I had only observed cooperative farming. I wanted to participate. So I planned a bus trip trip to Carocote, which knowledgeable Diego said is a more productive cooperative located in the adjacent municipality of José Rafael Revenga.
Carocote is a mountain range area previously owned by the same Vollmer family. This 390 hectare area lay fallow in 2003 when one of the first land occupations took place. Forty-six families came from nearby towns of Sabaneta and Tasajera to claim the soil. And once again, Chavez intervened to accomplish the mission.
There is no level area here except a space bulldozed out for the 26 new houses finished a year ago. Only 25 families remain; the others left because of no housing facilities and lack of income. Five of those families which left, however, built their own ramshackle houses at the very top of this mountain range and grow their own crops. I was told that they do better than the cooperative. The National Institute of Land (INT), which oversees Mission Zamora, still considers them part of the mission and assists them with credits and equipment, showing quite a bit of flexibility for a “dictatorial” government, as the right-wing opposition and Yankees refer to it.
Nancy, one of the five elected cooperative leaders, took me to the empty house used for visitors. The houses here are just like those at Quebrada Seca. As I was arranging my bunk bed, I found stacks of information pamphlets promoting the constitutional reform referendum voted on last December. It would have qualitatively improved the rights, benefits and power of the poor and working class, but it failed to pass by one percent of the vote. The greatest disappointment was the failure of three million voters, who had voted for Chavez as president, to go to the polls. They were a large part of the 44% abstention. Chavez forces engaged in internal analysis and self-criticism. One of the main reasons for its failure was the lack of organizing for it — too few doors knocked on. And here before me was evidence: many hundreds undelivered, unused pamphlets.
Two Cuban advisors lived next door to the visitor’s house. With typical Cuban hospitality, Rudys immediately invited me into his house and asked if I had had lunch. He fed me leftovers from his Cuban prepared lunch of black beans, rice, yucca and a bit of meat. Rudys was eager to speak with me as he had seen the “contra golpe” TV interview and knew I had lived in Cuba.
Rudys had taken a three-year agriculture education in his home province of Pinar del Rio, north of La Habana. He’d been at Carocote 16 months and would be here for two years. The advisors get a vacation in Cuba at mid-term. Rudys was glad to be helping Cuba’s good neighbor Venezuela. He was also concerned about the great degree of thievery and insecurity that people experience. This must contribute to the fact that few Venezuelans invite people inside their houses. Despite the close cooperation these families experience here everyone locked their doors. I was told they did not have internal thievery but people from the town sometimes come looking for something to steal. Just the week before, someone had set fire to dry grass on a hillside, which burned some trees, but the residents were able to put it out before it attacked their young crops.
I hooked up with Nancy and part of her team, one of six. Two members were not present. The coop’s president, Nancy’s husband, was in Cuba for a two-week training course. On the way to their plot of carrots, a 20-minute walk, we passed seven long nurseries. They were well built steel structures. Nancy explained that they would be used for tomatoes and other vegetables but were just short of being completed.
“We should have had them functioning by now, but one big problem is that our motor pump was stolen.”
The carrot patch was near the end of the cultivatable area. Like the other crops, all the rows are dug on hillsides, making sowing, cultivating and harvesting quite difficult and even painstaking. The terrain here does not allow for tractors. Most of the weeds had to be pulled up by hand, if one wanted to take up the roots. But the others used hoes to cut them above the roots. There were far more weeds than carrot plants. In the two and one-half hours we worked—instead of the designated four—I cleaned four rows, revealing very few carrots. In some places plants were two even three meters apart. Most of this crop had already been lost to weeds. I had done this work when I lived in Cuba and know that it is not a welcome task but this was below par.
I asked Nancy why there were so many weeds and why the team didn’t have seeds with them to sow where carrot plants had been choked. She was embarrassed by my questions, admitting that she should have thought of bringing seeds. “Next time.”
Ricardo, the other Cuban advisor, later told me: “The most important thing for farmers is consciousness, not the back. If they cultivated more often, it would be easier to work the hoe and there would be more plants.”
In the evening, I had a long conversation with another neighbor, Luis, who gave me an overall view of their history.
“In the beginning, most of us still worked for wages nearby. Some of us built make-shift living quarters while we were here preparing the earth. Just clearing the earth and irrigating by hand took us three years, and there was the dispute about ownership too. It wasn’t until 2006 that we began to be full-time farmers. And INT gave us a 200BF monthly stipend to make ends meet. That was terminated this year in the hope—and with gentle pressure—that we will produce enough to pay ourselves.
“Although about 50 hectares are cultivable, we only have 10 or 11 in seed. We will soon have 15 hectares planted. The majority of our crops are vegetables, some potatoes, a few herbs, and a couple hectares in plantain and cambur”—the Venezuelan banana.
“Unfortunately, we have not yet begun ecological farming methods, but we hope to.”
“Each crop takes between three and six months from seed to maturity, so we are harvesting and selling several times a year. Our teams are economically independent from one another and sell on the local markets, especially to Mercal.
“We decide what we will grow but INT helps us with earth analysis, and the mission’s principle is based on producing necessary products at low costs and prices. We undercut the speculating supermarkets and the big plantation owners who hoard products.”
Luis’s wife, Juanita, is one of the adults who do not work the land but work in the home and take major responsibility for the children. Had the December 2007 referendum passed, she like all housewives would have received a government wage for that work.
“Our lives have improved so much,” Juanita said softly with a smile as she joined us.
“Chavez has accomplished so many good things. I am so proud to be Venezuelan now. But there are people who accuse our president of being responsible for all that is not good, for all that goes wrong. Some say he robs. What a lie that is. The truth is that the opposition is the thief; the rich are thieves. And everybody knows that all previous presidents were thieves, so some people just assume that Chavez is as well.”
Early next morning, after a hearty breakfast at home, I went to find a team to work with. None were about. Everyone was at home. I took a stroll over the hillside passed a plot of young plants and down to the stream that crossed the mountain. I climbed up its bank under tall trees. The gentle rolling sound was suddenly overcome by a chattering flock of guacharaca. These turkey-sized birds cackle similarly as well yet fly more like predators. Locals hunt them for their red meat. Once they settled, another sound crashed into my ears from upstream. I followed its call to the foot of a waterfall cascading ten meters into an inviting pool. Stripped in a flash, I dived into the blue paradise. After a refreshing swim, I crawled upon a large warm rock. Bathing in the sun, one of the world’s greatest waterfalls sparkled behind my closed eyes. Venezuela harbors Angel Falls, or Kerepakupai merú. At 979 meters, it is the planet’s highest free-falling waterfall.
After a leisurely early swim and sun-bath, I returned to the residential compound and found Enrique sitting contemplatively on his porch.
Enrique is, at 57 years of age, a new farmer. A former petroleum worker, he had worked his way up to production chief for a large oil company. Workers tripled production during his time as chief but they received none of the extra profits. Enrique took the issue up.
“You know what the owners’ bosses did? They fired me. It didn’t matter to them that I was an excellent foreman for them. What mattered is that I crossed the line to speak up on behalf of their productive workers. In their eyes, this was treason. It was then that I became a determined follower of Hugo Chavez.”
Enrique was an initiator of the cooperative. He looks upon his present life optimistically. He views the future as one in which the poor and the conscious working class of the Third World take the offensive against a decaying capitalism.
“It will not be far away when an explosive crisis will bring much of the working class within the rich lands on the side of their historic brothers and sisters around the world.
“Today, I live for our fellowship, our common life. I now earn about 5,000BF a year instead of 36,000 but I am a happy man. My children bloom with free education and health care, and we all live tranquilly.”
But Enrique is not naïve or fundamentalist.
“We still live as egoists in this land. We still are affected by the capitalist disease, greed. Our consciousness still lacks power.”
Enrique wanted to talk about Barak Obama.
“Obama could be the alternative man for capitalism-imperialism for three to four years. He won’t do much for the poor and workers. He’d be a good trading man for big capitalism. He can talk better with Third World rich leaders, blacks, Arabs, Latin Americans. But he’d disappoint many of his hopeful, idealistic followers. Maybe this would bring about a greater awareness of the real nature of capitalism-imperialism, no matter the spokesman’s color or gender, and maybe a radicalization would take off.”
I left this homegrown polilogue and headed home. I passed a group of boys playing soccer. During a pause, I asked them how they felt living here. All of them expressed contentment. No worries; plenty to eat; transport to a school where they thrived. Good Cuban doctors in town.
My third day at Carocote was a rest day, Sunday, so I would return to La Victoria. But first, I wanted to talk with the oldest cooperativist. At 68, Pedro is a happy man with eight children and eight grandchildren—or is it six, mused the gray-haired black man.
“My memory fails me. But I remember how it was living here as a child. I was born in this same area. There was nothing. None of the governments before Chavez did anything for the poor, and we were the vast majority. We lived in tin-covered straw sheds with no water or electricity. We couldn’t go to school. Nobody knew how to read or write. We grew corn. Coño how things have changed since Chavez! Look at this house I have. My wife’s in town where we also have a room. She’s sick and can’t get about. She gets what care can be given, and it’s the Cuban doctors who are caring for her.
“Now we have land and houses. I plant cambur y ocumo. I hope Chavez continues leading and goes the way of Fidel. The bad ones, those who have the money, don’t want him. The President is with the people.”
Yeah, Pedro told it like it is! The man with the big heart, a man who came from their roots, the brave one standing up against Goliath—this is a leader!