Venezuela: Rural communities organise to confront economic crisis

An assembly of campesino farmers in Merida state on April 20. Photo: CRBZ

With campaigning for the May 20 presidential elections underway in Venezuela, the United States has stepped up its crusade against the Nicolas Maduro government.

Hiding behind claims of a “humanitarian crisis” and “growing dictatorship”, Washington’s aim is to bring down the government by any means. It seems to end the two-decade-long pro-poor Bolivarian Revolution that was initiated by Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez.

For now, its main focus is on delegitimising the elections and tightening economic sanctions with the aim of strangling Venezuela’s economy and stoking internal discontent. However, several US state officials — including President Donald Trump — have publicly supported the idea of a military intervention or internal military coup.

This anti-Venezuela campaign has been vigorously promoted by the corporate media. It provides ample space to right-wing opposition leaders while ignoring the voices of grassroots social movements fighting to overcome the crisis in Venezuela.

To help get these voices heard, a range of solidarity groups organised a series of meetings in Australia over March and April with Pacha Catalina Guzman, a leading activist with Venezuela’s largest peasant-based organisation, the Ezequiel Zamora National Campesino Front (FNCEZ). Guzman is also a spokesperson for the Bolivar and Zamora Revolutionary Current.

During her visit, Guzman spoke to Green Left Weekly’s Federico Fuentes.

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Often in the media we hear the voices of the Venezuelan opposition, and very occasionally from the government, but rarely do we hear from the social movements, particularly radical left movements in Venezuela. As a representative of one of these movements, how do you view the current economic crisis in Venezuela?

The truth is that we are facing not just an economic blockade but also a media blockade. Among the social movements in Venezuela and those that support the government, we have been trying to overcome this crisis with the little we have.

The situation in Venezuela is critical. There is a shortage of food and medicine as a result of the blockade. However, we are not dying of hunger, as the media claims.

We blame the economic crisis on the economic sanctions that the United States has imposed on Venezuela. They are the main reason for why the situation in Venezuela is so difficult today.

Nevertheless we are overcoming this situation.

What is your opinion of the measures that the government has implemented to try to overcome the economic crisis?

We are an organisation that has worked with the state to implement a number of its policies. We have reiterated on many occasions that the economic model that the state is attempting to build is one that we as an organisation support.

Our organisation has dedicated itself not just to supporting but also implementing certain state policies in parts of the country — I’m talking here about policies regarding food production.

For us, the state’s policies have been correct in terms of helping to overcome the economic crisis, even though there are certain difficulties and weaknesses.

The state’s policies have helped to continue and strengthen the policies that Chavez implemented in terms of economic and social issues.

As long as that is the case, we will continue to work with the state. If the state was to modify its position, then they would find opposition from us. But that is not the case today.

So you disagree with the view that, following Chavez’s death, the Bolivarian process has changed course, or that at least the Maduro government has moved away or broken with the policies of the previous Chavez government?

We understand the criticisms that some sectors have of the government. But while some have described certain state policies as neoliberal, the reality is that these policies do not respond to the interests of big business or the International Monetary Fund.

The economic policies that are being implemented in Venezuela seek to solve the economic crisis that the country is facing. In terms of social policies, there has been very little change.

If we have any criticisms, I think that internally we are able to discuss and resolve them. But we do not see this as a neoliberal government or as one that is working against the interests of Venezuelan people.

Could you talk about some of the projects your organisation works on and how you work with the government?

By organising in the campesino sector and among urban communities, our organisation has been able to obtain funds from the state for community projects.

We have been able to build houses for families, fix roads; on the basis of helping communities to organise themselves we have been able to achieve land titles for campesinos in the countryside. We have also been able to get loans, machinery and equipment for rural communities.

We have created a mechanism for food distribution that allows us to transport food from the countryside directly to urban communities. This was an initiative we took as an organisation and the state has supported us, for example with trucks for transportation.

Everything that we have achieved has been as a result of organising in communities. The majority of our activists spend their time going to communities to see what their needs are and help them to organise themselves.

Then, on the basis of the alliances and relationships we have with certain state institutions, we have been able to work with the state to meet the demands of the communities.

That is why we continue to support the state, not because it is a paternalistic state but because it responds to the needs of the people. We are an autonomous organisation, we do not depend on the state for anything, but we support the state where it responds to the needs of the community.

In one of Chavez’s last speeches he spoke about the importance of the communes as a form of grassroots self-governance — he said: “commune or nothing”. How has the process of building communal councils, communes and communal cities, which Chavez described as the foundations of a new communal state, come along since Chavez’s death? Does the idea of a communal state continue to be more a vision than a reality or have steps been taken in that direction?

In the past five years there’s been a rise in the number of communal cities; there are many more than there were before. New communal councils continue to appear, though not at the speed that we would like, but there has been an increase in communal organisation.

But I think the idea that, perhaps in 10 years time, we could have a communal state is something that will be very difficult to achieve; difficult because of the situation we face.

Today, in the context of the current crisis, the people are not prioritising popular organisation, instead they are prioritising meeting their day-to-day needs. In this sense, there’s been a certain pause in building this communal state, which continues to be the vision, the idea for where we want to go.

But for now, people are focused on other issues, which is a real shame. Hopefully, we will be able to get to the communal state, but this will only be possible as long as the current state continues to support us, because if we depended only on popular organisation, unfortunately this would not be enough.

We need the state to involve itself in building communal power and at the same time accept its replacement by this communal power, because that is the idea — to replace the existing state power.

Some would say that the only way to resolve the immediate problems is by deepening community organisation, yet you spoke about a certain pause in community organisation to focus on immediate issues. Do you see this as a problem or as something that is inevitable given the current situation?

There is a complex situation in Venezuela as a result of the blockade and the sanctions. It means that our priority is that we must begin to produce food, whether that be as communal councils or not. The people need to begin producing, the issue of under what type of structure they do this has dropped to a second plane.

I’m talking here about what we, as grassroots organisations, can do within the country. Of course, the broader international economic issues are something that the state has to look at; these things are not dependent on us. But we can help overcome the issue of food shortages. Similarly with the issue of medicine shortages: this is not something that we at the grassroots can overcome.

What we are seeing in Venezuela is that people are dedicating themselves to resolving day-to-day issues and looking for ways to diminish the effects of the crisis on society. That is the reality of everyday life.

There is little point of talking to people about the idea of forming a communal council when they are concentrated on working out how they are going to eat tomorrow. So the priority is confronting the food problem: we are 30 million people, that means 30 million people that need to eat every day. So that is our priority.

It is also the priority of the state, but the state has other priorities; it has to operate on several fronts, such as dealing with the shortages of medicines and how to import those products that we cannot produce in Venezuela.

How can the international solidarity movement help the Venezuelan people?

I think in first place, the international solidarity movement should help us disseminate the truth about what is happening in Venezuela. Most people outside of Venezuela associate the Venezuelan Revolution with failure, hunger, misery and death.

This is even true of the concept of socialism; where you hear it mentioned in other countries, they associate it with Venezuela and they associate it with complete failure.

The allies we have internationally, who know the reality of Venezuela, should help us spread the truth.

I think that, for now, international solidarity starts with speaking out about what is being silenced and hidden, and talking about and defending what we are building in Venezuela.

Beyond this, I don’t know … if the gringos invade Venezuela, then I suppose you’ll have to come and help us [laughs].

[Federico Fuentes is a national co-convenor of the Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network.]