processed (precooked) corn flour in the preparation of arepas, as many dusted off their grandmothers’ grinders and put them to use. Simultaneously, unprecedented numbers of urban dwellers began growing what they could on windowsills, patios, and in community spaces, enlivening a nascent urban agriculture movement.
In the countryside, food shortages coupled with diminished access to industrial inputs have prompted farmers to shift from commercial crop varieties to traditional staple food crops, and from agrichemicals toward agroecological practices, with certain parallels to Cuba’s “special period.” Rural people who had not been directly engaged in agriculture have been returning to food production, and are increasingly joined by their urban counterparts. The surge in interest in alternatives to industrially produced foods and the revaluing of the countryside have provided openings for social movements already working toward such transformations, helping forge connections between emerging grassroots responses and prior efforts toward food sovereignty under the Bolivarian Revolution. As one longtime activist and government official reflected: “We had the vision, and had many things in place, but what we lacked was urgency.… Now we have the urgency, we know what we need to do, and have what we need to do it.” One example is the rural comuna in the northwestern state of El Maízal in Lara, a product of both the above-mentioned agrarian reform process and the construction of comunas. When the shortages struck, the members of El Maízal had already been working hard toward food sovereignty since 2009, particularly in corn and livestock production, and were able to help meet the food needs of up to 15,000 families in surrounding communities. Another grassroots effort, Plan Pueblo a Pueblo (People to People Plan), has built on the preexisting organization of the comunas to forge direct links between rural producers and urban inhabitants. Formed in 2015, it already reaches over 60,000 urban working-class families with regular distributions of affordable fresh food. Other grassroots initiatives include the Feria Conuquera (Conuco Fair), a large monthly alternative market in Caracas featuring agroecologically produced fresh foods and artisanal versions of many of the products missing from supermarket shelves, the Mano a Mano Intercambio Agroecologico (Hand to Hand Agroecological Exchange) bridging the urban-rural divide in the Andes, and the Plan Popular de Semillas (People’s Seed Plan), an offshoot of the new national Seed Law passed through a bottom-up policy-making process in 2015.
There has also been a host of government responses to the shortages. Among the first was a reorganization of public management to prioritize food sovereignty, including the creation of three separate ministries out of the Ministry of Agriculture and Land in early 2016: the Ministry of Urban Agriculture (believed to be the first of its kind globally); the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture; and the Ministry of Agricultural Production. This was followed by the creation of the Great Sovereign Supply Mission, an umbrella body focused on securing national supplies of food, medicine, and other basic goods. Among the government responses to the shortages, those most intimately linked with popular organizing are the Comités Locales de Abastecimiento y Producción (Local Provisioning and Production Committees), known as CLAPs. CLAPs were rapidly rolled out in 2016, initially targeting the poorest fifth of the population, and now reach well over half. Through the CLAPs, the government purchases food directly from suppliers, both private and public, and coordinates with community organizations to distribute mixed food packages to individual households. Communities are responsible for organizing themselves into CLAPs, conducting local censuses, and running regular distributions, in which the food is sold at subsidized prices in units of twelve to fifteen kilograms. Through a massive coordinated push from both above and below, CLAPs reached an estimated two million families in their first year, and today there are more than thirty thousand CLAPs throughout the country, with the aim of reaching six million families—nearly three-quarters of the population—with regular distributions by the end of 2018.
CLAPs have had a mixed reception among food sovereignty activists, who note their dependence on industrialized foods, half of which come through the above-mentioned food importation complex. At the same time, CLAPs have played a key role in mitigating the worst effects of the shortages, and have become important vehicles for citizen organizing around food, with 50 percent of CLAPs also directly involved in food production. Food sovereignty activists (including those of Pueblo a Pueblo and El Maízal) are thus increasingly opting to partner with the CLAPs and attempting to push them in more transformative directions, as part of a long-term vision of agricultura cero divisas, or “zero-dollar agriculture.”
The situation confronting Venezuela today is far more complex than that portrayed in the dominant narrative, and it demands more thorough analysis. Through the lens of food and a focus on questions of power related to race, class, gender, and geography, new elements emerge that are key to understanding the present conjuncture. These include (1) food as a vehicle for social differentiation over time, most fundamentally in the creation and maintenance of an elite, an elite-aligned middle class, and a class of “others”; (2) the concentration and consolidation of power in the agrifood system, maintained through elite alliances, both within and outside of the state structure, and through both overt and hidden forms of power; (3) increasing homogenization, uniformity, and controllability of the agrifood system, from production and importation to consumption, through highly racialized notions of science and modernity; (4) marketing strategies that forge intimate relationships with the public so that specific industrially processed foods pervade everyday life; (5) dependency on monopolized supply channels and on supermarkets for access to such products; (6) the disappearance of such products, constituting an attack on everyday life, particularly that of the “others,” especially women; (7) the implication of the state in the products’ disappearance, while the role of private capital remains largely hidden; (8) the attempted consolidation of power by the elite through proposals for the restoration of the missing products (and of “order” more generally), in opposition to state programs and policies, with appeals to the working class “others”; (9) a rallying of the middle class in the name of “the people,” against the government and its alliance with the “others,” by coopting social justice imagery while committing racialized acts of violence; and, all the while, (10) a further strengthening of state-capital relations, constituting a further concentration and consolidation of power in the agrifood system.
While far from a comprehensive list, these elements reflect emerging trends in Venezuela today, stemming from elite alliances long in the making. Of particular note are the invisible—or so ubiquitous as to effectively be invisible—mechanisms of control in the realm of everyday life that facilitate the exertion of dominance over the population, especially the working poor. This is particularly true of everyday practices around food. Through processes of colonization, modernization, and today, globalization, the entire structure of the modern industrial food system—i.e., offering foods appealing to the tastes of the masses (tastes conditioned over time), but in a highly controlled and controlling way—can readily be made into a tool of control and domination, as in Venezuela today. However, as we have seen, food is also being used as a means of resistance.
The dominant narrative tends to obscure not only the main drivers of the current crisis, but also the many responses coming from the grassroots. This phenomenon is linked to the common portrayal of the Venezuelan working class as passive victims rather than active agents. The same stereotypes and “othering” that led to the common perception that most Venezuelans were blindly following Chávez, with his petrodollars and charisma, are today leading international media to ignore, among other things, the unprecedented popular advances toward food sovereignty manifesting at present. Such stereotypes of the poor and poverty are so pervasive that few questions were asked when a New York Times article on starvation in Venezuela featured a picture of people eating one of the country’s most popular dishes, or when an article in the Guardian entitled “Hunger Eats Away at Venezuela’s Soul as Its People Struggle to Survive” reported that in the fishing village of Chuao, “diets have shifted back to patterns more familiar to parents and grandparents, to fish, root vegetables and bananas”—the type of dish for which many foodies would pay dearly.
While these contradictions might be painfully, even laughably apparent to the average Venezuelan, such stories serve as powerful mechanisms reinforcing the dominant narrative on Venezuela and shaping international opinion. While we might expect as much from the Western mainstream media, it bears asking why the same narrative is reproduced so seemingly uncritically in intellectual and academic circles, including those of the left. Could it be that we do not always leave our own biases at the door, either?
This is where the importance of reflexivity comes in, as well as that of praxis-based partnerships among scholars and grassroots movements, to ensure that events and experiences we might not directly encounter ourselves, from our own places of power and privilege, do not become invisible, and that we question narratives that too comfortably fit our own realities. As scholars and activists, we are faced with a choice, as each day brings new forms of aggression against the government, people, and process in Venezuela by the United States and its allies. We can wait and offer post-mortem analyses of what could have been, or we can join now with Venezuelan grassroots movements—not uncritically, as constructive critique is needed more now than ever, but unequivocal in our solidarity with their struggles. We can make pronouncements about the “end of the cycle” of the rising left in Latin America, or we can stand with those who see no place for themselves at “the end of the cycle”: those for whom—and by whom—history is still being written, and for whom giving up is not an option.
- This article is adapted from a paper presented at the first international conference of the Emancipatory Rural Politics Initiative (ERPI), held at the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, March 17–18, 2018. The authors wish to thank the ERPI team, as well Fred Magdoff, William Camacaro, and the many others, particularly grassroots movements in Venezuela, who have contributed to this work.
- For an example of the limited range of debate on Venezuela in academic circles, see “Debates: On Venezuela” in the fall 2017 issue of LASA Forum.
- George Reid Andrews, “Spanish American Independence: A Structural Analysis,” Latin American Perspectives 12, no. 1 (1985): 105–32.
- Gonzalo M. Quintero Saravia, Soldado de Tierra y Mar: Pablo Morillo, el Pacificador (Madrid: Editorial EDAF, 2017).
- Brian Stuart McBeth, Juan Vicente Gómez and the Oil Companies in Venezuela, 1908–1935 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
- Josefina Rios de Hernandez and Nelson Prato, Las Transformaciones de la Agricultura Venezolana: De la Agroexportación a la Agroindustria (Caracas: Fondo Editorial Tropykos, 1990).
- Darlene Rivas, Missionary Capitalist: Nelson Rockefeller in Venezuela (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).
- Froilán Ramos Rodríguez, “La Inmigración en la Administración de Pérez Jiménez (1952–1958),” CONHISREMI: Revista Universitaria Arbitrada de Investigación y Diálogo Académico 6, no. 3 (2010): 29–43.
- Shane Hamilton, “From Bodega to Supermercado: Nelson A. Rockefeller’s Agro-Industrial Counterrevolution in Venezuela, 1947–1969,” paper presented at Yale Agrarian Studies Workshop, November 4, 2011.
- John Lee Anderson, “Accelerating Revolution,” New Yorker, December 11, 2017.
- Miguel Tinker Salas, “Life in a Venezuelan Oil Camp,” ReVista 15, no. 1 (2015): 46–50.
- According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), an average of 4.9 million people in Venezuela were undernourished each year from 1998 to 2000 (representing a fifth of the 2000 population of 24.5 million), and an average of 4.1 million from 2014–16, at the height of the shortages (13 percent of a total population of 31.5 million in 2016). “El Estado de la Inseguridad Alimentaria en el Mundo 2002,” FAO, 2017, http://fao.org; 2017 Panorama de la Seguridad Alimentaria y Nutricional en América Latina y el Caribe (Santiago: FAO and OPS, 2017).
- See Miguel Angel Nuñez Nuñez, El Reto al Hambre (Merida: Universidad de Los Andes, 1990); Margarita López Maya, “The Venezuelan ‘Caracazo’ of 1989: Popular Protest and Institutional Weakness,” Journal of Latin American Studies 35, no. 1 (2003): 117–37; Charles Hardy, Cowboy in Caracas: A North American’s Memoir of Venezuela’s Democratic Revolution (Willimantic, CT: Curbstone, 2007); and George Ciccariello-Maher, We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013).
- Mario Sanoja Obediente and Iraida Vargas Arenas, Razones para una Revolución (Caracas: Fundación Editorial el Perro y la Rana, 2017).
- Oscar Battaglini, El 27 F para Siempre en la Memoria de Nuestro Pueblo (Caracas: Defensoría de Pueblo, 2011); “Dozens of Venezuelans Killed in Riots over Price Increases,” New York Times, March 1, 1989.
- Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, available at https://venezuelanalysis.com/constitution.
- Chandrika Sharma, “Securing Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of Small-Scale and Artisanal Fisherworkers and Fishing Communities,” MAST 10, no. 2 (2011): 41–61; Christina Schiavoni and William Camacaro, “The Venezuelan Effort to Build a New Food and Agriculture System,” Monthly Review 61, no. 3 (2009): 129–41.
- Maria Mercedes Alayón López, “Evaluación de las Políticas Alimentarias y Nutricionales en la República Bolivariana de Venezuela Periodo 1980–2012” (master’s thesis, Universidad Simon Bolivar, 2016).
- Ben McKay, Ryan Nehring, and Marygold Walsh-Dilley, “The ‘State’ of Food Sovereignty in Latin America: Political Projects and Alternative Pathways in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia,” Journal of Peasant Studies 41, no. 6 (2014): 1175–200; Christina M. Schiavoni, “The Contested Terrain of Food Sovereignty Construction: Toward a Historical, Relational and Interactive Approach,” Journal of Peasant Studies 44, no. 1 (2018): 1–32.
- “38 Countries Meet Anti-Hunger Target for 2015,” FAO, June 12, 2013; FAO, “Venezuela and FAO Create SANA, a New Cooperation Programme to Eliminate Hunger,” FAO, April 16, 2015.
- 2017 Panorama de la Seguridad Alimentaria y Nutricional en América Latina y el Caribe.
- Luis Enrique Gavazut Bianco, “Dólares de Maletín, Empresas Extranjeras y Modelo Económico Socialista,” Aporrea, March 2014, http://aporrea.org.
- Emanuele Amodio, “Alteridades Alimentarias: Dietas Indígenas y Españolas al Comienzo de la Conquista de Tierra Firme,” in Emanuele Amodio and Luis Molina, eds., Saberes y Sabores: Antropología de la Alimentación en la Venezuela Colonial (Caracas: Fundación Centro Nacional de Estudios Históricos, 2017), 15–62.
- Juan Pablo Peña-Rosas et al., “Technical Considerations for Maize Flour and Corn Meal Fortification in Public Health,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1312, no. 1 (2014): 1–7.
- Edgar Abreu Olivo and Elvira Ablan de Flórez, “¿Qué Ha Cambiado en Venezuela desde 1970 en cuanto a la Disponibilidad de Alimentos para el Consumo Humano?” Agroalimentaria 9, no. 19 (2004): 13–33.
- B. S. McBeth, Juan Vicente Gómez and the Oil Companies in Venezuela; Orlando Araujo, Venezuela Violenta (Caracas: Banco Central de Venezuela, 2013).
- Andres Schipani, “Empresas Polar: A Symbol of Resistance amid Venezuela Crisis,” Financial Times, March 17, 2017; Pasqualina Curcio, “Concentración de la Producción en Pocos Afecta el Abastecimiento: Apenas 20 Empresas Controlan la Oferta de Alimentos y Medicinas en el País,” Correo del Orinoco, June 20, 2016.
- Alberto Chassaigne-Ricciulli, Venancio Barrientos-Acosta, and Alexander Hernández-Jiménez, “Obtención de una Población de Maíz para Tolerancia a Factores Adversos en Tres Estados de Venezuela,” Bioagro 24, no. 3 (2012): 221–26; Alberto Chassaigne, “Evaluación de Híbridos Experimentales de Maíz en Fincas de Agricultores,” Gestión y Gerencia 4, no. 3 (2010): 4–19; “Programa Maíz,” Fundación Danac, http://danac.org; “Fundación Danac: El Semillero de Venezuela,” Diario Qué Pasa, September 29, 2014, http://quepasa.com.ve.
- Schipani, “Empresas Polar.”
- Carlos Torelli, Globalization, Culture, and Branding (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
- Gavazut, “Dólares de Maletín.”
- Pasqualina Curcio Curcio, The Visible Hand of the Market: Economic Warfare in Venezuela (Caracas: Ediciones MinCi, 2017).
- “Declaraciones del Director de Empresas Polar I,” YouTube, May 25, 2016.
- Pasqualina Curcio, interview with the authors, June 2016.
- Curcio, interview with the authors.
- Frederick B. Mills and William Camacaro, “Venezuela Takes Control of its Border as Bogotá and Caracas Bring their Cases to UNASUR,” Council on Hemispheric Affairs, September 17, 2015, http://coha.org.
- Francisco Domínguez, “Las Complejidades de la Seguridad y la Soberanía Alimentaria en Venezuela,” Revista de Políticas Públicas 20 (2016): 157–68.
- Mark Weisbrot, “Trump’s Tough New Sanctions Will Harm the People of Venezuela,” The Hill, August 28, 2017, http://thehill.com; Roger Harris, “Lamenting Venezuela’s ‘Humanitarian Crisis’ While Blocking Its Resolution,” Counterpunch, December 29, 2017; Misión Verdad, “Four Effects of the Blockade Against Venezuela,” Venezuela Analysis, December 4, 2017, http://venezuelanalysis.com.
- U.S. State Department, “Senior State Department Officials on the Secretary’s Travel to Austin, Texas; Mexico City, Mexico; San Carlos Bariloche, Argentina; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Lima, Peru; Bogota, Colombia; and Kingston, Jamaica,” January 29, 2018, http://state.gov.
- Walden Bello, “Counterrevolution, the Countryside and the Middle Classes: Lessons from Five Countries,” Journal of Peasant Studies 45, no. 1 (2017): 21–58.
- “La Última Cola,” YouTube, November 20, 2015.
- “Guevara: Toda Venezuela a la Desobediencia Civil Masiva,” El Nacional, May 19, 2017.
- Girish Gupta and Christian Veron, “Venezuelans Prepare Fecal Cocktails to Throw at Security Forces,” Reuters, May 10, 2017.
- “Queman Más de 50 Unidades de TransBolívar,” Primicia, May 22, 2017, http://primicia.com.ve.
- “Opositores Atacan Edificio CVAL de Barquisimeto e Incendian Clínica Móvil de Misión Nevado (+Fotos),” Alba Ciudad, April 10, 2017, http://albaciudad.org; David Blanco, “Fotos y Videos: Guarimberos Quemaron Sede del INN,” Ultimas Noticias, April 12, 2017, http:// ultimasnoticias.com.ve; Lucas Koerner, “Opposition ‘National Sit-In’ Unleashes Fresh Wave of Violence, 4 Dead,” Venezuela Analysis, April 25, 2017; “Venezuela Protesters Set 40 Tons of Subsidized Food on Fire,” Telesur, June 30, 2017, https://telesurtv.net.
- Greg Grandin, “Burning Man in Venezuela,” Nation, May 26, 2017.
- “Crimes of Hate: Venezuelan Opposition Burns People Alive in Their Protests,” The Prisma, July 24, 2017, http://theprisma.co.uk.
- Barry Cannon, “Class/Race Polarisation in Venezuela and the Electoral Success of Hugo Chávez: A Break with the Past or the Song Remains the Same?” Third World Quarterly 29, no. 4 (2008): 731–48.
- Andrew Rosati, “The Manhattan of Venezuela Parties Against a Backdrop of Crisis,” Bloomberg Businessweek, July 19, 2017.
- “Dozens of Venezuelans Killed in Riots over Price Increases”; “Price Riots Erupt in Venezuela,” New York Times, February 28, 1989; Marc A. Uhlig, “Lines Form at Caracas Morgue to Identify Kin,” New York Times, March 5, 1989.
- “In Detail: The Deaths So Far,” Venezuela Analysis, July 31, 2017.
- “Preferred Conclusions: The BBC, Syria, and Venezuela,” Venezuela Analysis, September 19, 2017.
- Luis Salas Rodríguez, “El Mito de Chávez y el Petróleo a 100,” Question, June 15, 2016.
- Curcio, The Visible Hand of the Market.
- Ulises Daal, interview with the authors, January 15, 2018.
- “Comuna El Maizal Garantizó Abastecimiento de Carne para 15 Mil Familias,” Alba, January 14, 2018, http://albatv.org.
- William Camacaro, Frederick B. Mills, and Christina M. Schiavoni, “Venezuela Passes Law Banning GMOs, by Popular Demand,” Counterpunch, January 1, 2016.
- “Memoria y Cuenta 2017: Los CLAP Tienen la Meta Permanente de Llegar a 6 millones de Hogares en 2018,” Correo del Orinoco, January 15, 2018.
- Meridith Kohut and Isayen Herrera, “As Venezuela Collapses, Children Are Dying of Hunger,” New York Times, December 17, 2017; Emma Graham-Harrison, “Hunger Eats Away at Venezuela’s Soul as Its People Struggle to Survive,” Guardian, August 27, 2017.
The Organization of American States (OAS) is a Cold War-era group that acts as a vehicle for US influence, opposing leftist governments in Latin America. Journalist Max Blumenthal challenged the OAS on its extreme anti-Venezuela bias and enlisting of right-wing pro-Israel lobbyists to demonize Nicolas Maduro
BEN NORTON: It’s The Real News, I’m Ben Norton. The Organization of American States is a Cold War era international body of countries in North and South America that claims to be independent and neutral, but in reality, frequently acts as a proxy for the United States government. The OAS is notorious for its extreme bias against left-wing governments in Latin America, particularly Cuba and Venezuela. Western corporate media outlets frequently echo the OAS’s anti-Cuba and anti-Venezuela reports, without providing any further information as to what exactly the OAS is, and what interests it serves. In reality however, the OAS was formed at the behest of the U.S. government as a coalition of anti-communist governments at the beginning of the Cold War.
In 1948, the U.S. convened the International Conference of American States. At this meeting in Colombia, which was led by the U.S. Secretary of State an infamous cold warrior, George Marshall, the right-wing governments of Latin America joined the U.S. in signing a charter that established the Organization of American States with the explicit goal of fighting the spread of socialism and defending capitalism in North and South America. Although media outlets today cite the OAS as if it were supposedly an independent and impartial source, U.S. government bodies have openly admitted otherwise.
The U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID, which is an ostensible aid organization that serves as the soft power arm of the U.S. government, wrote very clearly in its 2008 Congressional Budget Justification, that the OAS, “promotes U.S. political and economic interests in the Western Hemisphere by countering the influence of anti-U.S. countries such as Venezuela.” On May 29, an OAS panel released a report accusing Venezuela’s leftist government, led by elected President Nicolás Maduro, of supposedly committing crimes against humanity. The panel plans to present evidence for these alleged crimes to the International Criminal Court. Journalist Max Blumenthal attended the OAS press conference on May 29 in Washington D.C. In the Q&A session, Max Blumenthal called out the OAS for its extreme bias and hypocrisy.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: I questioned the members of the panel about their moral consistency and claim of independence. Max Blumenthal- my question is, I was told that independent experts would be at this panel. Mr. Cotler has been a lawyer for the right-wing coup leader Leopoldo Lopez, and he’s also spent his career defending Israeli human rights crimes. He recently defended the shooting and killing of 62 protesters in the Gaza Strip, along with the shooting of thousands more.
BEN NORTON: That was Max Blumenthal, speaking at the OAS press conference. Joining us to discuss this is Max Blumenthal. Max is an award-winning journalist and the author of several books. He is also the editor of the investigative journalism website, The Grayzone Project. Max just published an article and an accompanying video at that website. The article is called, OAS Panel Accusing Venezuela of “Crimes Against Humanity” is Grilled on Moral Hypocrisy and Open Bias. You can find the article and the accompanying video at grayzoneproject.com. I also cohost the Moderate Rebels Podcast with Max and I contribute to his website. Thanks for joining us, Max.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Great to be on.
BEN NORTON: So, can you just speak about what happened at this press conference you attended in Washington D.C. and what you told the OAS?
MAX BLUMENTHAL: First of all, thanks for that really informative introduction. It really highlights the role, the damaging role, that the OAS plays in the Western Hemisphere, where all Latin American countries are expected to pay into this organization. That means that millions and millions of taxpayers in Latin America have to pay into the budget of this organization. And it’s used simply as a weapon of Washington against any government that violates the Washington consensus, in this case, Venezuela. The last two OAS Secretary Generals, the current one and the last one, Insulza, have just waged these obsessive campaigns to push regime change in Venezuela. And when I got to this event yesterday, it was 2:00 PM and this was the only panel I’d heard about. But I was told that there were five other panels on Venezuela. It’s like, just this nonstop Woodstock of regime change and it’s going to continue, I think, into the OAS General Session, which will just be held on Venezuela.
What brought me to the panel was the nature of the so-called independent experts who were seated on the panel. I was just shocked at who they were, especially Irwin Cotler, who is the Canadian version of Alan Dershowitz. I think Alan Dershowitz even said, “He’s my Canadian mirror image.”
And Irwin Cotler is this- he was a right-wing Canadian parliamentarian with the Conservative Party until fairly recently, who had just used his position to push the Israel lobby’s line in parliament and in Canadian society and across the world. And whenever Israel committed some kind of atrocity, the Mavi Marmara massacre or one war after another in Gaza, Cotler would rush out, just like Dershowitz, as Israel’s public advocate. He’s also claimed that he was Nelson Mandela’s lawyer. And I don’t know what kind of evidence there is there, but in Nelson Mandela’s memoir, The Long March to Freedom, there is no mention of Irwin Cotler. There’s a lot of mention of Oliver Tambo, but nothing about Cotler. So, he’s just a suspicious, sort of morally dubious, figure. And for him to be on this panel, I think they just deserved to be questioned about that.
When I got there, the OAS Secretary General was waving around this 400-page report accusing the Venezuelan government of crimes against humanity and demanding that President Nicolás Maduro, who is now facing crushing sanctions because he won an election, should be brought before the International Criminal Court. All the other panelists echoed this recommendation. And I noticed that Santiago Canton was also on the panel. Canton is an Argentinean lawyer who’s also a regime change activist. And in 2002, when Canton was the head of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, he attempted to legitimize the coup dictatorship that briefly overthrew President Hugo Chavez, and wrote a letter to the Foreign Minister of this briefly installed dictatorship, before it was thrown out again by Venezuelan citizens, referring to him as “His Excellency,” and basically saying, “Please take care of Chavez when he’s in your custody and you’re the new government.”
So, the whole panel was compromised, but it’s emblematic of what the OAS as an organization is. And it was me sitting there in a room full of all of the major news agencies taking pictures of the panel and asking softball questions. And as soon as I got home after the panel, Bloomberg and Reuters and all the agencies had articles up that said, “OAS Accuses Venezuela of Crimes Against Humanity.” And all the headlines basically supported, without any criticism, what this 400-page document contained. And I would just point to one comment by Irwin Cotler which summed up the hyperbolic and propagandistic nature of the whole presentation, which is that “Venezuela was responsible for the worst humanitarian catastrophe in Latin American history.” So, I mean, worse than the genocide of the indigenous population? I mean, that’s basically what he was saying, and that kind of rhetoric prevailed throughout the entire session.
BEN NORTON: Yeah, of course, we recently saw Ríos Montt, who was a U.S.-backed dictator in Guatemala, who himself was responsible for actual crimes against humanity. He oversaw genocide against indigenous Maya in Guatemala as part of a larger anticommunist counterinsurgency campaign. And then of course, there’s the “Dirty Wars,” again backed by the U.S., and Pinochet the Chilean dictator. So, it’s certainly an extremely hyperbolic for him to claim that. But just quickly wrapping up here Max, I’m wondering if you can just briefly comment on how this reflects this kind of Washington D.C. bubble, where you see corporate media outlets will just trot out to these events and just film what these panelists say without ever questioning who the panelists are, what they’re prerogatives are, and just reciting and echoing verbatim, their claims as news.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Yeah, I mean, I couldn’t have put it any better than that. And what you see with the “Beltway culture” and the nexus with mainstream media is a de-democratization of the American public on the issue of foreign policy. When reporters don’t go to these events, or to the think tank events, and ask critical questions of fake experts who are actually just activists on behalf of the Washington consensus, and when the public is not involved in any of these forums, and when the media doesn’t report critically, there’s very little reason for the public to question foreign policy at all. Everything’s just fine. We do see a debate on things like local school budgets, or you see some critical reporting on the school-to-prison pipeline, domestic issues. But on foreign policy, it’s just this kind of elite debate carried out inside, or it’s not a debate at all.
There’s an elite consensus carried out inside a foreign policy bubble in the Beltway, and the OAS event was completely a portrait of that. When I got up and asked this question, you could see the OAS staff start to whisper to each other, “How the hell did he get in this room?” And I just registered as a journalist and asked what I thought was a fair but critical question. And they were really upset. And I was also approached by several journalists afterwards, just asking, “Who are you?” Kind of like, “What wandered into this room?” But you know, I think that’s our job. And as long as I’m in Washington, I’ll report on it just like I reported on any other place. It’s unfortunate that the agencies won’t.
BEN NORTON: Well, thank you for your reporting Max, and thanks for joining us here. I was joined by Max Blumenthal, who is an award-winning investigative journalist and the author of several books. He’s also the editor of The Grayzone Project, which you can find that grayzoneproject.com. He just published an article and an accompanying video about this OAS panel on Venezuela. Thanks Max.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Thanks a lot, Ben.
BEN NORTON: Reporting for The Real News, I’m Ben Norton.
An official observer to Venezuela’s presidential election on 20 May addresses some of the media-generated myths that are rooted in opposition to a chavismo project which improved the lives of millions.
If there’s such a thing as a ‘nation non grata’, Venezuela in its current political configuration would be near the top of the list on both sides of the North Atlantic. From the moment when Hugo Chávez first won the presidency in 1998 – he was twice re-elected and died in office in 2013 – Western governments and the media viewed him with a combination of alarm and contempt. Charismatic, leftwing, deeply hostile to neoliberalism, Chávez made clear that his aim was to transform Venezuela’s social, economic and political landscape.
At the core of his domestic programme lay a determination to provide the two-thirds of the population then living below the UN official poverty line with access to health care, education and the prospect of a dignified life. Revenues from oil during a period of high world prices furnished the necessary funds and, as UN Human Development Reports show, the programme achieved some, at least, of its initial objectives.
Internationally, Chávez aimed to reduce, if not eliminate, what he felt to be the economic and the political domination of his country by the United States. He collaborated with other like-minded governments in Latin America to achieve the same at continental level. He called his political programme the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ and even changed the country’s formal name to the ‘Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela’ in honour of Simón Bolívar, the great 19th century leader of South America’s independence from Spain. Romantic certainly, but a permanent reminder that independence – the right of a nation to choose its own destiny lay, and continues to lie – at the heart of the chavista project.
For some within the country, the Bolivarian Revolution has always been an anathema. An attempt to unseat Chávez by force in 2002 nearly succeeded. It was foiled by the army, which has remained a stout defender of the country’s democracy. Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s successor, has met with a different kind of resistance: street violence and calls from opponents for the United States to help topple Maduro and his ‘regime’.
Maduro is a substantial figure, with an impressive command of the stage, but he came to power during an economic downturn brought on by a dramatic fall in the price of oil. He won the 2013 election – with a very narrow majority – to cries of fraud from the supporters of his rightwing opponent, Henrique Capriles. Without the oil revenues that had financed Chávez’s social policies, Venezuela’s ill-balanced economy, with its heavy dependence on oil, became evident. Imports of food, medicines and consumer goods fell away, creating shortages that severely affected the less well-off.
Devaluation of the national currency, the Bolívar, began then and has continued at an increasingly rapid pace. At the time of writing, the unofficial exchange rate is one million Bolívares to one US dollar, down from 250 thousand Bolívares a month ago. Tomorrow there may be a further fall. Long queues form daily outside supermarkets and banks, evidence of the acute shortage of both goods and currency. Distribution of food and household products is largely controlled by the private sector and there is evidence of hoarding and reluctance to supply poorer neighbourhoods.
A US embargo on trade and financial transactions with Venezuela has made it difficult to import essential goods and has probably done more to impoverish the less well-off than to damage the Maduro government. Compounding the economic distress is the permanent insecurity caused by casual gun crime, robberies in the street at gunpoint, and ‘express kidnaps’ in which victims are invited to empty their bank accounts in exchange for their lives. Such was the societal context of the 20 May elections.
Equally disquieting has been the attitude of the so-called West. Canada, the United States and the European Union have dismissed the elections as invalid, despite having called for them. Urged on by the Trump administration, 11 Latin American countries followed suit. For these international accusers, Nicolás Maduro is a ruthless, corrupt dictator, with the elections a breach of Venezuela’s constitution and the results de facto fraudulent.
Unsurprisingly, Maduro’s domestic political opponents do not approve either of him or of chavismo, while claiming to be alarmed at the state of the country. But as the election campaign drew to a close, none – even under close questioning – repeated the accusations against him made by the United States and the EU. All expressed confidence in an electoral system that former US President Jimmy Carter has described as the best in the world, though that didn’t prevent Henri Falcón, Maduro’s closest rival, from crying foul moments after learning of his defeat.
Entirely digital, but with an automated manual verification back-up, the electoral system is designed with multiple safeguards against fraud. As an international observer, I had the opportunity not only to watch the system in action but to explore its workings. It is impressively efficient, with results available within a few hours of the closure of the polls. Among our observer group were officials responsible for electoral processes in their own country. They could find no fault in Venezuela’s system.
Maduro’s electoral victory with just over two-thirds of the vote was more than comfortable, although the turnout at 46 per cent was dangerously low by Venezuelan standards and has given further impetus to charges both within and beyond the country that the election lacked legitimacy. An abstention campaign by the rightwing Democratic Unity Roundtable coalition (MUD) undoubtedly had some negative effect on turnout, but general disaffection with politics and politicians in the face of increasing economic hardship also played a role in discouraging participation, not least because none of the candidates took the trouble to explain how they proposed to pull the country out of its current mess.
Meanwhile, foreign media have been making hay with defamatory rhetoric – much of it consisting of outright fabrications. On 20 May, Venezuela’s election day, we international observers, who had spent a week investigating Venezuela’s electoral procedures and meeting with campaign managers of all four candidates, learned from the Guardian website that we had been barred from the country and were not really there. ‘Venezuela has fallen to a dictator’ screamed a Guardian headline two days later, assuring readers that the elections were fraudulent, and that among the methods employed by the regime to remain in power was ‘violent censorship of the press’, an assertion especially remarkable because most of the Venezuelan newspapers are openly hostile to Maduro. Perhaps the Guardian doesn’t read them.
Milder, though no less free of prejudice, was the Telegraph’s headline on 21 May: ‘Nicolás Maduro filmed victoriously waving to an empty plaza after a ‘sham’ election’, the editor having apparently forgotten that on the previous day his newspaper had described Maduro speaking to a crowd of cheering supporters after his election victory. Similarly threadbare complaints against Venezuela are available on-line courtesy of The Economist, the New Statesman, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal and many others.
Most of the media venom directed at the Venezuelan government is evidence-free and based on little more than rote copying from press releases issued by the United States, the European Union and other hostile governments. All decline to acknowledge that despite the intense international pressure on the country and its disquieting economic situation, Venezuelans have spoken and have demonstrated that they do not wish to be told what to think and do by foreign governments and media.
The freshly-elected government’s immediate task, a huge one, will be to rebuild Venezuela’s shattered economy. Whether Maduro and his team are able to accomplish this while maintaining peace within the country remains to be seen. Some would undoubtedly prefer to see them fail. What they and the people of Venezuela need and deserve from the rest of the world, however, is not hostility but respect, support and recognition of their right as a sovereign people to decide their future for themselves.
The more than 150 members of the international electoral accompaniment mission for the presidential and state legislative council elections held this past May 20 have published their four independent reports.
Members include politicians, electoral experts, academics, journalists, social movement leaders and others.
This is the report written by the mission as a whole, which includes representatives from countries such as Russia, Palestine, China, Spain, UK, Ireland, USA, Australia, Syria, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, the Philippines, Indonesia, France, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Uruguay, Chile, Surinam, Paraguay, Colombia, and Peru.
We the international accompaniers consider that the technical and professional trustworthiness and independence of the National Electoral Council of Venezuela are uncontestable.
Regarding the issue of the “red points,” (party political logistical points which opposition figures who has failed to recognize the electoral results claim influenced voters), the report states that:
Tents set up in support of political parties, known as “Red Points”, were located within no less than 200 meters from the polling stations we visited, as stipulated in the Agreement on Voting Assurances subscribed by the Government and the Opposition.
Read the full General Report here.
The Council of Electoral Experts of Latin America (CEELA) is a grouping of electoral technicians from across the continent, many of whom have presided over electoral agencies.
The process was successfully carried out and that the will of the citizens, freely expressed in ballot boxes, was respected…the results communicated by the National Electoral Council reflect the will of the voters who decided to participate in the electoral process.
The CEELA accompanied not just the day of elections of May 20, but each and every one of the thirteen audits which the National Electoral Council (CNE) carried out prior to and posterior to it.
From the technical – electoral point of view, which characterizes the nature and experience of CEELA members, we have to highlight that in this process, the electoral authority lead by the CNE offered again all guarantees to the political organizations, groups of voters and citizens in general, through the development of the different audit activities that provided elements of reliability and security.
Read the full CEELA Report here.
The African countries invited to Venezuela this May included Tunisia, South Africa, Ghana, Congo, Nigeria and for the first time, the African Union. This report is also signed by Anthony Witherspoon, president of the Association of Afro-American Mayors of the state of Mississippi, USA, as part of the African Diaspora.
Our general evaluation is that this was a fair, free, and transparent expression of the human right to vote and participate in the electoral process by the Venezuelan people, and that the results announced on the night of May 20 are trustworthy due to the comprehensive guarantees, audits, the high tech nature of the electoral process, and due to the thirteen audits carried out previous to and on the day of elections which we witnessed.
We can also conclude that the Venezuelan people who chose to participate in the electoral process of May 20 were not subject to any external pressures.
As such, we implore the international community to abide by international law and the principals of self-determination and recognize what we consider to be a free, fair, fully transparent, and sovereign election carried out in Venezuela this past May 20.
Read the full African Report here.
Finally, there is a report elaborated by representatives from St Vincent and the Grenadines, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, and Grenada in representation of the Caribbean nations.
The mission was satisfied that the elections were conducted efficiently in a fair and transparent manner. All of the registered voters who wanted to exercise their right to vote participated in a peaceful and accommodating environment. Based on the process observed, the mission is satisfied that the results of the elections reflect the will of the majority of the voters in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
Read the full Caribbean Report here.
In a climate of dire economic war/crisis and foreign aggression, Venezuelans took to the polls to elect their president and regional legislative councils. Chavismo won big in both contests, with president Maduro securing a second term until 2025. The international reaction from the US and its allies was already pre-scripted, and the dishonest coverage from the mainstream media was also to be expected. Ricardo Vaz take a look at the election, how the electoral system works, these reactions, and also share some observations after witnessing events on the ground.
Incumbent president Nicolás Maduro won in a landslide, taking nearly 68% of the vote, while his closest rival Henry Falcón could only muster 21%. With all the votes tallied, Maduro totalled a little over 6.2M votes. Amidst a devastating economic crisis and increasing imperialist aggression this is a very significant victory, but it nevertheless falls very short of previous totals in chavista victories, and very short of the 10M votes that Maduro “demanded” during the campaign(1). Falcón had distinguished himself by defying the mainstream opposition’s call for boycotting the elections, only to fall back to the familiar tune of not recognising the results after losing.
Participation in these elections was just 46%. This number was historically low… for Venezuela! In the most recent presidential elections in Chile and Colombia, to name just two examples, participation was respectively of 49 and 48%, and nobody even floated the possibility of questioning their legitimacy. So if the low turnout is going to be mentioned, it should only be because Venezuela is (rightly) held to a higher standard than the regional US allies.
We had the chance to witness the electoral process on the ground as a member of the international accompaniment mission (acompañante electoral), alongside the Venezuelanalysis team. Our observations pretty much mirrored what the results would later show. Popular and working-class neighbourhoods (barrios), such as Catia, El Valle or Petare, had a very decent turnout, starting from the early morning hours. By contrast, voting centres in middle- and upper-class neighbourhoods such as El Paraiso and Chacao, traditional opposition strongholds, had very few people.
The electoral system
Given the amount of attention dedicated to Venezuela’s voting system, you would think that the media would be compelled to at least explain how it works, but of course that would undermine all the half-truths and outright lies that are published. So, for the umpteenth time, here is how it works:
- The voter goes into the polling station (each voting centre can have several polling stations (mesas electorales)) and hands their ID to the station president, who enters it into the authentication system. The voter then introduces their fingerprint to verify. Should they be at the wrong voting centre, or have already voted, an error message will appear and they cannot proceed. (Step 1, lower left corner, in the picture below)
- The next step is the voting booth. The voter will pick their preference on a touchscreen display, and the choice will appear on the voting machine screen. If this is correct, they confirm the vote. The machine then prints a paper receipt with the vote, and if this matches the vote just entered, the voter deposits it in a box. (Steps 2 and 3 in the picture)
- Finally the voter goes to another member of the polling station who hands them back their ID, and then signs and introduces their fingerprint in the appropriate spot in the electoral roll. (Step 4 in the picture)
- Once the voting closes the voting machine prints an act (acta) with the final tally of results, to be signed by all members of the polling station and electoral witnesses. The number of voters for example can be immediately checked against the number of signatures in the electoral roll or the number of fingerprints registered in the authentication machine. Then 54% of polling stations are randomly chosen for a “hot audit”, which is open to the public and members of the international accompaniment mission (acompañantes electorales), whereby the paper ballots are manually checked against the electronic result. And once all this is done, the data is transmitted to the CNE headquarters.
This is not the whole story, as there are also plenty of audits (14 in this case) done before the elections, with members of all political parties of the international accompaniment mission present, and after the election. But just this short explanation shows you why you cannot just stuff ballots (the vote is electronic), you cannot vote more than once (authentication system will not let you and the electoral roll total will not match), you cannot just enter more votes into the machine remotely (the machines are offline except for the final transmission of results, plus the match against the paper ballots would fail), etc.
More than that, members of the hundreds-strong international accompaniment mission on the ground have praised the Venezuelan electoral process as free and fair. Nicanor Moncoso, president of the Council of Electoral Experts of Latin America (Ceela), insisted that the results must be recognised because they reflect the will of the people.
Ridiculous claims of fraud and irregularities
The existence of all these checks and audits is the reason why in over 20 elections, with constant cries of fraud whenever the opposition loses, no one has produced a single shred of evidence of fraud(2)(3), although that has not stopped the media from repeating these claims uncritically over and over. Given that in each of the thousands of voting centres the polling station members are chosen randomly and opposition witnesses are present, and they all sign an act at the end confirming that everything is in order, to claim there was fraud without anything to back it up is to take your supporters/listeners/readers for idiots.
One of the most widespread allegations meant to undermine the legitimacy of the process was that someone from the CNE told Reuters that by 6 PM participation was just 32.3%. This is a pure fabrication, as any of the hundreds of acompañantes who were on the ground could have told any of these outlets if asked. Simply put, the CNE does not publish preliminary data because it does not have access to it. Only when when all the audits (to 54% of voting centres) have been completed and a sizeable number of voting centres have transmitted their numbers, so as to make the results irreversible, are the figures made available.
So this claim might as well have been made by the Queen of England. It is akin to writing a headline “caveman source claims that the Earth is flat” when the Earth’s curvature has been measured. It is giving credence to random allegations about a number that has actually been measured and audited. And going back to what we said before, given such a large discrepancy and the large number of people involved, surely there would be ONE piece of evidence about ONE voting centre where the final tally had supposedly been inflated.
In the absence of hard evidence to back up fraud claims, the discourse is shifted towards other “irregularities”. While this is just small sample hearsay, opposition electoral witnesses did not report any irregularities when talking to us, although they did expect a low turnout from opposition voters. Some did complain that the puntos rojos were closer than the stipulated 200m, but laughed at the notion that voters would change their mind or be turned into zombies by the sight of red canopies. In fact, these puntos rojos have been present in elections for the past 20 years, and used to have their opposition-coloured counterparts across the street.
These places mostly serve as gathering points as people wait for the voting to unfold, and more importantly to track participation from their ranks, to see if further mobilising is necessary or not. The notion that these were a factor in the results, embraced hysterically by Falcón and his team and then echoed by the media, reeks of desperation. Other complaints, such as assisted voting (people helping elderly voters) irregularities were also insignificant in terms of their relevance for the final numbers.