I wanted to see how the new farm cooperatives were operating, and I needed a break from the house I lived in and from city life. I lived in an upstairs bedroom across the hall from a young woman, who spent most of her time locked inside her room watching TV. My room contained essential and rustic furniture. The sagging mattress had metal springs sticking through. The bathroom had a flush toilet and a single-stream shower. The plaster and paint in the kitchen and living room downstairs were cracking and falling. Caked dirt permeated all appliances and shelves. Fifty meters from this house stood a noisy car firm. Albeit a small city, La Victoria screams with noise from car alarms and horn-honking drivers, from ghetto-blasting radios, and boisterous children and adults (la bulla).
The upper classes complain that the Chavez government has limited the number of vehicle imports, although in the two previous years 600,000 private cars were imported. The government seeks to diminish importation and increase national production in all areas. It already produces many of its military vehicles and tractors, and it has just begun to produce its own cars for private sales in a joint venture with Iran. The “People’s Car” will sell for a modest $7,000—new imported cars sell for four times that at a minimum. The first 20,000 cars are planned to role off the assembly line in 2009. Furthermore, the millions of Venezuelan drivers are privileged to have what must be the world’s cheapest fuel. While a liter of bottled water costs the equivalent of $1.40, the now nationalized gasoline costs about $.04 cents (100 centavos in national currency) a liter, or $.15 cents a gallon, which is 35 to 45 times less the price of gasoline in the warring-for-oil United States.
Early one morning in February, Diego borrowed his girl friend’s car and drove me to a low mountain range where Quebrada Seca’s farm cooperative is located. He told me some of its history, and I had done some research.
I had read Central Bank figures, which show that the government had increased financing of agricultural production by 738% between 2004 and 2007. About five million of the nation’s 30 million hectares of cultivable land have been expropriated and turned over to about 200,000 people, most of them not farmers. In many cases, the very land titles have been contested. Some lands had simply been seized decades or hundreds of years ago by those with great local power and weaponry.
The Chavez government inherited a “one-crop” economy based on oil, mostly owned by US and British companies. In 1935, 60% of the work force was rural, mostly in agriculture. By 2000, only 12% of the population was rural. In 1998, only 6% of GNP came from agricultural production, the lowest rate in all of Latin America. And three-quarters of the land was held by five percent of landowners. Under Chavez food production has doubled but demand has also grown, even more than national supply. So it has been necessary to increase foodstuff imports, which come mainly from the new regional economic alliances, Mercosur and the Venezuela-Cuba ALBA initiative and now four more member nations.
The fact that the government has several times increased wages and pensions dramatically is a major cause for the increase in demand and consumption. On worker’s day, May 1, 2008, Chavez announced that the minimum monthly wage and minimum pension is to be the equivalent of $560, placing Venezuelans minimum incomes 2.6 times higher than the entire continent average.
Diego told me that, three years ago, about 150 people occupied this mountainous area of 1000 hectares owned by a wealthy German family. The Vollmers had long ago immigrated to Venezuela and became the largest agro-landowners in Aragua state. Like many wealthy plantation owners much of their land lay fallow. Who owns land and how it is used is fundamental to whether a society is based on capitalist market enterprise or socialist fellowship. And large private property owners have been the core power for hundreds of years before Chavez. His new national assembly passed a law allowing the government to expropriate idle land and redistribute it to landless peasants and other poor people. In October 2005, a comprehensive land reform was implemented with the name Mission Zamora. This occurred following President Chavez his first public speech advocating a socialist system. He did so at the 2005 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil.
“Everyday I become more convinced…that it is necessary to transcend capitalism. But capitalism can’t be transcended from within capitalism itself, but through socialism, true socialism, with equality and justice. But I’m also convinced that it is possible to do it under democracy, but not in the type of democracy being imposed from Washington,” he said.
“It is impossible within the framework of the capitalist system to solve the grave problems of poverty of the majority of the world’s population. We must transcend capitalism. But we cannot resort to state capitalism, which would be the same perversion as the Soviet Union. We must reclaim socialism as a thesis, a project and a path…a new type of socialism, a humanist one, which puts humans and not machines or the state ahead of everything. That’s the debate we must promote around the world…”
Diego introduced me to the cooperative’s secretary and one of the two Cuban advisors. With his recommendation, and my CV from eight years working in Cuba, I was warmly welcomed and permitted to go about the farm and speak with whom I wished. Diego drove back and I went on my own. At the entrance to the farm land stood a large billboard sign. It read (English translation):
“Quebrada Seca. Free Town. Agriculturally Productive People. Socialist Future.”
After two kilometers cross mainly brush land, I came across a coop team. Three women and one man were cultivating a plot. Juleen spoke for them.
“This year we’ve started a new work structure, hoping this will allow a surplus. Last year I was cultivating peppers and we lost the crop. We didn’t earn anything. The only way we’ve survived is due to a small annual stipend from the Ministry of Agriculture—which it stopped this year—plus credit for seed and farm tools. But now we plough the land with our bare nails, because our three tractors are broken down and we don’t have money for repairs. So, you ask, how do we eat?” chuckled chubby Juleen.
“We get help from our families who live and work in cities. And here we all help each other, we share what we have. Most families are headed by a man and a woman and one of them usually works outside on the weekends, at least one day a week. My husband and I alternate. He works at manual labor and I wash and iron clothes in Quebrada Seca. We each earn 30BF a day. We have no money for anything other than essentials, never for vacations, because then we work for cash in the town.”
It was nearly time for lunch so we starting the long walk up a steep hill toward the housing complex. Working hours are from 07:00 to 11:00, followed by a three-hour lunch break, and then back to work from 14:00 to 18:00. On the way up, the four new farmers spoke about their three-year history. When Mission Zamora started almost all the plantation owners protested expropriations. They went to court, which would tie up the question of land ownership for years.
In the last three years, Chavez has often intervened to convince landowners to release fallow lands, sometimes offering compromises so that peasants and relocated city folk could get started. That was the case here. The government offered assistance on long-term credit with low or no interest rates to start farming. This included new housing for those who stay on. The houses are about 80m2, made of concrete and some wood, with tile roofs and floors. It usually takes up to a year to construct the houses in each cooperative and costs between 80,000 and 120,000BF to build. The first five years of residence is free. Once they reach the end of that time, a decision will be made about how much each cooperative family will pay. The objective is that full ownership is turned over to the families after 20 years.
“That’s the best thing about being here, our houses” garrulous Juleen said, beaming. “You’ll see.”
The new farmers explained that production relations have changed three times in so many years. First everyone worked as one collective but it was difficult to motivate all to work equally hard. Most had never tilled soil. The second year, they broke into ten teams of four to six each. Still it didn’t work. Now each team is independent and is responsible for its own economy. There are only 57 residents left, 25 farmers work in five teams. Seven of them have taken farming courses. In theory, thirty percent of the total cooperative’s income should go back into the coop to pay off state credits. Seventy percent is shared internally. However, since real production has been so low almost no payment on credits has been forthcoming. The government does not press them.
“We have technical assemblies each week. There’s one this afternoon. Here we plan and learn together. We used to haggle about who works well or not but there was no way to determine this objectively. Then we decided individual income on the basis of just showing up for work. That didn’t work either. Now each team has equal status, responsibility and income from proceeds. But, in reality, there is no income to divide. Yeah, we’ve sold what little we’ve produced to local markets, to Mercal, but it doesn’t make ends meet,” I’m told.
Mercal is a mission, which seeks to increase the country’s food sovereignty, providing access to quality produce, especially grains, dairy and meat at subsidized prices, averaging about 40% of the chaotic supply-demand system’s prices. From its initiation, in 2002, the items sold in local Mercals, usually located in private homes, has increased from just 15 elements to 400. The Ministry of Agriculture’s figures early this year indicate that 12 million people shop at Mercal’s 15,677 locations, meeting about 67% of the nation’s needs. The woman owner of the house where I stayed is coordinator of the local Mercal.
Twenty-seven new houses sit just under the peak of this mountain. They look like the 50 recently built in the local town and 10,000 more across the nation—a figure that lags behind the goal of building homes for everyone by 2021, which means more than one million. This project—Mission Hábitat—is part of the incentive for new farmers, and they are pleasant structures.
While Juleen and a neighbor woman prepare lunch for their families and me, I wonder about the fresh-smelling environment. The kitchen, which opens to a patio, has what is essential: refrigerator, gas stove, sink with drinkable water from nearby wells, cabinets and drawers. This house has two bedrooms and six beds. There’s an extra room. Two tiled bathrooms serve this family of six with shower and flush toilet. The living room has seating place for the entire family—sofa and two stuffed chairs—and there is a dinning room. The ceiling is high, about five meters, and wood-paneled. There are many windows and good ventilation. Everything is clean and shinny. Each house has a small yard area. Some grow a few vegetables and herbs. In the center of the complex is a playground with swings, slide and teeter-totter.
Juleen’s husband comes in. He is a bit shy but answers a couple of questions. The kitchen hardware came with the house; the furniture they bought on credit and some were gifts. They also have a radio. As yet there is no television signal or telephones.
After a great lunch of fruit, two vegetables, beans, pasta and chicken, we walk down to the main building where assemblies occur. On the way, Juleen complains that the children must walk to and from school an hour a day.
“Some cooperatives have mini-buses to transport children to school and adults to shop at markets, but we don’t. The future: I don’t know. We don’t work as much or as hard as we should. We have internal problems. We have a five-member executive committee elected every six months. They receive no money for this service and are workers too. Sounds good in theory but our first president stole money. We fired him but he still hasn’t been tried. Our new president spends little time here. He mostly confines himself to his own production of 500 chickens for eggs and meat. We buy much of his produce.”
Twenty farmers came to the assembly and a few children. An advisor from the ministry came to speak about the “green revolution”, combating plagues organically. A Cuban advisor spoke of Cuba’s success in this. They explained how they could get funguses and combative insects from government laboratories to replace costly insecticide sprays. Over time, production would increase in quality and quantity.
People listened attentively and asked questions. Suddenly the meeting was interrupted by a dog fight and subsequent laughter. The assembly ended with an account of what land was planted in what. Only about a fourth of the 100 cultivatable hectares were under seed.
I walked back to town for the bus, a bit down by what I had seen and heard. Making a “green revolution” with city folk is not a quick process, but it had started.