Campesinos Defending Chavez’s Project: A Conversation with Andres Alayo (Interview)

Venezuelanalysis talks with an important campesino leader, part of the group of Chavista activists now occupying the Venezuelan Land Institute to demand answers from the government.

For more than two months now, members of the Campesino Struggle Platform (Plataforma de Lucha Campesina), a Chavista organization bringing together small producers fighting for land rights, have been camping out in front of the Venezuelan Land Institute (INTI) in Caracas. There, dozens of campesinos are engaged in ongoing conversations about the situation of the country and the injustices that they face in rural areas. The activists also work on documents, organize marches and meetings before retreating to their hammocks at the end of the day. Andres Alayo is one of the key leaders of the Campesino Struggle Platform. In this exclusive Venezuelanalysis interview, we talk to him about the history of the Chavista agrarian revolution.

I would like us to begin with the Venezuelan Land Law of 2001, which marks a turning point in the Bolivarian Revolution. The law sought to improve and preserve the lives of Venezuela’s small agricultural producers. However, it also met with a furious response from the landowning class, which reacted with an astonishing degree of violence.

The Land Law was a powerful attempt to guarantee people’s lives in the rural areas. The Independence Wars [1810 to 1823], the Federal War led by Zamora [1859 to 1863], and the Bolivarian Process are the key milestones in our struggle to build a sovereign nation and achieve social justice. The Land Law got the Bolivarian Revolution going, but at the same time, along with the Hydrocarbons Law and the Fishing Law, it provoked the 2002 coup. That’s the case because the Land Law impacted the rural oligarchy’s interests. It opened the way for a new understanding of property.

Not surprisingly, implementing the Land Law unleashed terrible violence from the landowning class, which was allied with the most reactionary sectors of our society and also with Colombian landowners… it marks the beginning of a series of bloody practices that, little by little, begin to enter Venezuela’s rural areas, leading to hundreds of campesino deaths.

The law brought with it a profound change in land tenancy in Venezuela. For the first time, thousands of previously landless campesinos had access to the land. The Land Law represents an enormous step forward in the process of democratizing the land, which until then had been in the hands of a handful of families.

The spiral of violence began in November 2001, when FEDENAGA [national association of large livestock owners] President Jose Luis Betancourt publically tore up the law in a symbolic gesture. It was a war cry. The first campesino to fall was Licino Lago, from the Caño Caiman homestead in Sur del Lago [in Zulia State]. To date, oligarchic violence has led to the deaths of some 350 to 400 campesinos.

But for those of us who are campesinos, we don’t give up. Our calling is to produce, and Venezuela’s landscape began to be reconfigured during the revolution. At that time, [because of the previous oil booms] the country imagined itself as the “Saudi Venezuela.” It was the country of “plenty” which nevertheless expelled millions of campesinos from the rural areas and forced them into the growing slums of the large cities. However, in the early years of the 21st-century, the situation began to change and people started to go back to the rural areas. They began to occupy unused land, making thousands of small homesteads. In villages, campesinos gradually constructed their humble homes, their caneys [open bungalows with thatched roofs], and they shared production spaces. Thus there emerged a culture that puts life at the center of things.

So, on the one hand, we have a wager for life and for the democratization of the land and, on the other hand, we have the landlords’ culture of death and terror.

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Jose Luis Betancourt, president of FEDENAGA, publically tears up the “Gaceta Oficial” where the Land Law was published. (Archive)

To understand the agrarian revolution as it has developed within the Bolivarian Process, it is important to consider the different periods that have shaped that struggle, from the enacting of the Land Law right up to the present.

The process of democratization of the land can be periodized. The first years were characterized by an enormous popular momentum. Hundreds of campesino cooperatives were formed, and the Venezuelan people witnessed thousands of cases of vacant land being occupied, and we celebrated it.

It was at this time – beginning in 2002 but especially in 2003 and 2004 – that the true enemies of the people begin to show their faces. They are the landowning class, but also the nation’s courts, the judges who make common cause with landlords, and the local police… These latter groups and institutions were quick to collaborate in the eviction of campesinos. That was a time when the popular movement was advancing, but it was also a period characterized by a great deal of repression that favored the oligarchy.

By 2006, they had killed dozens of campesinos. The law was there, bestowing rights upon us, but the repression was on the rise and impunity was rampant. In those circumstances, we organized the march, “Zamora Toma Caracas” (Zamora Takes Over Caracas) in partnership with the Ezequiel Zamora Campesino Front. The goal was to denounce the landowners’ rampant violence, on the one hand, and the state’s inaction, on the other. On that summer day, tens of thousands of campesinos (many of them on horseback) took over Caracas.

The truth is that the state’s institutions – the Prosecutor’s Office, the Office of the Ombudsman, the courthouses, the judges, and the justice system as a whole – never showed much willingness to bring to justice those responsible for murdering campesinos. That is something that, even today, pains us and makes us indignant! The period when the popular movement was on the offensive closes with the march in Caracas.

Around 2006 or 2007 a new period begins, with a change in the government’s policies toward the rural areas. Around that time, state businesses begin to emerge, and these enterprises begin to directly assume control of occupied lands. The peak of this period is around 2008 and 2009, and it lasts through 2012.

Here we are talking about a time when the grassroots initiative is no longer centerstage. Instead, the state takes the lead, recovering many vacant farming estates. This includes (to mention just a few): Hato El Frío and Hato El Cedral in Apure; La Compañia Inglesa in Apure, Guárico and Falcón; La Vergareña in Bolívar State; Hacienda Bolívar-La Bolivariana and Oya Grande in Sur del Lago, Zulia; the whole Valley of the Turbio in Lara; and La Productora in Portuguesa.

All these estates passed over to the direct control of the Agriculture Ministry. Thus, as an outcome of the process of recuperating vacant and underproductive lands, the Venezuelan state became the largest agricultural landholder. We are no longer talking about vacant land being occupied by campesinos. We are talking about public, state-operated enterprises.

In this process, a large contingent of campesinos became wage workers for the state enterprises.

This is the period when the oil bonanza reached its peak. Oil prices rose to historical records, and that means that a lot of resources became available, an important part of it being invested in agriculture. During this time, for instance, the Pedro Camejo plant for farm machinery was founded, and thousands of tractors, harvesters, and other heavy machinery were imported into the country.

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The AgroVenezuela Mission was also created during this phase, while enormous resources were earmarked for rural investment. The budgets of CVAL [state agriculture corporation] and other state enterprises figured in millions of US dollars, with the object of developing an infrastructure to support production. This is also the time when Chavez ordered the (compensated) expropriation of Agroisleña [seed and agricultural input corporation], which then became AgroPatria.

So we could say that 2006 through 2010 are the years that bring to an end the scenario defined by the 19th-century plantation.

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AgroVenezuela machinery on the left, and Veniran tractors center and left, around 2009. (MINCI)

Would it be correct to say that this last period you refer to closes with Chavez’s illness?

Yes, this period comes to an end when Chavez’s illness begins. Around 2012 we begin to witness the dwindling of the state agricultural enterprises and, shortly after, a process of gradually dismantling them begins.

The truth is that between 2011 and 2016, the state had vastly reduced resources, and the government chose to privilege other sectors [that were not agriculture]. Investment and credit for campesinos plummeted, and the building and maintenance of rural infrastructure came to a halt. It was a period of evident decay and was accompanied by the active dismantling of the large agrarian state enterprises such as CVAL. These state businesses had been the result of enormous human effort and huge investments, so it was a serious setback for agricultural production.

This period’s dynamic became even harsher over the last couple of years. Around 2016, the imperialist attack on Venezuela became more aggressive. During this time, the nation’s food security became a public issue, and the contradictions between reform and revolution became more obvious – side by side with the more evident revolution‐counterrevolution contradiction.

As far as the reform versus revolution contradiction is concerned, we find sectors of the government that are overtly aiming to restructure land ownership based on “strategic” partnerships with private capital, be it national or international. These sectors claim that campesinos don’t know how to produce, that they are lazy by nature, that the stilted agrarian development is the fault of the small producers themselves.

According to this group, the campesinos received millions of dollars in credits, machinery, land, etc., but they weren’t able to operate efficiently with those resources. To state the obvious, that is false, since the bulk of those resources didn’t go to the campesinos directly, but rather to the enterprises that we mentioned earlier or even to the private sector.

These sectors believe that the Land Law should be abrogated and the struggle against large plantations needs to stop. They are against campesinos occupying idle land. All this is no secret! They publicly affirm that it is necessary to ally with private interests to be able to produce.

What characterizes the government’s agricultural policy today is that it works to consolidate an agroindustrial model led by supposedly patriotic business people. In our time, private businesses with a lot of resources (of unknown origin) are beginning to pop up, and they are on the fast track. To mention just a few of these businesses: El Tunal, JHS, Ebenezer Group, and Los Tres Grandes. All are private agro-industrial enterprises, and they have become powerhouses extraordinarily rapidly.

On the flip side of the coin, small producers and communards are witnessing the disappearance of the state’s social and productive presence in the campo. We should explain here that the state has a monopoly on seeds, machinery and other inputs, even agricultural credits. It is the state that administers them, but its presence in the rural areas is practically null, leaving campesinos exposed to dangerous mafias that buy supplies.

The priority in agriculture is now large capital – both new and old. As it turns out, the government is casting its lot with those producers whose aim is exporting, not with the campesinos who provide produce for urban, internal markets in Venezuela.

One of the heroes in this “special period” in Venezuela – the period characterized by imperialist attacks – is the campesino, the small producer in the rural areas. Even now ocumo, yuca, ñame, plantain, topocho, and fruits are always available in the markets, and they are produced in terrible conditions. That is to say, there are crop thefts, skyrocketing prices of agrarian inputs (which are managed by the state but sold in black market channels), scarcity of fertilizers, mafias that operate in the rural areas, and police repression. In fact, small producers have supplied the cities with food when there were no other sources of staple foods. In doing so campesinos, with their hard work, have hampered the possibility of a social explosion, which is one of the US State Department’s aims.

Many of the state’s “productive partners” are active in the longstanding counterrevolution (whereas others are newcomers). Who are the new owners of Hato Garza in Barinas State, an enormous pig farm which was formerly the state’s property? They are the same people who in November of last year, killed Tomas Ribas, a campesino activist, who was safeguarding the infrastructure from pillage and privatization… These are the state’s “productive partners”!

The state has given preferential treatment to Alejo Hernandez, owner of El Tunal, who is known as “El Tornillo.” Recently a video showing him calling for an uprising against Nicolas Maduro went viral… He is the “spoiled child” of the current wave of these “productive alliances”! The government had awarded him 5000 hectares in Portuguesa.

This is a huge contradiction. The small producer and the communard have demonstrated that they can produce and deliver, and they have also proved their commitment to the revolution. That being the case, why is it that the state is privileging large private capital? Why is the state channeling resources, almost exclusively, to the agrarian capitalist sector? And through what channels have these private “investors” accumulated their fortunes?

We are facing a covert politics of restoration [of the old order]. The discourse goes as follows: the state is not able to maintain public enterprises due to the economic crisis. That means we have to turn over the state’s enterprises to private “investors,” since they have capital, knowledge, relationships, and professionals who can guarantee that the businesses come back to life. But we must ask: what is the cost of all these resources that we are handing over to the private sector?

One of Chavez’s most important legacies was that he opened the path to building a sovereign economy in a strategic alliance with the campesinos and the communards. Chavez’s stated objective was to build the communal state, but with these alliances that are taking shape, we are getting further and further from that objective every day!

So this period we are in is a very dark one, not only due to the imperialist blockade – which itself creates serious problems – but also because the policies that are supposed to foster internal production contradict the objective of attaining collective sovereignty. The government has chosen the agroindustrial model, which has many limitations if we consider that the aim is to satisfy the needs of the majority in a time of imperialist siege.

In this period, our main slogan should be: “Produce to resist.” That’s because there is no possible resistance and no fighting army if it doesn’t have food. And the food for an army must be produced in a sovereign way here in Venezuela. Only the small producer, the campesino, and the communard can guarantee that. To resist the imperialist attack and the internal restorationist tendencies, we must guarantee agricultural practices that are also capable of resistance. To be honest, there is no other way.

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A Caracas market, where fruits and vegetables produced by campesinos are always available. (Archive)

Just a few days ago, hundreds of people from the Plataforma de Lucha Campesina and other organizations gathered in Caracas. They marched with the slogan “Against assassinations, plantations, and paramilitarism.” The march also sought to defend the campesinos’ right to the land and to have access to agricultural supplies, which is all the more important in the face of the imperialist blockade. Can you tell us something about this march and what was at stake in it?

On August 6, we marched against paramilitarism and the targeted assassinations of campesinos, to bring an end to impunity, and in defense of campesino and communal life.

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This march happened one year after the meeting between President Nicolas Maduro and the Admirable Campesino March. Twelve months ago, dozens of campesinos came by foot from Portuguesa State to Caracas to protest the grave conditions in rural Venezuela. Even though the media sought to criminalize the march (and despite the lies disseminated even by state media), we arrived in Caracas on August 1, 2018.

Thousands of committed Chavistas came out to greet us. But we were also received by a huge contingent of riot policemen as if we were the worst guarimberos [violent, right-wing protestors] – as if our intention was to assault Miraflores!

We met with President Maduro on August 2, 2018, and there we reached some important agreements, which in turn became presidential orders.

The first point concerns the land. All the land that has been taken from campesinos should be returned. That was a clear order that the president issued. However, out of 111 cases that we brought before the president, only 28 were resolved, while another 15 are in a process of review for the granting of the titles. The rest are still in a process of investigation.

The second agreement was about justice for the victims of targeted assassinations. Between 350 to 400 campesinos have been killed since the Land Law was signed in 2001, and their killers enjoy absolute impunity.

Since we began the Admirable March on May 12, 2018, there have been assassinations of 19 campesinos. Most recently, six members of the CRBZ were killed in Ticoporo. We expect to learn the truth and to have justice for all our dead! Impunity must cease to be the state’s policy. A revolution cannot live side by side with impunity. Justice is a synonym of revolution.

The third agreement – which was backed up by a presidential order – was to put an end to the judicial persecution of campesinos. Hundreds of campesinos are facing legal cases, because they produce in lands desired by people who are more powerful or have better connections. Maduro assured us that the day after the meeting, Supreme Court Justice Maikel Moreno would initiate a process that would eliminate all the cases involving judicial persecution of campesinos. We are still waiting for that process to begin, and a growing number of campesinos have been criminalized since.

The fourth point of agreement was the “Crop to Crop Sowing Plan.” The plan was for cultivating 45 thousand hectares during the “Summer Growing Season” [the Venezuelan summer coincides with the dry season that begins in October], but nothing came out of that promise. For the Winter Season [beginning with the May rains], we presented a plan for cultivating 37 thousand hectares. The government approved 12 thousand hectares for planting beans, corn, and rice but it was later reduced to seven thousand. Of that, we received seeds and inputs for 1700 hectares.

The fifth point concerns the making of a campesino congress. The idea is to hold a congress to build unity within the campesino movement and to develop plans to face the challenges that the current war scenario presents. The Agriculture Ministry, National Constituent Assembly, and the Vice Presidency were to coordinate this project with us, but there was never an agreement about how to proceed.

Now there is a new (more grassroots) effort to organize the congress. We hope that this effort will succeed. The aim is to build a large campesino movement that will guarantee, on a local level, the defense of the revolution, making the rural areas into a socialist vanguard.

The August 6 march in Caracas was organized to defend those agreements, on the first anniversary of the presidential orders. The Admirable Campesino March last year ran into a number of hurdles before it reached its destination, and the same could be said for the recent march in Caracas.

The police attempted to prevent our march from advancing. There were confrontations with the police, where the willingness of the campesino movement to struggle became clear. The marchers were indignant because the impunity [enjoyed by those who have killed campesinos] makes us angry, as does the judicial harassment of campesinos, and the state’s neglect of the rural areas.

They wanted to prohibit a peaceful march! To that we said, “Nobody will prevent our advance!” So we advanced through Caracas, and we broke through three police barricades. Our initial aim was to get to Miraflores, but to avoid conflict we ended the march in front of the National Constitutive Assembly, where we delivered a document to Diosdado Cabello, its president. In that document, we made a balance sheet of all the agreements struck earlier with the president. It was a kind of status report. We also delivered the report to the office of the president.

There, in front of the ANC, we had a political act. We sang, danced, and shouted our slogans. We also read our report in public. In doing so, we were defending Chavez’s legacy and the orders that President Nicolas Maduro gave on August 2, 2018.

There are institutional actors that don’t like to see the pueblo expressing itself. They are the same people who want to make the country believe that all is well… We say to them and to President Maduro: “Take a tour around Sur del Lago, around the Andean paramo, talk to the producers in Trujillo, go to the Portuguesa plains, get yourself to Barinas and listen to the campesinos. Go to the street, Mr. President!” Maduro himself told his ministers to visit the campesinos, to talk directly to producers in the rural areas, and to do so without cameras and without mediation. Anybody who visits the rural areas in Venezuela will find very difficult conditions, on the one hand, and a tremendous willingness to defend Chavismo, on the other.

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August 6 campesino march in Caracas. Top left, campesino spokesman Jesus Osorio addresses the march. (Ketsy Medina Sifontes and Plataforma de Lucha Campesina)

 

Featured image: Andres Alayo is a member of the Plataforma de Lucha Campesina or Campesino Struggle Platform. (Tatuy TV)

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