Venezuela: Another beer is possible — grassroots takes on brewing monopoly

Daniel Lopez

Not even Brahma, the Brazilian multinational beer company, stood a chance. Brahma’s plant in the northern Venezuelan city of Barquisimeto was left to be occupied by its workers, who did not accept being fired when the factory closed, after its shares were sold to billionaire Gustavo Cisneros.

The beer business in Venezuela was strategically designed so that only three brewing companies could become part it, which with the passing of time became two: Empresas Polar, owned by the Mendoza family, and Cerveceria Regional, owned by the Cisneros Group.

The companies created a juridical framework aimed at preventing the birth of small- and medium-sized breweries. These included unsustainable taxes and guaranteeing a market for imports, with production and commercialisation controlled at all points.

For all of those who tried to build, challenge, or question this framework, the responses were flawless: buy them out, strangle them, threaten them or fire them.

But if the course of the revolutionary process, which has gripped Venezuela since former left-wing president Hugo Chavez was first elected in 1998, has taught us anything, it is that nothing has been so well designed by the dominant classes that the organised people cannot transform it.

In the face of so much of the same beer imposed on millions of Venezuelans, someone would think about creating other types of beer. And in the face of so much exploitation of the workers of Polar breweries, a union would have to be born to fight for the rights of the thousands of workers who produce 7 million beers daily.

102-day strike

A 102-day-long strike was needed before Polar industries had no other option but to negotiate with the union Sintraterricentro, chosen by the workers.

During those days — from April 7 to July 17 — there were marches, solidarity strikes in the plants at Los Cortijos and Oriente as well as at distributing agencies. There were also open threats, assassination attempts by hitmen and lack of pay.

Johan Nieves, a worker with the Turmero agency in Aragua, said: “The law forced Lorenzo Mendoza to sit down to discuss a collective contract with Sintraterricentro.”

The labour ministry and the Ombudsman’s office intervened. In fact, the recognition of Sintraterricentro as the union representing the workers in negotiations was a historic victory.

Nieves said: “Lorenzo Mendoza, apart from continuing to promote the economic war [against the left-wing government], wants to boycott [talks] and not recognise the union, because it is class-conscious, with 82% of its affiliates in the sectors that produce the most profit. He keeps refusing us, boycotting our struggle.”

One of the corporate attacks against the struggle, which contributes to the economic war in which business seeks to provoke shortages, is the recent cut in beer production.

Nieves said: “We have conclusive proof that Mendoza removed the barley — raw material indispensable to brewing — from the San Joaquin plant, which produces 52% of all beer [in the country] … in order to lower the production of beer.”

Diverting raw materials, alleging a lack of raw materials needed to produce, creating shortages in the market and then blaming the national government are part of a plot that deepened with the paralysing of Polar’s Los Cortijos, San Joaquin, and Oriente plants.

In the face of this, the unions representing Polar workers used an article of the constitution to justify taking over their workplaces.

“We exercised our right under article 190 of the Constitution, that owners who refuse to produce may have his or her company taken over by the workers, plain and simple,” said Nieves, who was recently assaulted by a rival pro-Polar union, in name of those who know lies and the millions that Mendoza makes each day from the the beer he has been monopolising.

Another beer is possible

At stake is not just the conditions under which the beer is produced, but also the nature of the beer in itself.

Hundreds of possible styles of beer exist, but with the market in the hands of Mendoza and Cisneros, millions of Venezuelans know only one: the Pilsen style.

In the face of this, from about two years ago, alternatives began to be trialled. More than 30 beer producers in total are searching for new flavours, creating beer in all of its possibilities.

Daniel Lopez, a producer of Old Dan’s beer, decided to read a few books about how to make beer. He acquired a bottle stopper from abroad, some needed raw materials and began to experiment with a pressure pot from his kitchen.

Little by little, the beer universe — closed in Venezuela — was being opened for him. Experimenting with a variety of beers, Lopen regularly produces six styles, and four new ones each year that are never repeated.

The reality of Venezuela's beer industry stared Lopez in the face: laws to prevent him from legally marketing his beer — there is no tax scale for small and medium breweries, for example. It was therefore impossible to register to receive the dollars needed to import produce. Apart from the bottles, bottle caps and cooking implements, everything else must be bought from abroad.

Legalisation would allow the likes of Lopez to advance: to invest in infrastructure, larger machines, more adequate spaces, to have competitive prices without losing desired quality, and to legally produce much more than the 300 litres of Old Dan’s now being produced monthly.

Together with the other artisanal beer producers, this represents just 0.09% of Venezuela's annual beer production.

It will change

Just as reality changed since that producer who in 1843 made the first beer in the country, so this situation will change too.

Beer makers have been organising themselves in the Association of Artisanal Brewers of Venezuela. They have raised public recognition with their Artisanal Beer Route. Beer workers also know who they are, what they can do, and against whom they fight — they know that, fundamentally, it is about the people’s struggle against an exclusionary monopoly that is part of Venezuela's crippling economic war.

It is not a case of who owns the shares, as with Brahma selling its plant to Cisneros. Thanks to the struggle of the workers and the Pio Tamayo commune, that plant has now been transformed into the socially owned enterprise Proletarios Unios.

Rather it is a struggle to break with the old order that oppresses, exploits and represses.

At the centre of this system that, thanks to popular struggle and creativity, is collapsing stands Mendoza — opposed to the new path chosen by millions, muddling through his attempt to strangle the revolution in the face of a desire among these masses to be free, happy and to not return to the starting point of sadness and misery.

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