Venezuela: Slave labour or just growing more food?

Venezuelans taking part in a voluntary program to boost a slowly developing agricultural sector, described by the US media as "slavery".

The United States media's latest offensive against Venezuela's socialist President Nicolas Maduro targets a new sustainability program that transplants urban workers to farmland. Some quarters of the mainstream media have equated it with slave labour.

Passed on July 22, the decree sets up a voluntary program for public and private workers to cultivate organic food for 60 days on their normal salary before returning to their jobs.

Venezuela is suffering from a food shortage, largely caused by businesses hoarding food while stashing away government money reserved for imports. The Venezuelan economy largely relies on oil, the price of which has dropped dramatically, but Maduro has passed several measures to develop agricultural production.

Head of the Bolivarian Socialist Workers' Centre Carlos Lopez, said the new program was planned alongside community organisers.

“The workers that want to move to reactive [agricultural] businesses can move and will have their rights guaranteed,” Lopez told Union Radio.

Soundbites circulating in the US media are exclusively from Amnesty International, whose closest office is based in Mexico City. Amnesty's Americas division released a statement calling the program “unlawful” and saying it "effectively amounts to forced labour”. It added that Venezuela should seek humanitarian aid for a “workable long term plan” rather than develop its own agricultural sector.

“Trying to tackle Venezuela's severe food shortages by forcing people to work the fields is like trying to fix a broken leg with a band aid,” said Amnesty's Americas director Erika Guevara Rosas in the statement.

The mainstream media have since used her words to accuse Maduro of trying to make workers “effectively ... slaves of the state”, according to New York Magazine, in a country stuck in a “humanitarian catastrophe”.

CNBC blamed late president Hugo Chavez, who died in 2013, for leaving the country, which had been dependent on oil for decades before him, “in a vulnerable economic position by nationalizing energy assets while oil prices were high and spending proceeds on widespread social programs”.

Limiting its sources to an executive at Bank of America and the International Monetary Fund, CNN ignored the large base of popular support behind Maduro's moves, writing that his decrees “often ... languish”.

The only outlet that admitted the program is voluntary was Fox News Latino, though it continued to insist the decree “basically institutes forced labour”. Vice News also led with the slavery angle, but admitted later in the article that only a quarter of agricultural land is being cultivated.

Responding to Amnesty's accusations, Lopez said the decree has much more behind it than has been reported.

Born out of long discussions and high levels of collaboration, the program is meant to increase the mobility of “specialised workers that have the ability to transmit their knowledge and their skills” to the currently uncultivated fields, he said.

By pumping expertise — from chemistry to management — into an underdeveloped sector, the program aims to boost agricultural production high enough to both feed Venezuelans and export to its Mercosur neighbors.

[Reprinted from TeleSUR English.]

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