The Agricultural Social Production Unit (UPSA) Caquetios, located in Cabudare, in Palavecino municipality, Lara state, is run by the Brazilian Movement of Rural Landless Workers (MST). A campesino organisation, the MST shares similar objectives to those of former president Hugo Chavez and the pro-poor Bolivarian Revolution he led – in particular, land collectivisation as the best way to grow food and put an end to rural inequality.
In 2006, the MST was invited to Venezuela to take over a 40-hectare estate as part of Chavez’s attempt to transform Venezuela’s countryside. Since then, the group has been joined by several Venezuelan farmers, with both groups learning new experiences from each other.
We spent three nights on the UPSA Caquetios’ beautiful farm as part of the Venezuela Analysis international solidarity delegation in late August. Our aim was to get a sense of what was happening in Venezuela’s countryside and how communities here are attempting to deal with the country’s economic crisis.
The estate had previously been used to grow sugar, but more recently had been unused. The previous owner, a wealthy latifundista (large landowner), only used it for parties.
It was expropriated under a 2001 decree issued by Chavez that allowed the state to take back tracts of unproductive land – and precipitated the coup attempt against Chavez in 2002.
Today, UPSA Caquetios grows six hectares of guanape seed corn and plays a vital role in guaranteeing access to native seeds for small producers in Lara.
Guanape corn seed is a native seed that does not require pesticides and has a higher protein content than imported seed. Although only 40 kilograms of guanape seed remained in the whole country, the UPSA was able to plant it as part of achieving one of its objectives: saving native seeds.
The land had been destroyed through the heavy use of pesticides. When the MST took it over, they spent a long time revitalising the soil, using composted material and worm castings. They subsequently developed their own natural herbicide to control plagues, made of tobacco leaves, milk and liquid from worms.
We were surprised by the heavy security measures in place and the presence of farmers carrying out night patrols.
These measures were put in place after the farm was targeted by guarimberos (violent right-wing protesters) during the recent wave of opposition protests that hit the country between April and July.
During our stay in Lara we visited the 1000-hectare farm where the Communally-Owned Social Production Enterprise (EPSDC) Argimiro Gabaldon is location.
As its name implies, the EPSDC is directly run by the local El Maizal Commune, which unites 22 community councils (grassroots bodies for local participatory decision-making) that cover 80,000 inhabitants or 3500 families on both sides of the Lara-Portuguesa border.
For the Bolivarian Revolution, communes are seen as the next level up from the community councils in the new communal state which is being built from the bottom-up.
Members of the commune explained to us that it had been relatively easy for the communities to take over the land. The former billionaire owner lived in Miami and flew into the farm by helicopter once every six months, while treating his workers like slaves.
With the backing of Chavez’s 2001 law, the communities took over the land. Chavez invited the former owner to negotiate compensation for the property in 2005 on the condition that he appear in person on the farm. He never appeared, instead insisting on getting his land back.
Finally, the community councils received the legal right to enter the property and, together with the former workers, converted it into a productive farm.
Today they grow black beans, corn, vegetables and coffee. They also have 100 cattle, which they milk by hand twice a day. Some of the milk is used to make cheese.
The workers are paid from the profits of the sale of the products. They are paid above the minimum wage and receive food stamps and free health care. The workers also have guaranteed housing.
The remaining profits go back to the community. The commune has used these profits to build three high schools, a primary school and a medical clinic. They have also built 85 houses and supplied electricity to many families.
Unemployed women have been taken on to sell milk products and vegetables. They take the products to the market and sell directly to the local community, rather than going through private distributors or the state.
The corn, however, has to be sold back to the state, as the state demands that all products financed by the state be distributed by the state itself.
Workers at the EPSDC explained that next year they will not ask the state for funds and will use locally-produced seeds. They said they want to be self-sufficient in terms of inputs and plant native corn to recoup the seeds, rather than use GMO seeds, which are infertile.
The El Maizal Commune also runs the EPSDC Camilo Cienfuegos, which distributes gas cheaply to communities in Lara and Portuguesa. They are training 13 young people to change and fill the gas bottles.
The commune has also taken responsibility for a local vegetable garden. Set up seven years ago by a group of Cuban agroecologists, the garden contains a number of greenhouses. However, when the state took it over, it fell into disrepair.
The commune decided three years ago to take it over. They now have 15 workers rebuilding the greenhouses and attending to seeds and harvests of cucumbers, coriander, onions, bananas, plantains and black beans, among others.
They told us that the plan is to have 300 young people taking classes on horticulture in September, as part of a program run in conjunction with the Campesino University. They are also planning to produce feed to fatten pigs and to cultivate fish.
We also visited the Porcinos de Alba piggery, in Simon Planas municipality. They look after 1000 pigs with a staff of 25 workers, including four women.
Here again, Cubans agroecologists had showed local Venezuelans how to manage the pigs, collect semen and inseminate the females by hand.
Once it became operational, the piggery was handed over to the state. It continued to function well for seven years, but was ultimately abandoned by the administrative workers earlier this year. For three months, the pigs received no feed.
Instead, the workers had to feed the pigs with mangoes they picked up from the ground - fortunately it was mango season – and managed to keep them alive.
The El Maizal Commune then took it over, repairing the trucks and sending corn as pig feed, demonstrating that control by local groups is the only solution - the state is too bureaucratised.
During our stay in Lara, we met with the Women's committee of the Lomas de Leon Commune and activists from the Movement Women for Life, in Iribarren municipality.
The women, many of whom had suffered domestic violence, had formed a group to deal specifically with this issue. If they suspected that a woman was being abused by her partner, someone from the group would take it upon herself to visit her when she was alone and gently introduce the topic, as most women were too ashamed to talk about it.
They also worked on helping women become economically independent through projects such as selling bottles of tomato sauce, soaps, sweets and cleaning liquids.
The delegation also managed to fit in a bit of tourism and saw the magnificent “Flower of Venezuela” sculpture open its petals. Venezuelan architect Fruto Vivas, who had been a guerrilla fighter in the 1960s and 1970s, won a prize for the sculpture at the prestigious World Fair in Hanover, where the sculpture had remained for many years.
Chavez fought to get it back, saying Venezuelans should have the right to enjoy this national patrimony. It was maintained by the governor’s office until 2014. However, the local opposition governor for Lara, Henri Falcon, only used it for fancy private parties.
The popular movements, together with Vivas, fought to have it nationalised. It now belongs to the tourism ministry, and anyone can enter the structure for free and use its recreational facilities, one of which includes a public radio.
Each night involved a cultural event. On one of the nights, they played traditional music from Lara, called the “Golpe Larense”.
In a discussion with a group of young people, they told us they were very dissatisfied with the current high food prices and low wages and wanted the situation to return to what it was like when Chavez was in power.
We enjoyed the local brew of cocuy, a very strong spirit made from the agave plant, which is traditional to the states of Lara and Falcon. It used to be illegal for independent artisans to produce cocuy, and anyone found to be doing so was heavily persecuted. However, Chavez made it legal, declaring cocuy was cultural patrimony.
Cocuy does not give you a sore head, which is why people like it so much.
We finished off our last night together by dancing and singing songs, all with the help of a large amount of cocuy.
The next day we returned to Caracas and said farewell to our fellow delegates, more determined than ever to report the truth of what we had seen during our stay in revolutionary Venezuela.
[Coral Wynter is a member of the Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network. This is the fifth in a series of articles looking at her experience as part of the Venezuela Analysis solidarity delegation.]