Between Caracas and Delhi

Reuven Kaminer, Venezuelanalysis.com

It seems more than a coincidence that two important conferences of the international left took place last month, in November 2009. One, the 11th International Meeting of the Communist and Workers’ Parties was held in Delhi, India and issued the “Delhi Declaration” (DD) and the other, a World Meeting of Left Parties, met in Caracas, Venezuela and issued a document entitled the “Caracas Commitment.” (CC) There were approximately 50 organizations at each conference. I will try to relate here to some of the main issues raised by these two meetings and the calls that they issued.

There is some difficulty in comparing the two documents in that the Delhi Declaration (DD) is much shorter, about a third in length of the Caracas Commitment (CC) and much more general and less specific. In addition to listing the progressive position on the many fronts of concrete struggle, the CC suggests important international initiatives.

There are important differences between the two calls. However, it should be stressed that they are not and were not written as opposing or alternative theses. There is indeed some danger of ‘over analyzing’ the differences many of which may have more to do with form than substance.

The general tone of both meetings reflects a desire to concretize the call for socialism. Both documents center on the analysis of the current crisis of capitalism and emphasize the need for a socialist solution to the crisis. The motivation is quite clear. The current crisis of capitalism poses the question of socialism as an urgent theoretical and political problem. The crisis is also a crisis for social-democracy, for class collaboration in the economy and a blow to the faith that things will work themselves out in the economy. One can hope that the common position of the DD and the CC on this vital question will afford a broad basis for unity and cooperation. Both conferences wish to reframe the demand for socialism and to transform it into an urgent social-political issue. It is no longer sufficient to think of socialism as an abstract perspective. If socialism means anything it must present itself as the best and most reliable solution for the present crisis.

What is Socialism?

There are important differences between the two documents in the treatment of socialism. CC talks clearly about 21st Century Socialism and Chavez has some clearly uncomplimentary things to say about the Stalinist deformation in the Soviet Union. Though Chavez and Venezuela’s Latin-American allies are in the forefront of the struggle against US imperialism, the CC clearly states that opposition to imperialism and the struggle for national sovereignty are not enough. In short, the time has come to move past the main slogan of the anti globalization movement to the effect that a “better world is possible”. The movement against capitalist globalization must transform itself into a revolutionary movement for socialism.

The DD is exceptionally cautious and restrained in its description of the current scene in Latin America. It categorizes the fight in Latin America as an essentially defensive front: “Latin America, the current theater of popular mobilizations and working class actions, has shown how rights can be protected and won through struggle.” (www.11IMCWP.in) The dramatic difference between this DD description, which can be characterized as positive but cool, and the CC on this and other important strategic questions is a highly significant.

Though one can easily identify with the chief demands in the DD, it does seem a bit long on platitudes and short on specifics. There is a glaring discrepancy between the detailed and clear arguments against capitalism in the DD and the rather unclear role of the category of socialism in the very same document. Precisely, in the light of a new priority granted to the advance of socialism to a higher place on today’s agenda, the absence of a deeper analysis, historical and contemporary, on the outlines of the socialist alternative is sorely felt. No one could demand a single, one-size- fits all formula for socialism today from the DD. But this is a not a reason to ignore differences on the subject and the need for detailed analyses on the multiple paths to socialism. It is, of course, a fact that there are different ideological trends and political approaches on this key question in the Communist movement. If socialism is indeed to be on the agenda, the discussion of these trends and their significance cannot be suppressed.

The DD states correctly that “Imperialism,[has been] buoyed by the demise of the Soviet Union” and that “the achievements and contributions of socialism in defining the contours of modern civilization remain inerasable.” (www.11IMCWP.in) However, nothing in the least critical is said of the Soviet project. There is something very problematic in the total evasion of any discussion regarding the weaknesses of Soviet socialism and its sad collapse. This is a serious weakness and silence on this matter would seem to open the door to attack by many enemies of the very idea of socialism. Moreover, for many serious progressives, the thinking of Communists on this question is of genuine interest.

The Bolivarian Revolution on the Move

The immediate historical background of the CC is the 2005 declaration by Chavez to build “21st Century Socialism” and the creation of a new, mass revolutionary party in Venezuela. It is important to add here the growing consolidation of the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Paraguay and its historical link with revolutionary and independent Cuba.

The constant machinations by US imperialism to undermine and isolate the Bolivarian revolution by military, political, and economic means are convincing proof that this arena is presently the flash point of the battle against imperialism.

The CC does not, unlike the DD, stop at recommending general positions and ideas. It offers detailed plans for the creation of new platforms of joint action by the left, including (1) Establishment of a “Temporary Executive Secretariat (TES) that allows for the coordination of a common working agenda” on agreed policies; (2) Organization of a World Movement for Peace; (3) Special instruments to advance public communication and win the battle of the media.

All of the above, if properly implemented, could impart new vigor and enthusiasm to the fight for peace and socialism. But Chavez and the Venezuelan leadership have also moved far past the above initiatives, and presented a new, bold proposal for the establishment of a Fifth International.

”The international encounter of Left-wing Political parties held in Caracas on November 19, 20 and 21, 2009, received the proposal made by Commander Hugo Chavez Frias to convoke the V Socialist International as a space for socialist-oriented parties, movements and currents in which we can harmonize a common strategy for the struggle against imperialism, the overthrow of capitalism by socialism and solidarity based economic integration of a new type.” (www.venezuelanalysis.com)

Diversity and Controversy on the Way to a New International

Leftists and students of the modern era are cognizant of the complex issues involved in the conception, goals and practice of Marxist internationalism and its main tool, the international, which it established to create a material and organizational foundation for its ideals.

Chavez considered it important to outline from the outset of the discussion on a new international his own understanding of the historic outcome of previous attempts. These views were summarized in a report by Kiraz Janicke of his speech at the Caracas conference and published in an official Venezuelan website: “During his speech, Chavez briefly outlined the experiences of previous ‘internationals,’ including the First International founded in 1864 by Karl Marx; the Second International founded in 1889, which collapsed in 1916 as various left parties and trade unions sided with their respective capitalist classes in the inter-imperialist conflict of the First World War; the Third International founded by Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, which Chavez said “degenerated” under Stalinism and “betrayed” struggles for socialism around the world; and the Fourth International founded by Leon Trotsky in 1938, which suffered numerous splits and no longer exists, although some small groups claim to represent its political continuity. Chavez said that a new international would have to function “without impositions” and would have to respect diversity.” (www.venezuelanalysis.com)

It is of course far too early to jump to any kind of conclusions regarding the Chavez proposal on the basis of the above outline or the results of the first responses from various organizations. While it would be unwise to disregard the historical ‘hints’ in Chavez’s outline, my reading of the proposal is that we are not going to be asked to return to an international based on ‘democratic centralism.’ The idea of the international was associated historically with some sort of centrally disciplined world- wide party. It is important to stress that Chavez seems to understand his proposal as suggesting a new form of international built around the concept of unity in diversity.

At any rate, the Chavez project is a political thunderbolt and should initiate new and broad discussion of the role of internationalism in the struggle against imperialism and for socialism. Such a discussion can only contribute to our ideological and political consciousness. We are at the very beginning of a process and it would be wise to reserve any tendency to hasty judgment.

The Food Sovereignty Movement in Venezuela (II)

Anna Isaacs, Basil Weiner, Grace Bell, Courtney Frantz and Katie Bowen

Defining Food Sovereignty

During his expeditions with INIA Basil saw the work of rural communal councils. Through their communal councils, many agricultural villages and towns are organizing to develop transportation infrastructure in order to make production economically viable. Since isolation can threaten food sovereignty, this development is most urgent where dirt roads are all that connect remote villages to larger urban markets.. One such road lies in a mountainous region south of the city of Mérida in a cluster of small towns called Los Pueblos del Sur, or the villages of the south. The road is a patchwork; some sections are paved while others are virtually impassable without four-wheel drive. This patchwork road illustrates a very interesting dynamic of the Bolivarian revolution. With increased autonomy over their territory through legally recognized communal councils, some communities have made it a priority to improve their section of the road. They have created plans; they have applied for and received government funds and they have paved the sections that pass through their community. Neighboring communities have not.

This can easily be seen as proof of the ineffectiveness of community-based development. A road that passes through many communities presents the challenge of consistency. But development initiated by one community may motivate others. People can learn from a neighbor’s example that they have the very tangible power to direct the development of their communities and their regions; they may decide to pave their own sections of road.

8. Education

Education is central to building consciousness of farmers’ rights and urban peoples’ rights to food. Education in many social movements has been a tool to organize people. It is also a service that has been neglected in the Venezuelan countryside, leaving a whole constituency of citizens without access to schooling. Mission Sucre provides free higher education to poor and previously excluded people. The government expects the student body to grow to one million by 2009, with more than 190 satellite classrooms throughout Venezuela, especially in the countryside, where students are receiving higher education for the first time.[19] In the small farming village of Bojo we observed a classroom affiliated with the Bolivarian University that offered courses in agro-ecology. Students are expected to use the knowledge gained in their course to serve the community, linking theory to practice. The director, Andrés Eloy Ruiz describes the teachers in these classes as “leader[s] of the process of learning but also…full participant[s] in the process of connection with a community in which, with the knowledge that both students and faculty have, the community’s problems can be resolved.” The Ministry of Higher Education is particularly interested in creating agroecological programs that specialize in studies useful to peasants, the indigenous and African descendants.[20]

At the Simon Rodriguez University students are required to engage in the problems encountered in their communities. We heard from Maria Vicente that her worm cooperative in Mucuchies was benefiting from the help of agroecology students who came to her wanting to learn and asking how they could help. This shift in educational philosophy is creating professionals who are experienced in working in concert with the needs and priorities of communities.

Anna and Katie attended a three-day farmer’s conference in Mucuchies that was organized around the region’s problems with soil erosion. Students from the Simon Rodriguez University, many of them children of farmers, were at the conference to become involved in the political organization of their community. The conference was part of something larger we saw in Venezuela—a culture of workshops and sharing of knowledge. Soil erosion was becoming an economic as well as environmental problem for farmers in the region. This region is very special and seen as a model of success for what community organizing could look like in rural areas. Communal counsels, students, regional organizations like Instituto para la Producción e Investigación de la Agricultura Tropical (IPIAT), farming, processing, and vending cooperatives, and government services like INIA and INDER were organized into a larger Red de Comunicación Agrícola, or Network of Agricultural Communication, that had been meeting periodically. Because they were organized like this, they were able to mobilize by convening the conference to learn about erosion, techniques of agro-ecological production and recuperation of soil and water, and make agro-ecological farming the norm rather than the exception. In three days we learned the basic principles of agro-ecology. We watched presentations by regional activists like Lijia Para of Associacion y Coordinacion de Agriculturas de Rangel (ACAR), and experts like Fred Magdoff from Vermont and Miguel Angel Nuñez. We networked with others and learned about projects people were working on in the region, like reforestation and the rebirth of herbal medicine. Perhaps the most important thing I witnessed was farmers sharing their problems and successes in agro-ecological, small scale farming, and collaborating with students, government technicians, and experts in a beautiful participatory way. On the last day, people discussed goals for the region, one which was to stop using chemicals and large amounts of chicken manure fertilizers. As farmers, government workers, and activists alike received their diplomas for the completion of the course, we could see their excitement, looking forward to the changing future.

One of the most exciting schools we visited was the Latin American Institute of Agroecology “Paulo Freire” school in Barinas. The worldwide peasant movement, Via Campesina, that provided the definition of food sovereignty for this paper and the peasant movement in Brazil, Movimiento Sin Tierra (MST), approached Chavez in 2005 at the World Social Forum to create a farmers school in Venezuela. Chavez agreed and with Bolivarian University funding, donated 35 hectares of land expropriated from an privately-owned latifundio. Seventy students (48 male, 22 female) between 18 and 30 years of age from 7 Latin American countries were elected by the peasant movements of their countries and arrived to build their campus from scratch. Students from Venezuela are elected by the Frente Nacional Campesino Ezequiel Zamora.

In five years, the students will graduate with professional degrees. There are eleven professors that teach classes from epistemology to physics, agricultural history to biodiversity and plant life. The institute is named after the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, universally known in the field of popular education. The pedagogical method fuses university studies with the traditional knowledge and culture that each individual and the collective holds. “The result should be that the political thought of pedagogy is committed to the social dynamic of the popular struggle.” When Anna asked what the students wanted to do after graduating, most said they were going back to their families to farm, become leaders in social movements, and do community organizing.

A student named Orlandiz told us his family and other families took over land in Zulia and formed a farming cooperative with the help of Mission Zamora. He became active in Frente Zamora and they elected him to go to the school in Barinas. As he was teaching us how to grow yucca, he was asked whether he had known how to do this before going to university. He replied, “I, shamefully, am the son of a campesino, so I always knew how to plant yucca but I didn’t know why I was doing it. Now I am testing what I learned before and am more connected to it.” At the school, students are learning to be proud to be farmers, learning how important they are to society and using that power to organize around their rights as producers of labor and consumers of the fruits of the earth. Sixto, from Brazil, sported a MST shirt that said: “organize, produce, feed.” The goals of the school are similar: produce food to become self-sustaining, organize politically, and work within the community while learning academically.

The land that was given to them by the Venezuelan government serves as a ground for experimentation. In one area an old yucca field had been allowed to grow wild to let the land recuperate from the chemicals that the previous latifundio used and to see what grew there naturally. In another area, they were using the Mexican growing model of intercropping beans, corn, and squash. As the need for more classrooms grew, the students started constructing classrooms out of straw and mud as an exploration into native, sustainable architecture. We helped them build a pond for the ducks and advised them to learn about plants that purify and hold water. The next day they started to do this. This mentality and interest in experimenting was prevalent, and was often carried over into community work. For every 16 weeks spent on campus, 6 are spent in farming communities all over Venezuela participating in innovative, experimental projects. By funding a school that serves all of Latin America, Chavez has received a force of young enthusiastic students who are working on Venezuelan projects while catalyzing an agrarian movement throughout Latin America.

9. Food systems outside of the government

While the government is doing as much as it can to advance towards food sovereignty, there is also plenty of room to work outside the government towards these same goals.

Cecosesola is an umbrella cooperative in Barquisimeto that incorporates 80 organizations in 5 states. It was started in 1967 by 9 cooperatives who wanted to provide affordable means of burying the dead. By the 1970’s it evolved into a subsidized bus transportation service. By 1984 Cecosesola had reorganized to provide mobile food markets. This method of selling directly to people was highly successful and led to the idea of having permanent distribution areas in the city.

Now Cecosesola has 3 ferias, or markets, where food and other household necessities are sold. Their cooperative is the largest network of food production and distribution in the country. During our time in Barquisimeto, we worked at the feria in the center of the city. The cooperative is a wholesale distributor of fresh produce supplied by 12 farmer associations and 12 food processing associations, all within a 5-hour drive.

What makes Cecosesola so influential and important is the price of the food they provide, their direct connection with their associated producers, and the methods they’ve developed to create egalitarian relationships among their members. The cooperative was created in the 1960’s in order to provide affordable necessities to communities. Today, Cecosesola works directly with local growers and the price it pays for produce is based on what it costs the farmers to produce; in this way the cooperative pays the farmers a fair price for their produce. Cecosesola’s prices are approximately 50% of the prices found in supermarkets and estimates are that their produce uses 80% less chemicals. In a city of 1.5 million inhabitants, over 55,000 families get their weekly supply of food from the cooperative.

At Cecosesola the members of the cooperative meet to decide what wage they should all receive in relation to their costs and profits. Cecosesola’s financial information is completely transparent and since job rotation is practiced, most members have a good understanding of every aspect of the cooperative’s functioning. Cecosesola makes an annual profit of 1.5%. 1% is to counter inflation and .5% is invested back into the cooperative and used for social benefits for the members. Some examples of this are the clinics they maintain in different areas of the city, and a state-of-the-art health center, still under construction, which will serve those who work at the feria, their families, and associated producers. The services of the clinic and health center are available to the general population as well, with fees set to recoup the costs of service.

Las Lajitas is a small farm near Monte Carmelo and Bojo in the state of Lara, near Barquisimeto. It is the organic branch of a larger cooperative, La Alianza. La Alianza is one of the many producers in the country that are associated with the Cecosesola project. Some of us worked for three weeks at Las Lajitas and had the opportunity to see both how the farm is organized and run internally and how it interacts with the larger, regional Cecosesola food system.

In the 1960’s a small group of European Catholic missionaries came to the region with the intention of working with the communities to help solve local problems. Following the principles of liberation theology, the priests worked in close cooperation with farmworkers in the region to confront issues of poverty: hunger, malnutrition, exploitation and landlessness. La Allianza was created, and eventually obtained land and became an important agricultural producer for the region. Their association with Cecosesola has brought in reliable income for decades. The associates at Las Lajitas explained that this association was created, the most they could get for a kilo of potatoes was two bolivars; the same potatoes would end up in an urban supermarket settling for bolivars per kilo. Instead of an “invisible hand” that threatens the economic viability of the production of food, producers and vendors meet every 3 months. Once the price of labor and all other inputs (seeds, fertilizers, water, electricity) are calculated, a price is decided based on how much it costs to produce.

Regional integration is very well established in this food system. Food produced at Las Lajitas goes to 8 de Marzo, the women’s pasta making cooperative and or to Moncar, a women’s sauce and jam making cooperative. These processes of adding value to locally produced raw materials have bolstered the local economy.

While Cecosesola is autonomous and unaffiliated with the government, La Allianza does accept government assistance. INIA has worked with them on on issues related to soil health and quality, seed saving techniques, worm technology and micro-rizome experiments. They have been instrumental in helping the farm become organic. Some of the farmers have been involved in national and international outreach efforts to share the knowledge they have acquired through their 40 year process of learning.

8 de Marzo is a women’s cooperative in Palo Verde that sells whole wheat and vegetable-derived pasta to Cecosesola. This cooperative was primarily founded by women. Many rural women in Venezuela carry a double burden; they work for low wages outside the home, but they also put in long hours of unpaid domestic work, and in addition, many are single mothers. In rural areas migrant farm work pulls families apart, leaving women to care for the home and children. 8 de Marzo has significantly benefited the economic lives of the women who work there.

8 de Marzo has also closed the gap between poor producers and poor consumers. They work closely with the people they buy from and sell to in order to create a network of cooperation. They source vegetables from Las Lajitas to support organic farming in their local economy. They set their wages just above minimum wage so that their product can be sold at affordable prices. There are many benefits that have been socialized and localized: food stamps are provided by the cooperative that are spent at a store which is owned by their members and which carries their products. Women members are paid by the cooperative to care for each others children. 8 de Marzo decides collectively what they need and want. In this model, there is a space to discuss women’s issues, labor, economics, food systems, and the environment, and to build their collective political power as women, campesinas, workers, and people.

The cooperative Bervere in Tucaní has struggled with selling their produce at fair rates. They are far away from Cecosesola and felt that selling to them was not profitable. They also sold their produce to the Venezuelan Agrarian Corporation, but they waited 9 months for payment—CVA is a slow moving government program that is still in its infancy—only a year old. It was easier and more reliable for Bevere to sell to intermediaries even though they received lower prices. It is obvious that the connection between producer and consumer is what needs the most improvement; it is the part of the food system that is the weakest. We visited Barrio San Juan in Caracas, where the Colectivo Revolucionario de San Juan actively sought out small farmers outside the city and by eliminating intermediaries was able to sell produce at a farm stand at the base of the barrio. The small profit made by the collective is being used to build a community center where the farm stand can expand into a large open-air market. Every Sunday some of the money is used to cook a huge pot of soup and the whole barrio is invited to eat and spend time together in order to strengthen the community. As the project continues, a comuna is developing, including communal council members, the collective, the farmers, and those interested in running the cooperative food market. The cooperative food market is a great example of a Social Production Enterprise that will further endogenous development between the producer and consumer. The space where the market will one day stand is now just rubble under a highway overpass, but neighbors shows up regardless to play dominoes and bingo, and talk politics. They are building the energetic foundations of an important community space.

Further Problems: World Food Crisis

Since 2003, household poverty in Venezuela has been cut in half, from 54% to 27.5%[21]. As Venezuela’s poor obtain more spending power, they are able to consume more than ever before (some say 400% more), contributing to inflation. In three years alone, from 2004 to 2007, consumption more than doubled from $24 billion to $52 billion. On a global scale, from 2002 to 2007, global consumption of milk rose by 14.3% while the number of milk cows rose by only 1%. Production has not kept up with consumption. President Chavez commented, “The impact of tighter food supply is already evident in raw food prices, which have risen 22% in the past year… wheat prices alone have risen 92%”[22]. When most of one’s income goes towards food, as it does in Venezuela, these numbers are very damaging, with the damage falling disproportionately on the poor. Venezuela’s problem is part of a larger food crisis worldwide, where inflation and food shortages are reoccurring. For example, in 2007, when many bakeries in Mexico went out of business due to rising wheat prices, protestors took to the street. Mexico imports over 60% of the wheat it consumes. Recently, Afghanistan asked for $77 million in emergency food aid. The Philippines have had difficulty in meeting their rice quota after a 40% rise in the price of rice. This crisis is new and baffling: never have we seen these patterns without war, drought, or natural disasters.[23]

Fossil Fuel Dependency Creates Contradictions Worldwide

Chavez has said that one of the causes of rising food prices may be global warming. Oil revenues are being invested into agricultural production, but what is oil, a fossil fuel, doing to agriculture in the long term? Fossil fuels contribute to global warming, which is predicted to contribute to the world food crisis. According to a new study at the Carnegie Institution and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, researchers found that in the past two decades, warming temperatures have caused annual losses of roughly $5 billion for major food crops.[24] While there is a lot of work being done to develop more understanding of agro-ecology, the production of petro-fertilizers has not slowed down. We drove past an industrial complex that produced the petro-fertilizers, brandishing the state oil company’s name, PDVSA. As we passed the complex, our professor’s partner explained to us that PDVSA fertilizers were being traded with Cuba, marking a disappointing regression from agro-ecological farming since 1989 when trading with the former Soviet Union collapsed.

Another factor, as Chavez says, “is Bush’s crazy plan to use food to make fuel.” He is referring to the United State’s policy of using subsidized corn for the production of ethanol, which caused the global price of corn to increase by 44% in 2008. In response, Chavez banned corn exports to ensure that corn would be used only for consumption.[25] Evo Morales, president of Bolivia has said, “Agro-fuels are not an alternative, because they put the production of foodstuffs for transport before the production of food for human beings. Agro-fuels expand the agricultural frontier destroying forests and biodiversity, generate monocropping, promote land concentration, deteriorate soils, exhaust water sources, contribute to rises in food prices and, in many cases, result in more consumption of more energy than is produced.”[26]

Food Security vs. Food Sovereignty

Relying on food imports may alleviate the short-term crisis of food shortages, but will not ensure a long-term solution that leads to food sovereignty. This has to be achieved by entrusting workers and communities with the power over their own food production and distribution. While Mercal is concerned with feeding the hungry through subsidized commodities that foster food security, the mission as of now doesn’t tackle issues essential to food sovereignty like fair trade, land degradation through chemical use, culturally appropriate and healthy foods, or building endogenous development—because they can import, buy from transnationals operating in Venezuela, or buy from large latifundios. To help overcome food shortages, Chavez lightened restrictions on the importation of 50 products[27]. This will not achieve sovereignty over Venezuela’s food system. While the minister administering Mercal might request a larger budget to import more beans, the minister of INIA might be more interested in figuring out how to increase bean production within the country. Even if a nation was secure in its bean production, if its security was brought about by a government-owned food system that hired people to work in government farms, factories, and distribution sites, then food sovereignty would only be obtained on the national level, rather than the local level. In this classic socialist sense, the state could control all the means of production and create complete food security. But socialist agricultural development looks very different than this in Venezuela. The food sovereignty movement is, essentially, socialism decentralized. The Venezuelan government is a supportive facilitator for the projects that cooperatives and communities decide they need for themselves.

However, the immediate need for food security can and does delay the larger movement for food sovereignty. The debate and contradictions forming around food security and food sovereignty are taking place worldwide. For example, Ecuador’s constitution states that food sovereignty is a priority but they also allow GMOs into their country. MST of Brazil is an internationally known organization that has gained political recognition and power, but Brazil is also one of the largest producers of soy for export.

Conclusion

It is interesting to look at how the numbers mirror each other: 80% of people in poverty, 90% urbanized, 70% of food imported, 70% of land in the hands of 3% of the population, and 2% of GDP based in agriculture. The problems of food and poverty are connected. They do not represent a nation that is sovereign or sustainable. In the case of Venezuela, these numbers are also a result of neo-liberal development. The examples presented in this paper, of new laws, new techniques, new organizing are examples of what Venezuela calls endogenous development, which represents a different model of development for agriculture, for people, and for the nation—development that is communal and local and ensures the people’s sovereignty and sustainability. For one of the first times in Latin American history, there is synergy between the efforts of the government and people because through participatory democracy, the people have become their own government. They rightfully aim to be sovereign from foreign corporations and US imperialist intervention. This sovereignty has bubbled over to all sectors, one of the most important being food. One of the goals of the government and the people is a food system that is just and sustainable, that is able to provide what people need. Based on the examples provided here, it is certain that great strides have been made in the 10 years of Chavez’ administration. Agricultural production has increased by 24%, corn production by 205%, rice by 94%, sugar by 13%, and milk by 11%.[28]

The Bolivarian movement, symbolized and led by Hugo Chavez, is working towards a different set of ideas, principles and goals. Just like healthcare and education, access to food is a constitutionally protected basic human right. The Venezuelan Food Security Law states:

“It is indispensable to guarantee to all Venezuelan citizens access to quality food in sufficient quantity. For true and revolutionary rural development, it is necessary to overcome the traditional market conception of foods and agricultural products. This vision is a detriment to the fundamental right that all Venezuelans have to feed themselves.”

The government and the people of Venezuela share a common perspective about what their problems are and how they should go about solving them. When people are given the tools and the freedom to produce how and what they want, they inevitably begin to create a society that has the interests of its very designers at the center, the interests of people and their sovereignty.

The authors recently spent three months studying in Venezuela with the academic program Building Economic and Social Justice of Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.

Notes

[19] Podur, Justin. “Venezuela’s Revolutionary University.” Znet. 22 Septmenber 2004. 7 May 2009. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/707 [1]

[20] Gilbert, Chris and Cira Pascual Marquina. “A Leap Forward: Higher Education in the Bolivarian Revolution.” Venezuela Analysis. 27 November 2006. 24 May 2009. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/2088 [2]

[21] Weisbrot, Mark. “Poverty reduction in Venezuela: A Reality-based View”. Scribd. Fall 2008. 1 June 2009. http://www.scribd.com/doc/8172174/Poverty-Reductionin-Venezuela-A-Reality-Based-View [3]

[22] Fuentes, Federico and Tamara Pearson. “Combating Food Shortages in Venezuela.” Green Left Weekly. 3 February 2008. 26 May 2009. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/3121 [4]

[23] Suggett, James. “Chávez Emphasizes Global Context of Venezuelan Food Shortages.” Venezuela Analysis. 27 March 2008. 1 June 2009. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/3306 [5]

[24] “Global Warming Causes Losses in Food Production.” The Energy Blog. 20 March 2007. 28 May 2009. http://thefraserdomain.typepad.com/energy/2007/03/global_warming__1.html [6]

[25] Suggett, James. “Venezuelan Government’s Strategies for Confronting Food Supply Shortages.” Venezuela Analysis. 7 February 2008. 27 May 2009. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/3129 [7]

[26] Lerner, Josh. “Communal Councils in Venezuela: Can 200 Families Revolutionize Democracy?” Z Magazine. 6 March 2007. 5 May 2009. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/2257 [8]

[27] Suggett, James. “Venezuelan Government’s Strategies for Confronting Food Supply Shortages.” Venezuela Analysis. 7 February 2008. 27 May 2009. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/3129 [7]

[28] Suggett, James. “U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization Says Venezuela Prepared for World Food Crisis.” Venezuela Analysis. 27 February 2009. 16 May 2009. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/4254 [9]

Courtesy: Venezuelanalysis.com

The Food Sovereignty Movement in Venezuela (I)

Anna Isaacs, Basil Weiner, Grace Bell, Courtney Frantz and Katie Bowen

Defining Food Sovereignty

Food sovereignty is a relatively new concept. Originally coined and defined by the international peasant movement, Via Campesina, in Mons, Belgium in 1993, it is:

“The RIGHT of peoples, countries, and state unions to define their agricultural and food policy without the “dumping” of agricultural commodities into foreign countries. Food sovereignty organizes food production and consumption according to the needs of local communities, giving priority to production for local consumption. Food sovereignty includes the right to protect and regulate the national agricultural and livestock production and to shield the domestic market from the dumping of agricultural surpluses and low-price imports from other countries. Landless people, peasants, and small farmers must get access to land, water, and seed as well as productive resources and adequate public services. Food sovereignty and sustainability are a higher priority than trade policies.”[1]

Via Campesina, in its definition, clearly states certain specific issues that deserve more attention in relation to Venezuela’s current recovery of its food sovereignty. These issues are absolutely essential, not only in guaranteeing that local food needs be met by local food production, but also in protecting the cultural heritage of people who have invested generations upon generations in the same land. All over the world, where people have had land in their families for centuries, the land is being lost because of the dumping of heavily subsidized, imported foods onto their local markets. Farmers cannot compete and must give up their land. With those losses goes pride and the hope for locally based and supported food systems. Rising numbers of farmer suicides are the ultimate result of a system of global trade that strips away the land, its products, cultural heritage and pride. People are dying because they cannot afford to eat and farmers are dying because they cannot afford to feed.

Some of Venezuela’s obstacles to food sovereignty include: the speculative market that formed around buying and selling land; the transformation from individual landowners to conglomerate companies, and farmers to farm workers; and technology that has made a small farmer’s way of life economically unsustainable.

Economic History

The story of the Venezuelan economy deserves special attention because of the presence of oil. In order to understand the specific forces working against food sovereignty, we must travel to the 16th century, when Spanish colonizers arrived to Venezuela’s fertile grounds. Isabel Allende once commented on the fertility of Venezuelan soil: if she didn’t dust daily, she would arrive home to find a plant growing straight out of the dust on top of her furniture. The Spanish colonizers enslaved Africans and native peasants, and grew cocoa, coffee, sugar, cotton, and tobacco for export. At least 70% of the population lived in the countryside and 80% of the country’s revenues were attributable to agricultural production. After the War for Independence (1821-1839), strongmen, caudillos, who had risen through the ranks during the war won large estates called latifundios, and land was further consolidated into fewer hands.

In 1914, however, the country’s oil wealth was discovered, and within 50 years Venezuela’s economy had been completely reoriented. With two world wars, petroleum-based industrialization and use of personal vehicles, the world demand for oil increased dramatically. Instead of agricultural exports, the country exported oil, and by 1957 agricultural activity only accounted for 1.9% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Most widely referred to as “Dutch disease”, the Venezuelan economy suffered from paralysis in all sectors not affiliated with oil. Domestic agricultural production could not meet domestic demand and the country quickly became a net importer of food. The countryside was no longer of service to the oil-rich policy makers and fell into a state of neglect. With another oil boom in the 1970’s, the Dutch disease only worsened. The increased importation of food crippled local agricultural production, leaving large groups of Venezuelans with no choice but to migrate to the cities where there was more hope of finding work. As a result, Venezuela is one of the most urbanized countries in the world with most sources estimating that approximately 90% of the population is located in urban areas. Today, any traveler can observe the effects: shantytowns, or barrios, crowd the hillsides around the more well-to-do city centers. Employment rates and infrastructure cannot keep pace with mass migration. Residents don’t always have water or electricity; roads, which are usually too narrow for automobiles to navigate, aren’t officially named or marked. In the overcrowded conditions, poverty festers.

In 1989, President Carlos Andrés Pérez gave in to IMF policies. Pérez was required to apply the neo-liberal package: privatizing services, cutting social spending and subsidies, orienting the economy for export, and deregulating trade.[2] Venezuela’s economy was already oriented towards the export of oil, which destroyed internal agriculture production, caused a build-up of poverty in the city and created a need to import more food. But the new policies also demanded that social spending and subsidies be cut. With the government unable to subsidize Venezuela’s own oil, prices of everything, especially food and transportation, doubled overnight, and Venezuelans took to the streets rioting, in what is called the Caracazo. The Pérez government brutally repressed the rioters, killing thousands. Most observers believe that Hugo Chavez was elected president in 1998 in direct response to failed neo-liberal policies and the repression of the Caracazo: Chavez’s victory symbolized taking back sovereignty and working for the welfare and needs of the people. Chavez won on a platform to eliminate corruption, fight poverty, and create a new constitution. The 1999 constitution, drafted by a popular assembly and approved by a clear majority of the population, is considered one of most progressive in world. It prioritizes food sovereignty, addressing food as a basic human right, not merely a commodity.

Food Culture

Hugo Chavez and his government are among the first policy makers in the world to address issues of food sovereignty, but they are working against years and years of damage that have already been done. The present-day reality is that Venezuela imports 70% of the food it consumes. Pabellon, the national plate of Venezuela, is made of slow roasted, pulled beef, white rice, black beans with cheese, and fried plantains. However, Venezuela does not produce the entirety of its national meal; the majority of black beans and beef consumed in the country are imported. In supermarkets food prices are about the same as they are in the U.S., but Venezuela’s minimum wage is $11 US a day. This does not translate perfectly to the U.S. because many poor people in Venezuela don’t pay rent and there are no property or income taxes. Nonetheless, a high percentage of one’s income goes to food, especially for those living in poverty.

Compared to most of the nations of Latin America, Venezuela is relatively prosperous, and for the most part, minimum caloric intake is met. However, in many quarters, the diet is poor. We found it odd to learn that Venezuelans don’t eat many vegetables when their soil is so fertile and they could grow them all year long. Salad was rare. Fruit was readily available, but it was usually served as juice, with a lot of added sugar. You find a lot of processed flours, powdered milk, and hydrogenated oil—a diet similar to that consumed by many people in the United States. One of our classmates became sick and told her host-mom that she hadn’t been able to poop for the past 3 or 4 days. Her host-mom seemed to think this was normal. Upon my arrival to Venezuela, my host-brother wanted to take me out. I was expecting Venezuelan cuisine. Instead, we went to the mall where he professed his love for McDonalds to me. These experiences could just be a few extreme, isolated cases, but if Venezuelans had control over their food supply, would they be eating this way? Would they be connected to their luscious countryside and eat more fresh vegetables and less sugars and starches? Would they practice a more traditional food culture and less addiction to corporate American brands?

As campesinos were pushed off their land and flocked to the barrios to find jobs in oil and industry, Venezuela lost much of its traditional food culture and its ability to feed itself. In Venezuela, corporations have the ability to dictate what is eaten and create a demand for their products through marketing and media control. Venezuela has been colonized by food corporations. You can’t get away from Nescafe and Coca Cola. The “globalization” taking place around the world can also be called “Americanization”.

How is Venezuela moving forward to food sovereignty and away from the problems history has brought them?

1. Land reform

Article 307 of the constitution states:

“The predominance of latifundios is contrary to the interests of society. Appropriate tax law provisions shall be enacted to tax fallow lands and establish the necessary measures to transform them into productive economic units, likewise recovering arable land. Farmers and other agricultural producers are entitled to own land in the cases and forms specified under the pertinent law. The State shall protect and promote associative and private forms of property in such manner as to guarantee agricultural production. The State shall see to the sustainable ordering of arable land to guarantee its food-producing potential.”

Likewise, the constitution specifies that it is the State’s obligation to promote the development of agriculture in Venezuela:

“The state will promote conditions for holistic rural development, with the purpose of generating employment and guaranteeing the peasant population an adequate level of well-being, as well as their incorporation into national development. Similarly, it will support agricultural activity and the optimal use of land, by means of the provision of infrastructure works, credit, training services, and technical assistance.”

Reforms to Article 471 of Venezuela’s Penal Code de-criminalize small farmers who occupy private lands. The Law on Land and Agricultural Development of 2001 is the legal framework of land redistribution, which President Chavez calls “a return to the countryside”. The law aims to tax unused property that could potentially be used for growing and raising food. It also redistributes unused government-owned land to peasant families and cooperatives and expropriates uncultivated land for redistribution, while compensating private owners at market value. The size of uncultivated landholdings is limited to 50 hectares of high quality land and 3000 hectares of low quality land, with another four categories between these two extremes.

The National Land Institute (INTI) oversees the land redistribution process. It determines what land can be redistributed and who, out of those applying for land deeds, is eligible. Mission Zamora is a government initiative inspired by Ezequiel Zamora who was a crusader for land reform and peasants’ rights in the 1850’s. The mission is in charge of helping to organize small and medium producers and assisting them to receive land titles. When the work of these institutions started, 70% of cultivatable lands were in the hands of 3% of the population. By 2005 2.2 million hectares of state owned land had been redistributed to more than 130,000 peasant families and cooperatives. One million hectares of private land had been redistributed, of which 90% are successfully producing food.[3]

Recuperated lands are distributed to cooperatively run projects called Zamoran Farms. The land is owned by the state, but it is considered the cooperative’s as long as it remains productive. Value added to the land, such as housing, tractors, livestock, recuperated soil or planted trees, is classified as productive and belongs to the cooperative.

We visited such farms in Venezuela. One was a 60-hectare parcel of formerly idle, stateowned land in Merida, which the government granted to small producers. 63 people showed interest in the land, but they did not complete the free workshops offered by the government mission, Vuelvan Caras, which educates people about how to form cooperatives. As a result they were not eligible to attain helpful micro-credits and benefits from the government. Disappointed, they tried to divide the land into individual family farms to create an association of producers, but they could not create consensus and many people left. Out of the 63, seven stayed to form the cooperative, now called Pan y Amor, or Bread and Love.

We visited another Zamoran farm in Tucaní. The land redistribution process there was entirely different. The land was formerly a 200-hectare, privately owned latifundio. 206 laborers in the region organized a Land Committee, a Comite de Tierra, and fought for four years with the help of Mission Zamora to obtain the land. On April 7, 2002, after 120 hours of workshops about cooperatives, the Comite de Tierra became the cooperative Beveré. In this case, the workshops were given by an enterprise called Cecosesur. As with Pan y Amor, the number of members decreased; 65 people lasted through the workshops. They received the title to the land from the National Land Institute (INTI) on October 12th and on November 15th, entered the land. We were told that 42 members make up the cooperative today because, while people want land, they are not interested in the social organizing that accompanies it.

Outside of Caracas, we were able to witness an actual land takeover. 20 years ago, hundreds of families were pushed off the land when the landowner suddenly decided to take it back. He had done nothing productive with the land, so the residents organized to reclaim it, along with the surrounding land, and farm it. They were approved by INTI and we had the opportunity to partake in the celebration of entering the land. There we watched members of the community, aided by El Frente Nacional Campesino Ezequiel Zamora (The Ezequiel Zamora National Peasant Front) break the chains of the property to march onto the land that would be their new home and livelihood. These battles are not easy ones; it is important to know that since 2001, 241 rural activists have been murdered. One of the recipients of the land told us, “If we tried to do this ten years ago we would have been beaten by the cops.”

The Frente Campesino Ezequiel Zamora was an organization we heard a lot about. We met Braulio, a Frente leader, who we have been in touch with since returning to the U.S. In an email he wrote about the organization’s goals: “to form, organize and mobilize agrarian communities using and defending our laws that are fundamental tools; and to orient people collectively to eradicate Venezuelan bureaucracy.” Braulio wrote, “We also work in other countries and we belong to the worldwide organization, La Via Campesina. We believe in popular power and that the government only is in control when it is obeying the people.” This “lead by obeying” philosophy is a quintessential tenet of the Zapatista movement in southern Mexico. To witness separate campesino movements in Latin America operating on similar philosophical grounds gave us a lot of hope and helped us see that work being done in Venezuela has global scope and implications.

2. Institutions

Land reforms under previous presidents failed because there was no support for farmers once they received land. Newly created government institutions, like the missions and ministries, act as the supporting structure for the land reforms. I mentioned Mission Zamora and Mission Vuelvan Caras (now called Mission Che Guevara) in the section above. Mission Zamora’s goal is, according to government documents, to “reorganize the ownership and use of idle lands with agriculture to eradicate the latifundio” by aiding those interested in reclaiming land.

We visited a Mission Che Guevara in Quibor. This mission gives people scholarships, and often health and housing assistance while they take higher education classes in technology, management, history, and cooperative values. It focuses on the Social Production Enterprise (EPS) model, defined as “economic entities dedicated to the production of goods or services, in which work has its proper and authentic value, with no discrimination associated with any type of work, no privileges related to certain positions or hierarchies and with equality between its members, based on participative planning.”[4] Cooperatives are preferred by the state but not required. The Social Production Enterprises are part of a larger plan for endogenous development, another Venezuelan-coined term, which counters neo-liberal development. While neo-liberal development promotes privatization of services in order to profit transnational companies, endogenous development promotes socialized services and localized production, organized by and for the collective whole. The Che Guevara mission that we visited functioned as a community center, but there were also community members paid by the government who were giving workshops on baking, canning, sewing, electronic repair, wood shop, soldering, and tourism, in order to strengthen the local economy and generate employment.

The Ministry of Popular Power of Agriculture and Lands (MPPAT) is made up of four departments: INDER, FONDAS, CVA, and INIA. The National Institute for Rural Development, INDER, works on infrastructure and construction projects like irrigation, drainage, bridges, and roads. We saw their plaques on completed projects everywhere along the rural roads. The Socialist Agrarian Fund, FONDAS, assists farmers through micro lending at little to no interest. Pan y Amor, for example, needed a tractor and the government gave them credits to buy one. They aren’t required to begin payment on the tractor until the land begins to produce. If farmers receive such credits, they are often required to sell their goods to the Venezuelan Agrarian Corporation, CVA. This can be seen as a good thing or a bad thing because it offers a steady and fair buyer, in comparison to profiteering middlemen, but also leaves little space for independence and change. One of the CVA’s goals is to find markets for the products of small and medium farmers. In Quibor we visited a new plant that was comanaged by the government and workers from the community. They bought tomatoes, peppers, and onions from small and medium farmers in the region and made ketchup, salsa, and pasta sauce; they then sold these products to government subsidized food stores.[5] They are adding value to raw produce to develop food industries and create more jobs. A woman nervously approached us at the plant wanting to tell us something. She explained that before Chavez was elected, she worked as a migrant farm worker on latifundios, going wherever she could make enough to survive. She explained that as a single mother with three children, that kind of life was impossible, unbearable. Now she has steady work in one place. She threw her hands in the air and thanked Chavez for his compassion for the campesino. In 2008 the National Assembly allocated $379 million to a network of these “socialist” food producers. 21 agro-processing plants run by communities across Venezuela are currently coordinated by the CVA.[6]

The National Agriculture Research Institute, INIA, is particularly interesting to us. It is the participatory research branch that conducts studies and projects with farmers. If a farmer needs technical assistance, they can go to INIA and get it for free. Basil made contact with a team in the Merida office and went on several visits with them to the farms they work with. He explains that he was lucky in meeting this particular team (Angelica, Camilo, and Adrian) because they exhibit the amazing potential of INIA. We were introduced to Pan y Amor, a research plot in Zulia, and many small family farms in Pueblo del Sur. Pan y Amor struggled with their citrus production and asked INIA to help. INIA did this and more. Now with their help, the farmers are growing and studying the production of organic cocoa. Recently they started a new project of growing different varieties of yucca. The region is perfect for yucca production and the government, as a way to bolster internal production and processing of foods, is building a yucca-processing factory in the area. INIA is helping Pan y Amor conduct a yucca experiment on their land in preparation for this factory. The yucca grown there will be sold raw, but will also be processed into flour and a lubricant for oil drills. At the INIA research plot in Zulia, they are studying which varieties of plantains are more naturally resistant to pests and therefore require less chemical applications. This research was initially intended for a large plantation, but Beveré, the cooperative farm we visited in Tucani, was also benefiting from their research and was conducting a similar experiment on their land. In Pueblo del Sur, the INIA team is working with small family farms to study which grasses increase cows’ milk production. Angelica gave them the basic tools to conduct their own experiment to see which kind of grass made the cows produce the most milk. Each family ran its own experiment and by the end of a month, the cows were giving 5 litres of milk a day instead of 1. The goal of this experiment was not to increase milk production for commercial production, but to make sure small family farms remain self-subsistent. But the ability of small families to produce what they consume also has an impact on the amount of food the country needs to import.

The contact with small, rural farming operations provides opportunities for a very different kind of relationship between producer and researcher. There is a feeling of deep mutual respect. This is what is so significant about participatory research. A farmer told Basil, “Before, we only ever got help from scientists when they were writing their papers for school. They treated us poorly and only ever told us what we needed to do, never asking us what we needed help with.” We witnessed scientists encouraging producers to make sure their children went to school. The INIA researchers were always greeted more like family than professional associates. We also witnessed our friends at INIA spreading awareness about the opportunities that farmers have to organize to meet their needs. When one farmer complained about his irrigation difficulties, Angelica told him that he could get together with other farmers in the region, form a communal council[7] and apply for money to install more advanced irrigation infrastructure. After giving farmers seeds, Angelica explained that she wouldn’t give them anymore because the farmers need to be independent and claim the knowledge INIA is providing, like seed saving, as their own. This is in contrast to agricultural production since the Green Revolution, where seeds have been developed to terminate after a season, thus forcing farmers to rely on corporations like Monsanto to buy new seeds every year.

Anna met another team in the Merida office who was experimenting with a bacterium, as an ecological alternative to chemicals, to eliminate a butterfly larva that was killing the corn and cruciferous crop in the area. Another man named Javier was working with a strand of mushrooms called trichodherma harziaunum to kill mushrooms that were destroying broccoli, cauliflower, and potato crops.

3. Food Factories

Just as with land takeovers, there has been much organizing to take over important points of food production and distribution. We visited the town of Barlovento where family cooperatives grew cacao. The producers in the area understood that they were losing profit: they sold their cacao on the world market as a raw product and they bought back chocolate bars, the finished product, at a 100% price increase. They realized the importance of endogenous development and in 2004, the communal council[8] made a proposal to the government to build a cacao processing factory. The government approved the proposal and built a state of the art processing plant. The government and the communal council each owns 50% of the plant; however, the communal council has complete control over how the plant functions. The government can’t tell them what to do except to demand productivity.

The people of Barlovento are descendents of Africans who escaped the bondage of slavery. Their shared heritage has created a close-knit community. The people who work as farmers are often family members of those who work in the factory, and some people may do both. Because of this, there is close cooperation between the farms and the factory. Cacao is bought from small and medium farms at a fair price and surplus realized from factory production is reinvested in the whole system (from farming to processing) or divided equally between the farmers and factory workers.

Another example is the factory of the Italian multinational company Parmalat. When they abandoned their milk plant, the Venezuelan government bought it from them for $372 million. It is another example of a “socialist” producer supported by the CVA. It has the capacity to produce 1 million liters of milk per day, but currently, is only operating at 6% of its capacity.[9]

4. Subsidized food

Children all over the world “die because of illnesses that are practically always preventable and curable at a rate of over 30,000 per day, 21 per minute, and 10 every thirty seconds. In the South, the proportion of children suffering from malnutrition is upwards of 50% in quite a few countries, while, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, a child who lives in the First World will consume the equivalent of what 50 children consume in an underdeveloped country throughout his or her life.” This statement was made by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez at the opening of the seventh G-15 Summit on March 1, 2004. Mercal, PDVAL, comedores populares, and casas de alimentacion are all methods the government is using to stop hunger.[10]

In December 2002, Fedecámaras, Venezuela’s chamber of commerce, and PDVSA, the state-owned oil company called for what looked like a general strike, but was actually a lockout of employees. As in the United States Venezuela’s production and distribution of food was heavily controlled by international corporations. These food corporations supported the lockout, as an attempt to get Chavez out of office by creating instability in the country. This attempt of sabotage resulted in closed supermarkets, growing malnutrition, and food shortages across the country. On his television show, Aló Presidente, Chavez made clear how dangerous Venezuela’s lack of food sovereignty and vulnerability to the major food corporations was. Mission Mercal was created in response to this danger. It is a chain of government-subsidized grocery stores that sell meats, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, bread, cereal, pasta, rice, flours, tomato sauce, fruit, coffee, margarine, oil, sugar, and salt, all priced 39% below traditional supermarkets. They buy directly from Venezuelan producers or import what isn’t produced in Venezuela to eliminate the intermediary. The current goal is to buy 40% of food from small and medium local producers. They have also developed large storage spaces and distribution and transportation networks to combat food speculation, hoarding, and sabotage. The stores also provide jobs for the communities. Some Mercal stores, such as the one Katie went to in Monte Carmelo, are run by the community. They organized through their communal council to obtain money for the initial capital, and run it like community supported agriculture in the U.S., where customers receive packages of food weekly.

PDVAL markets, on the other hand, are run by the state oil company, PDVSA, and sell essential products at nationally regulated prices. They are mobile, smaller markets. We often saw PDVAL trucks selling to crowds of people in parking lots or plazas. Comedores Populares are popular cafeterias that offer large healthy lunches for five bolivars (about $2.50) or for free if you aren’t able to pay. Basil and I ate at one in Mérida and were pleasantly surprised. We saw men and women of different economic levels and classes all eating together. Casas de Alimentacion (basically soup kitchens) are community-run cafeterias that operate out of individual homes. Katie went to one in Palo Verde. She explained to me that women from the community used funds from their communal council to make lunch everyday for people who were in need. The government’s 14,000 Mercal stores and 6,000 soup kitchens comprise 22% of national food distribution currently. Per capita food consumption of Venezuelans has grown from 370 pounds of food per year in 1998 to 415 pounds per year now. The recommended amount of food that each person should consume per year is about 440 pounds. We in the U.S. average 1800 pounds per year.[11]

5. International trade of goods and knowledge

In the face of crippling free trade agreements enforced by the United States, Venezuela is working to make new alliances, based in mutual agreement and cooperation. In our visit to Beveré in Tucaní, we saw Veniran tractors that were made in Iran specifically for Venezuela. The plan is not just to import tractors from Iran, but to be capable of manufacturing tractors in Venezuela by acquiring necessary equipment and engineering skills to do so. Beveré also had a Cuban agronomist, veterinarian, and accountant stationed at their farm as a part of the agreement of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA). Chavez proposed ALBA in 2004 as an alternative to the U.S. proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas. Cuba, Nicaragua, Honduras, Bolivia, and the Dominican Republic join Venezuela in ALBA. The Cubans stationed in Venezuela provide technical assistance but also teach cooperative theory. Cubans have also provided greenhouses to Venezuela in exchange for discounted oil. A regional farmers organization in Mucuchies, Produción Agroecologia Integral (PROINPA), was working with Universidad de Los Andes (ULA) scientists on a project on potato seeds. The construction of Cuban greenhouses was critical to the success of the project and Anna witnessed Cubans working with ULA scientists and PROINPA farmers to jumpstart the production of potatoes and protect the biodiversity of the potato seeds. In Caracas we saw a beautiful urban garden inspired by those in Cuba. The CVA has created five food factories (similar the tomato processing plant we saw in Quibor) through economic accords with Cuba, and has launched a corn processing plant in cooperation with Iran and Nicaragua. The cacao plant in Barlovento was also trying to utilize ALBA to trade its chocolate products within the region. PDVAL signed a 12-year milk importation contract with the Argentine dairy cooperative Sancor in order to provide food products that are currently scarce.[12]

6. Getting tough with agro industry

In 2004 President Chavez’s rhetoric towards big business agriculture surprised the international community. Upon receiving word from Via Campesina that Monsanto was going to plant 500,000 acres of transgenic soybeans, Chávez called for the termination of the project and declared that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are contrary to the interests and needs of the nation’s farmers and farm workers. In reaction, he ordered that the land that was to be used for the soybean planting be planted instead with yucca, a widely recognized indigenous crop. He also announced plans for a project to create indigenous seed banks in order to ensure availability, security, and diversity of seeds for peasants worldwide.[13]

Chavez was standing up to the corporation that produced Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, the bovine growth hormone rBGH, and the pesticide “glyphosate” which is used by the Colombian government against coca production and rebel groups. It has destroyed legitimate farms and natural areas like the Putomayo rainforest, and poses a direct threat to human health, including that of indigenous communities.[14] Sadly, Monsanto does continue to operate within Venezuela. This is because if an enterprise is productive, the government has not challenged their right to operate. That was obvious when we drove through a plantain latifundio in Zulia that stretched for miles and was owned by a large company that sprayed its fields by airplane. However, if your company is not conducting productive business, the government won’t hesitate to pounce. While we were in Venezuela Polar was found to be hoarding rice and Cargill was evading price controls on rice. The government took temporary administrative control of a Polar plant in Guárico state and expropriated Cargill rice plants for 90 days as a warning.

In 2003 the Venezuelan government set price controls on about 400 basic foods. Manufacturers claim that food shortages are occurring because the price controls have not kept up with inflation. The government argues that the fall of the U.S. dollar and speculation on the market is leading to the instability. Problems with hoarding and smuggling to Columbia have ensued, where manufacturers can turn a 300% profit.[15] Also, food manufacturers are evading the price controls by producing non-regulated foods and decreasing production. Anna was told, “Imagine you can’t find any milk, but you can find all the sour cream and yogurt you want.” Rice was a growing problem: the prices were rising and the shelves weren’t being restocked. As a result, in February 2009, Chavez ordered the military to temporarily take control of all the rice processing plants in the country and force them to produce at full capacity. Polar, Venezuela’s largest food processor, claimed that the regulated price of plain rice was below the cost of production, and therefore it was reasonable that 90% of the plant’s production was non-regulated, flavored rice. Polar also claimed that because of the shortage in raw materials, they could only operate at 50% capacity. The government claimed otherwise, saying they found two months’ worth of raw rice in the plant’s storage. In March 2009, Chavez set minimum production quotas for 12 basic foods that were subject to price controls, including white rice, cooking oil, coffee, sugar, powdered milk, cheese, and tomato sauce. He also has raised the regulated prices of another 10 basic foods; however, the regulated prices must stay current with inflation or corruption will continue.[16]

The battle continues: these private companies do not want to cooperate with the government and are more concerned with their profits than the wellbeing of the people. Let me note here that Cargill reported nearly $4 billion in net earnings in 2008, a 36% increase over the previous year, while the number of people suffering hunger worldwide increased to a record 923 million.[17]

7. Regional organizing through consejos comunals and the comuna

The following information is taken from Josh Lerner’s extensive article, “Communal Councils in Venezuela: Can 200 Families Revolutionize Democracy?” published in March 2007. We had a chance to meet Josh in Venezuela, where he was working in barrio Pueblo Nuevo in Mérida. He was a muchappreciated resource in our studies.

Since 2006, Venezuelan neighborhoods have been organizing themselves into communal councils, a form of participatory democracy where the community has the responsibility over decisions that affect them. Each urban council contains about 200-400 families, each rural council has at least 20 families, and each indigenous council is about 10 families. All decisions are to be made in citizen assemblies with a minimum of 10 percent of residents over age 15. These assemblies are to elect leadership, financial management, and monitoring committees, as well as committees based on local priorities (health, education, recreation, land, safety, etc.). Money is funneled to the communities that need it without corrupt government officials interfering. By law, communities can receive funds directly from the national, state, or city governments, from their own fundraising, or from donations. In turn, the councils can award grants for community projects or cooperatives. Officially, communal councils are to send project proposals directly to the Presidential Commission of Popular Power, which gives the go-ahead as long as they are legally valid. However, councils often send projects to their municipality for review first. Eight months after the law was passed, over 16,000 councils had already formed throughout the country. As of 2007, 300 communal banks were established, which have received $70 million in micro-loans. Thanks to these funds, the councils have implemented thousands of community projects, paving streets, creating sports fields, building medical centers, and constructing sewage and water systems. Some leaders have proposed that the councils replace city and state governments entirely, or work parallel to them.[18]

The comuna is a fairly new idea. It is a larger social network of communal councils and cooperatives that can combine resources to work on larger projects that benefit more people. Infrastructure committees from several communal councils might decide to work together to build new sewer systems or several communal banks may decide to co-lend start up capital for a cooperative that addresses a need like distributing food. The comuna, hopefully, will have more resources to invest in Social Production Enterprises that can generate employment and produce what the community is in need of, thus furthering endogenous development.

Agroislena is a Venezuelan based agrochemical corporation that has a very strong presence in certain areas of Venezuela. Mérida state is one of these areas and during our time in the Merida countryside, in Mucuchies, we saw many Agroislena “tiendas” or shops. For decades, small farmers in the region have depended on this company for most of their agricultural inputs such as seeds, herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers. The agricultural areas suffer some of the most devastating rates of topsoil erosion in the world precisely because of the heavy reliance on chemical inputs that have historically exacerbated erosion issues. It is also important to state that a significant portion of the products sold at Agroislena stores are bought from U.S, European and Canadian multinational agribusinesses such as Cargill and Monsanto.

With the Chavez administration’s stated goals to promote locally based endogenous development around food production and distribution, and the local urgency to address the problems of chemical input dependence and subsequent erosion, locally based grassroots solutions have begun to emerge. The local production of organic alternatives to multinational chemicals serves as a very effective strategy for communities to pinch the markets of the large corporations. Maria Vicente is one of the community organizers and activists behind the initiative. She showed us the work of their communal council: new drip-irrigation systems that used less water than the sprinkler system they had before. She and some other women were also working to organize a cooperative trash pickup service that was quite comprehensive. Anti-litter posters hung up around the town and they had taught residents how to separate their trash from reusable materials. Food was separated for compost, which was in turn made into a worm fertilizer, hummus, and teas by the women. They had also set up childcare services for the children, which offered healthy meals and health care. Instead of chemical fertilizers or chicken manure (which was also imported from a different region of the country and caused contamination of the waterways), local producers were buying compost made by the women’s cooperative. The monetary price is a small fraction of the imported inputs, the compost does not contribute to erosion, and it is reported to be highly effective. It may make a nominal difference in the bottom line of agroindustrial companies, but the positive local impact is tangible and transformative. It is in the grassroots where the spirit of the Bolivarian revolution truly resides. With the sprouting of locally based solutions to local problems, the theoretical concept of sovereignty begins to take physical shape.

In Monte Carmelo some of us witnessed examples of really exciting community based organizing around food sovereignty issues. Irrigation and transportation infrastructure, organic, cooperative agriculture, regional networks of food producers and experiments with soil building worms and micro-rizomes are all examples of the activity in this small community. At the center of many of these projects is an amazing woman named Gaudi. Gaudi is acutely aware of the history of food in Venezuela. As a campesina, she has spent her life inside of an economy that has prioritized importation over local production. She has not only witnessed the slow and steady loss of local food autonomy, but she has suffered from it. For Gaudi, the seed is at the center of this story, and her work with seeds in the community has been extremely important, not only in encouraging the use of locally produced and adapted seeds, but in rescuing local awareness, identity and pride in that which is uniquely Venezuelan. In concert with the Lara state office of INIA, Gaudi and her community helped organize an annual festival dedicated to celebrating, honoring and sharing local seeds. The day of the campesina seed is now an official holiday in Monte Carmelo and its organizers hope that it spreads across the country.

When you visit Gaudi in her home, she will show you two things. She will show you a painted mural of Simon Bolivar, Venezuela’s liberator from Spanish rule, that hangs on her inside wall, and she will show you her seeds. Her collection is impressive, but what may be more impressive is that many homes in Monte Carmelo are also small banks of local seeds. Instead of relying on agricultural stores for their seeds, the people of Monte Carmelo are working towards food sovereignty by localizing their production, storage and distribution.

Here, we have included the Declaration of the Campesina Seed, which Gaudi wrote:

Declaration of the Campesina Seed

We, the campesino seeds, gathered in assembly with

the campesinos and campesinas of Monte Carmelo, declare:

That we are the nutritious hope of our people.

That for centuries we have filled stomachs,

pockets, marusas, bags, and granaries.

That we are part of the Venezuelan people,

because we are all together at breakfast, lunch, merienda and dinner.

That, besides being nourishment, we are also medicine

and happiness for the campesinos and campesinas.

That we create and give life when our love merges

with the love of the humble and unassuming people of the fields;

and that we love being grown as we were grown in the past,

without being mistreated.

That, despite the persecution and mistreatment we have received

from other seeds that are more powerful than us,

we are still curled up safely in Monte Carmelo.

That, with courage and bravery we have resisted the harshness

of herbicides and insecticides that have been spread over us.

That we are born from the womb of Mother Earth

and we cry with her because she’s damaged and unloved.

That we love being caressed by fresh water once we are sowed.

That we are friends of the insects, birds and microorganisms that

sing us songs of love and fertility

in the voice of patriotism and national identity.

For these reasons and many more we proclaim to the world:

That we need to unite with all the seeds in the world,

especially those in Latin America and the Caribbean.

That all of us seeds should organize ourselves in cooperatives

in order to defend our existence.

That those who aren’t familiar with us should get to know us,

so that they can help us reproduce and support us in our struggles for justice.

That the creation of indigenous Seed Banks

should be promoted in every Venezuelan village.

That love for us should be promoted in schools, high schools, universities

and all other centers of education.

That girls and boys should play with us when they are washing us for dinner.

That, as nourishment, we should never be missing

at the tables of any Venezuelans.

That the campesino seeds should be able to enjoy life

with men, women, boys, girls, and young people

in an environment free of contamination

by toxic agricultural substances and industrial waste;

and to avoid, by any means necessary, being displaced

by imported and transgenetic seeds;

and to be ourselves, with our own flavor, color and aroma.

The seeds of Monte Carmelo, together with their hardworking friends,

the faithful inhabitants of this village;

declare that this day, October 29th,

is the Day of the Campesino Seed

so that it will be celebrated

every year on this date in all of Venezuela,

with the respect and appropriate honors that signify

that this is a memorable a day for the Venezuelan people.

The authors recently spent three months studying in Venezuela with the academic program Building Economic and Social Justice of Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Please see “The Food Sovereignty Movement in Venezuela, Part 2” for the continuation of the article.

Notes

[1] “Statement on People’s Food Sovereignty.” La Via Campesina: International Peasant Movement. 15 October 2008. http://viacampesina.org/main_en/index.php?option=com_content&task=blogcategory&id=27&Itemid=44 [1]

[2] Wagner, Sarah. “Mercal: Reducing Poverty and Creating National Food Sovereignty in Venezuela.” Venezuela Analysis. 24 June 2005. 27 April 2009. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/1211 [2]

[3] Wilpert, Gregory. “Land for People not for Profit in Venezuela.” Venezuela Analysis. 23 August 2005. 3 May 2009. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/1310 [3]

[4] Howard, April. “Creating an Endogenous Development Culture in Venezuela.” UpsideDown World. 8 September 2008. 22 May 2009. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/3778 [4]

[5] Gilbert, Chris and Cira Pascual Marquina. “A Leap Forward: Higher Education in the Bolivarian Revolution.” Venezuela Analysis. 27 November 2006. 24 May 2009. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/2088 [5]

[6] Suggett, James. “Venezuelan Government’s Strategies for Confronting Food Supply Shortages.” Venezuela Analysis. 7 February 2008. 27 May 2009. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/3129 [6]

[7] Márquez, Humberto. “Shortages, Speculation Amid Rising Consumption in Venezuela.” IPS. 16 February 2007. 1 June 2009. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/2231 [7]

[8] Márquez, Humberto. “Shortages, Speculation Amid Rising Consumption in Venezuela.” IPS. 16 February 2007. 1 June 2009. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/2231 [7]

[9] Carlson, Chris. “Chavez Announces Project to Combat Food Shortages in Venezuela.” Venezuela Analysis. 21 January 2008. 2 May 2009. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/3085 [8]

[10] Chavez, Hugo. “Speech by President Hugo Chávez, at the opening of XII G-15 Summit.” Venezuela Analysis. 1 March 2004. 27 April 2009. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/381 [9]

[11] Wagner, Sarah. “Mercal: Reducing Poverty and Creating National Food Sovereignty in Venezuela.” Venezuela Analysis. 24 June 2005. 27 April 2009. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/1211 [2]

[12] Suggett, James. “Venezuelan Government’s Strategies for Confronting Food Supply Shortages.” Venezuela Analysis. 7 February 2008. 27 May 2009. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/3129 [6]

[13] Tockman, Jason. “Venezuela to Prohibit Transgenic Crops.” Venezuela Analysis. 21 April 2004. 26 April 2009. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/474 [10]

[14] “Monsanto.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 1 June 2009. 2 June 2009. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monsanto [11]

[15] Suggett, James. “Venezuelan Government’s Strategies for Confronting Food Supply Shortages.” Venezuela Analysis. 7 February 2008. 27 May 2009. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/3129 [6]

[16] Márquez, Humberto. “Shortages, Speculation Amid Rising Consumption in Venezuela.” IPS. 16 February 2007. 1 June 2009. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/2231 [7]

[17] Suggett, James. “Venezuela Expropriates Cargill Rice Plant that Evaded Price Controls.” Venezuela Analysis. 5 March 2009. 23 May 2009. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/4267 [12]

[18] Lerner, Josh. “Communal Councils in Venezuela: Can 200 Families Revolutionize Democracy?” Z Magazine. 6 March 2007. 5 May 2009. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/2257 [13]

Courtesy: Venezuelanalysis.com

Marta Harnecker’s `Ideas for the Struggle’

Links

This 12-part series of articles by Marta Harnecker (translated by Federico Fuentes) on ideas for how to organise for socialism in the 21st century first appeared in Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. It is now available download free as a pamphlet in PDF format.

Marta Harnecker is originally from Chile where she participated in the revolutionary process of 1970-1973. She has written extensively on the Cuba Revolution, and on the nature of socialist democracy. She now lives in Caracas and is a participant in the Venezuelan revolution.

You can read Ideas for the Struggle on screen above or download it directly by clicking HERE.

A Rejoinder to Ron Ridenour’s essay on Sri Lanka

S Sivasegaram

For Ron Ridenour’s essay, First Article, Second Article, Third Article, Fourth Article, and Fifth Article

I fear that the attitude of supporters of the Tamil cause towards Latin America is rather subjective, and that their approach is still sentimental. I will come to that later in my response, but, before that, the Tamil nationalist, especially pro-LTTE, claims need to be studied with care.

Firstly, accepting the right of Tamils in Sri Lanka to self-determination is correct. But the national question is far more complex than supporters of the Tamil cause in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere in India are made to understand. I have elaborated on this in my long essay which Radical Notes published as a book. Secession is still not the answer and the call for secession in 1976 was thoroughly ill-considered.

Secondly, the history of Tamils in Sri Lanka is being wilfully distorted. A most objective version of ancient history exists in the recent work of Dr K Indrapala, a Tamil, now in Australia. The point that comes out is that there is evidence of Tamil settlements in the island much earlier than acknowledged in the past. But that does not mean that the present-day Tamils are their descendants. The Jaffna Kingdom on which Tamil nationalists lay their claim to Tamil statehood is something of the Second Millennium A.D. which ceased to be nearly 5 centuries ago. There were, however, Tamil chieftains and despotic rulers in the Vanni who survived until the British moved in early in the 19th Century. Part of the Vanni was under the ‘Sinhalese’ Kandyan Kingdom.

The Sinhalese have had a longer history in terms of kingdoms ruled by ‘Sinhalese’. (Not all rulers were really Sinhalese. At least one was from Kalinga. Several were Tamils or Telugus). But what does all of this prove? Not a lot.

The reality is that in the course of modern history, two Sinhala-speaking polities that had a separate existence for 450 years merged into one to serve certain class interests. Tamil-speaking polities ended up as three nationalities with distinctions in many ways and with problems for which Eelam was not an answer. The attitude of the Tamil elite in early 1900s alienated the fisherfolk of the west coast of the island and let them accept a Sinhala identity. In course of time the Tamil identity of the Colombo Chetties and the Paravar communities was lost. The main reason for these was that the Tamil leadership (of Jaffna mainly to which the Vanni and the East got added much later) was dominated by the Vellala Saivaites (equivalent of the Pillai/Mudaliyar etc. of Tamil Nadu, Nayar/Pillai/Menon of Kerala, Patels of Gujarat etc.)

To talk of a Tamil nation comprising 25% of the population is incorrect. The Tamil nationalists nominally represent about 10%, but they truly represent the interests of a fraction of it. When the armed conflict escalated in the 1980s, the elite fled and it was the oppressed who bore the brunt of intensifying chauvinist oppression and war. The elite are abroad, living in comfort, and want to prolong the conflict to pursue their pet project of ‘Tamil Eelam’. The vast majority of the Tamil diaspora have been misled by a few nationalists (pro-LTTE and now the vociferous pro-government groups). What I like to stress is that history has been successfully distorted on all sides to serve narrow interests and to divide the people.

Thirdly, the LTTE was on the one hand the only remaining armed resistance to state oppression. But on the other they systematically failed the people. Their dominance of Tamil politics came about mainly by brutal repression of all opposition, rivals and potential rivals. That continued until their ultimate fall. The genuine left still treated them with some deference for being the only defence that the Tamil people had against state repression; but the LTTE was undemocratic, acted to please imperialism (especially since antagonising India), never believed in people’s struggle, and relied on military victory led by their army. They recruited children by force especially as their fortunes faded. They let the rich get away by paying off while the poor had to send heir children to join the LTTE ranks. All these are factors that contributed to their defeat. But that does not in any way justify any of the cruel and at times barbaric acts of the state.

Yet, failure to criticise the LTTE for its attacks on civilians (not just Sinhalese) has done a lot of harm. Rivals of the LTTE with Indian and Sri Lankan state patrons have been just as guilty. A section of the genuine left criticised the LTTE’s faults while defending the struggle and denouncing state oppression.

Fourthly, leaving alone the anti-democratic and even terrorist acts against civilians, the LTTE and its supporters among the Diaspora have much to answer for the failure of the peace talks (although the government is the main culprit); its reliance on the US (which used the peace talks to get the better of India in Sri Lanka while undermining the LTTE in collaboration with the UNP leadership); and its failure to protect the people.

The LTTE cannot escape the charge that it led 30,000 to the slaughterhouse and 300,000 to what are open prison camps. That tragedy could have been averted had the LTTE let the people go after the fall of Kilinochchi in December 2008. If they did not drag along with them the 100,000 or so from the Kilinochchi District, the government forces could not have advanced fast without clearing the District, and that would have allowed the LTTE leadership to change their strategy. Also there would have been political issues that would have arisen preventing the government from taking people out of their homes. That was water under the bridge when the people were taken to Mullaitivu and compelled to live a life of misery, with the government curtailing if not blocking the supply of essentials. But what justification was there to forcibly prevent the people from leaving when they could not bear the agony anymore? I have heard from people who escaped before the fall of the LTTE about the anti-people methods used by the LTTE to keep the people with them?

Did they seriously think that they could reverse their military fortunes? Did they expect meaningful foreign intervention? If so, in what form? There is substantial circumstantial evidence that they were given false hopes by a section of the Tamil elite among the diaspora about some form US/UN led intervention (to save the LTTE leadership even if not to save the Tamils). Many such questions are being carefully avoided by the Tamil nationalists.

Thus the blame lies with firstly the Government, secondly with the Tamil nationalists as a whole and the LTTE in particular, and thirdly the forces of foreign intervention (the US and India especially) for the tragedy of 2009.

To turn to Latin America:
Objectively, Latin America is increasingly facing US-led threats (The Honduras coup and the Colombian bases are additions to an existing threat). Human rights have consistently been used by the West to undermine defiant states. The US, which uses one set of rules for the Palestinians, a different set of rules for the Kurds of Turkey, and a slightly different one for the Kurds of Iraq, also encourages secessionist forces in the wealthy parts of Bolivia and Venezuela). Latin America sees the issues in terms of a global reality that it faces.

The UNHRC resolution was a pre-emptive response to an anticipated resolution that the US, UK, Germany and Mexico (of all countries!) were planning. Why did Sri Lanka become an issue to them? It was to punish Sri Lanka, not for killing Tamils or denying Tamils their basic rights, but because the government was drifting out of US control. (Indo-US rivalry too has been a factor). USSR and China even during their socialist days had steered clear of UN intervention (and have hopefully learnt from their mistake of allowing meddling in Afghanistan and let the invasion of Iraq pass).

The basic guideline for countries confronting US imperialism is to do what is possible to prevent US meddling in any form. To imagine that a resolution denouncing the Sri Lankan government would have brought relief to the Tamils is fantasy.

Then there are subjective reasons, which cannot be ignored.

Leading Tamil nationalists of all shades have cared little for struggles for justice internationally. (Anton Balasingham, the LTTE ‘theoretician’ had even denounced the struggle in Kashmir as trouble making as he did the resistance in eastern India). The LTTE has not denounced the oppression of the Palestinians or US aggression anywhere, much in line with their political forebears in the Federal Party who denounced the Vietnam struggle as communist trouble making. The SLFP had an anti-imperialist past, but had been dodgy after the 1980s. Of late, the government has occasionally stood up for the Third World on important issues; the role of Dayan Jayatilleka (whose politics is not necessarily genuine) during his short spell as Sri Lanka’s UN ambassador has made an impression in Latin America. I do not think that the Tamil nationalists have had a moral right to ask for support from any country outside the imperialist world and India whom they loyally served. The tragedy is that they have left the Tamil people badly isolated.

By isolating themselves from the left governments, the Indian, especially Tamil, friends of Latin America will achieve nothing. They should have sought to discuss the matter with some of the Latin American embassies before jumping to conclusions. Taking decisions one-sidedly without reference to their friends is not healthy practice. It will be the progressive forces of India who will lose most by such kneejerk action.

Cuba-ALBA Let Down Sri Lanka Tamils (I)

Ron Ridenour

Those who are exploited are our compatriots all over the world; and the exploiters all over the world are our enemies… Our country is really the whole world, and all the revolutionaries of the world are our brothers. – Fidel Castro (1)

The revolutionary [is] the ideological motor force of the revolution…if he forgets his proletarian internationalism, the revolution which he leads will cease to be an inspiring force and he will sink into a comfortable lethargy, which imperialism, our irreconcilable enemy, will utilize well. Proletarian internationalism is a duty, but it is also a revolutionary necessity. So we educate our people. – Che Guevara (2)

I think that the governments of Cuba, Bolivia, and Nicaragua let down the entire Tamil population in the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, as well as “proletarian internationalism” and the “exploited”, by extending unconditional support to Sri Lanka’s racist government.

Cuba did so—along with the Bolivian and Nicaraguan governments and members of ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of our America)—on May 27, 2009 when signing a UN Human Rights Council (HRC) resolution praising the government of Sri Lanka for “the promotion and protection of human rights”, while only condemning for terrorism the Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which fought the government in a civil war since 1983 until their defeat on May 19, 2009.

During the last year of war, the Sri Lankan government illegally and brutally interned nearly half-a-million Tamil civilians; 280,000 of these civilians were entrapped in several “welfare centers” upon the LTTE’s surrender. Half-a-year later, only a few thousand have been released. Their conditions are the opposite of “promotion and protection of human rights”. Hundreds have died and are dying for lack of food, water, basic health care.

Since advocating for and signing the unbalanced HRC resolution, I have found no text or evidence that these progressive-revolutionary-socialist governments of ALBA have criticized Sri Lanka for routinely practicing brutality and neglecting basic life necessities of these illegally interned people. The conduct of Sinhalese-led governments towards Tamils ever since Sri Lanka’s independence from Great Britain, in 1947-8, has always been one of mistreatment and inequality, even genocide.

While ALBA leader Venezuela is not a member of that council, President Hugo Chavez followed suit by applauding Sri Lanka’s victory.(3) I hope that these revolutionary leaders will undo that damage by coming to the aid of the interned and all 2.5 million Tamil survivors of this horrible carnage and condemning Sri Lanka for its beastly and racist conduct. Tamils national rights must also be recognized, especially by governments representing other indigenous and once enslaved peoples.

In this first of a five-part series, I begin to lay the case that Sri Lanka’s governments practice genocide. I will also speculate about why the four ALBA countries involved in this matter could have decided to ignore this reality, why they disallowed an investigation into the assertion, and why they support such a cruel, chauvinistic regime. In the forthcoming parts, I will sketch the history of the Sinhalese and Tamils; outline the right and necessity for Tamil nationhood; delineate their struggles for equal rights; and show the geo-political power game being played out between the west and its’ sometimes antagonistic counterpart regimes in China and Iran; and conclude with the present state of affairs for Tamils.

Human Rights Council Resolution S-11/1: Assistance to Sri Lanka in the promotion and protection of human rights

Upon the end of the war, 17 countries on the 47-member Human Rights Council called for an extraordinary session about the Sri Lankan situation. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, spoke for an “independent and credible international investigation” into the reports of violations of human rights and international humanitarian law on both sides of the civil war.

“For its part, the Government reportedly used heavy artillery on the densely populated conflict zone, despite assurances that it would take precautions to protect civilians”… and the “reported shelling of a hospital clinic on several occasions”…”

“These people are in desperate need of food, water, medical help and other forms of basic assistance… there have already been outbreaks of contagious diseases.”

“The images of terrified and emaciated women, men and children fleeing the battle zone… must spur us into action.”

Pillay’s professional, compassionate and balanced proposal was not tabled or even discussed. Instead 17 members—mostly EU countries and Canada, but also Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico and Chile—proposed only that an investigation into these charges of human rights abuse be pursued by the Sri Lankan government itself, that is: the government investigating its brutality, hardly anything radical or effective. This, and the call for “rapid and unhindered access” for humanitarian aid from the UN and International Committee of the Red Cross, was the only significant difference from another resolution proposed by the majority, mostly Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) countries. Chile was the only NAM member to vote against the majority, which wanted no investigation at all. And the “rapid and unhindered access” for humanitarian aid was reduced to: “provide access as may be appropriate”, thereby giving Sri Lanka’s government the power to use food/water/medicine as a weapon against their enemy: the Tamil people and not the now defeated LTTE.

Sri Lanka was present at the HRC sessions as an observer. It had been a member from 2006 to 2008 when it lost reelection as one of the six Asian State members. Poignantly overlooked by most NAM members assembled a year later, it had been severely criticized by Tamils around the world and by internationally respected Nobel Peace Prize winners Desmond Tutu and Adolfo Perez Esquivel.

“The systematic abuses by Sri Lanka government forces are among the most serious imaginable. Torture and extrajudicial killings are widespread [as is] kidnappings of its own people,” said Tutu in May 2008 when opposing its seat on the Human Rights Council.

A year later, the HRC majority unfastidiously praised Sri Lanka for continuing “to uphold its human rights obligations and the norms of international human rights law”. The key promoter of the majority resolution was, to my dismay, Cuba—the homeland of my heart and where I had lived and worked for the government for eight years.

The Cuban ambassador to the Council, Juan Antonio Fernández Palacios—who also spoke on behalf of the NAM—praised Sri Lanka’s governments over the years, and “congratulates” it on “putting an end” to the armed conflict. A key sentence is: “Sri Lanka’s sovereign right to fight terrorism and separatism within its undisputed borders must be respected.” The words “separatism” and “undisputed borders” will be dealt with at length later. But no one familiar with the history of Sinhalese and Tamils for decades since independence and centuries before could have chosen to speak of “undisputed borders”. Tamils had a homeland, two kingdoms, for centuries before the Sinhalese came to the island and for centuries afterwards.

Cuba also acted as a special advocate for Sri Lanka as an “interlocutor”, in addition to Egypt, India and Pakistan. The resolution about Sri Lanka was actually its own draft, which Cuba tabled.

Just before the vote, the Bolivian HRC ambassador, Ms. Angélica Navarro Llames, made it clear she was perturbed by the manner in which many of the 17 countries had presented their resolution and for insisting upon a special meeting just a week before the scheduled one. She objected to “neocolonialist attitudes”. The Bolivian then spoke of LTTE terrorism used against the people and the government and people, and defended its right to fight for its sovereignty.

Resolution S-11/1 adopted by the majority (29 members for, 12 against, 6 abstentions). Here are pertinent excerpts:

Reaffirming the respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, and its sovereign rights to protect its citizens and combat terrorism,

Condemning all attacks that the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) launched on the civilian population and its practice of using civilians as human shields…

Welcoming the conclusion of hostilities and the liberation by the Government of Sri Lanka of tens of thousands of its citizens that were kept by the LTTE against their will as hostages, as well as the efforts by the Government to ensure safety and security for all Sri Lankans and bringing permanent peace to the country…

Emphasizing that after the conclusion of hostilities, the priority in terms of human rights remains the provision of the necessary assistance to ensure relief and rehabilitation of persons affected by the conflict, including internally displaced persons, as well as the reconstruction of the country’s economy and infrastructure,

Encouraged by the provision of basic humanitarian assistance, in particular, safe drinking water, sanitation, food, and medical and health care services to the IDPs [Internally Displaced Persons] by the Government of Sri Lanka with the assistance of the United Nations agencies…

1. Commends the measures taken by the Government of Sri Lanka to address the urgent needs of the Internally Displaced Persons;

2. Welcomes the continued commitment of Sri Lanka to the promotion and protection of all human rights and encourages it to continue to uphold its human rights obligations and the norms of international human rights law;…

5. Acknowledges the commitment of the Government of Sri Lanka to provide access as may be appropriate to international humanitarian agencies in order to ensure humanitarian assistance to the population affected by the conflict, in particular IDPs…

In Favour: Angola, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, China, Cuba, Djibouti, Egypt, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Jordan, Madagascar, Malaysia, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Qatar, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, South Africa, Uruguay, Zambia;

Against: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Netherlands, Slovakia, Slovenia, Switzerland, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland;

Abstaining: Argentina, Gabon, Japan, Mauritius, Republic of Korea, Ukraine.”(4)

I will show in upcoming articles how points 1, 2, and 5 cited here have never been the reality; Sri Lanka has not respected Tamils lives or their rights nor provided them their “urgent needs.”

Terrorism and Genocide

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was first dubbed a terrorist organization by India, in 1992. Ironically, it wasn’t until 1998 that Sri Lanka’s government so characterized them, and it did so only after the US did, in 1997. On May 30, 2006, the EU placed LTTE on its terrorist list and banned the organization. It made it a terrorist crime to economically or military aid LTTE, and it froze all LTTE bank and financial assets in Europe. The EU appeared to be even-handed by calling upon the Sri Lankan government to end its “culture of impunity” and to “curb violence” in its areas of control. At the time of LTTE’s defeat, 32 countries had defined them as terrorists.

Never having been in Sri Lanka or South Asia, it is difficult for me to know whether LTTE was a decidedly terrorist organization or not—that is, one which seeks to terrorize civilians. After reading many accounts of atrocities, such as killing hundreds of civilian Sinhalese in their homes, on buses and trains, I conclude that this once Marxist revolutionary organization resorted to terrorism.

At the same time, it must not be forgotten that any liberation movement the world’s greatest state terrorist, the United States of America does not agree with is “terrorist” and therefore illegitimate. Other terrorists, such as the government of the separatist state of Kosovo, are no longer considered terrorist although its drug-smuggling paramilitary organization had been so described, even by the US. Superpowers support or oppose autonomy-independence when it suits their interests. This is also the case with Ireland, the Basques in Spain, and the Palestinians.

Furthermore, the US systematically practices terrorism in its permanent war—invading or “intervening” militarily in 66 countries, a total of 159 times since World War Two.

We must lament the unacceptable methods the LTTE used against many people, and do so without ignoring the history of why and how it was born. Nor must we reject out-of-hand the basic rights and needs of the Tamil people. Their plight must not be abandoned, especially by governments and organizations grounded in anti-imperialism and equality amongst peoples.

Sri Lanka’s history since independence is one of conducting genocide against the Tamils. Genocide is defined by the UN, and Sri Lanka ratified its promise to adhere to it on October 12, 1950.The Geneva Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted December 9, 1948 and entered into force, January 12, 1951, states:

Article II: In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such:

   (a) Killing members of the group;

   (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

   (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

   (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

   (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.(5)

Destroying “in whole or in part” an ethnic group is certainly what Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese governments, as well as Buddhist monks, have been doing to the Tamils for six decades. Evidence will be forthcoming. There is so much evidence that even a former US deputy assistant attorney general in the Reagan Administration filed a 12-count indictment against S.L. defense secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse and army commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka for “perpetrating genocide against Tamil civilians.”

The suit was filed by Bruce Fein, in February 2009, in the U.S. District Court, Central District of California.

The case can be filed in the US because G. Rajapakse is a naturalized citizen and Fonseka holds a resident green card. They are charged with responsibility for: “3,750 alleged extrajudicial killings, with 10,000 suffering bodily injury and more than 1.3 million displacements,” which, according to Fein, “far exceed displacements in Kosovo which led to genocide counts before the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.”

Fein noted that G. Rajapakse said in a BBC interview that, “if you are not fighting the Tamil Tigers you are a terrorist and we’ll kill you.” The attorney represents Tamils Against Genocide. He believes that G. Rajapakse will be “the best witness of the genocide.”

Why ALBA voted as it did: Some points of contention:

I ask the three ALBA governments, which voted for the above resolution, to take Sri Lanka’s government to account on the serious charge of genocide against the Tamil people. At the very least, ALBA should be able to see that hundreds of thousands of displaced persons are brutally treated, and that routine discrimination and abuse have been the Tamil’s plight at the hands of Sinhalese. This is a dichotomy to ALBA’s ideology of equal rights for all: in language, in religion, in the economy, in all aspects of life. In fact, the very new constitution of Bolivia recognizes itself as a pluri-nation in which all the languages and religions of all the peoples are recognized equally. The same is the case in Venezuela with its new constitution.

How can it be, then, that these peoples’ governments have fallen in the arms of such an oppressive, racist government? Possible reasons are:

1. Separatism! It is ironic and ideologically insupportable that anti-imperialist progressive and revolutionary leaders in Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia—mainly dark-skinned peoples, and many of them, especially in Bolivia, are Original Peoples long abused by many whites and creoles—side with the Sinhalese chauvinist elite in Sri Lanka. Perhaps they have not studied the sordid history of Sri Lanka. But more certainly is it that they do not support separatism or dual nationhood within one land mass. Cuba especially has, from its revolutionary start, argued for unity. What Cuba and the others fail to realize or acknowledge is that the Tamil people had tried for decades to achieve equal rights with the Sinhalese, many of whom assert adherence to Marxism, yet to no avail. Most Sinhalese do not wish to unify equally with the other ethnic group. Once peaceful means are exhausted, armed struggle is the only means to achieve liberation, as was the case with Cuba and other Latin American guerrilla movements.

In the case of Sri Lanka and separatism, ALBA governments could be prompted to side with it because of, in part, the role of China! The threat of separatism, which has been the desire of many Tibetan Buddhists, is an impelling factor for China’s position of one nation in its own region, and may be how it views the situation of Tamils in Sri Lanka. Here, China sides, ironically, with Buddhists against Hindus-Christians-Muslims.

Bolivia and Venezuela, too, are pressed by separatist demands but they come not from an ethnic group but from a rich class of Whites-Creoles, which has no historic ethnic Homeland.

2. Geo-politics! Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese-dominated governments have been supported militarily and economically by many States, some of which are sometimes antagonistic to one another. Some leftist governments and leftist organizations often operate on the notion that the enemy of my enemy is a friend. If that is the way some socialist-communist-revolutionaries view China and Iran, both totalitarian regimes, in regards to US-Europe-Canada-Australia-Japan imperialism when it comes to Sri Lanka they are mistaken. Surely there are economic and geo-political interests on the part of China and Iran in investing and trading with countries in development, including Sri Lanka but also Cuba and all in Latin America. Fortunately most Latin Americans and the majority of their governments have ceased jumping when a US president or general barks, and they are combining in regional alliances and seeking foreign investments and aid from non-traditional partners.

Since China and Iran began extending their interests into Sri Lanka and sided with its brutal treatment of Tamils, many leftists and progressive governments could think in the black-white geo-political manner. The US-EU states, for their own propaganda image, question Sri Lanka for possible abuses of human rights against Tamils. Ah, no one with experience or knowledge about the duplicity of the empire and its allies could side with them so one must back the other side.

But China is no longer socialist, rather its economy is mainly based on government-sponsored private enterprise with exploitation of labor in the extreme: no union protection, long work hours, low wages, child labor, no say on the job or national and international policies. The working class no longer even has access to full education and health care without paying on a capitalist basis. In fact, workers in most capitalist countries in Europe have better access to health care than workers do in China. Millionaire capitalists now sit on leadership bodies of the so-called Communist Party, and make important decisions over the heads of workers and the population. China is interested mainly in accumulating capital in the grand old raw capitalist style, and it owns more of the US economy (8%) than any other government or economic entity. China’s economy is intricately interdependent upon the US’s capitalism and its imperialist wars.

Iran is run by fundamentalist religious fanaticism. Its economy is basically a capitalist one. Its working class, just as the working class in China, is not a decision-maker. Iran is also a warring partner with US imperialism in its illegal war against Iraq, whose troops are a key factor in the violence against millions of Iraqis. Iran supports their co-religious Muslims in the Quisling government under US domination.

Is it possible that the developing countries, which back Sri Lanka against the Tamil population, do so out of economic reasons? China and Iran provide needed investments and technology and thus one must not criticize. Is that possible, and if so is it ethical, is it consistent with our humanitarian principles and socialist ideology? Cannot one be a trading partner without cowing politically?

Another issue is secularism. The ALBA countries and all truly socialist oriented governments are not and cannot be theocracies! How can secular nation states and organizations consider the Sri Lanka state “democratic socialist” when it declares a religion, and only one, as THE national and official religion? Secularism is the only common ground by which all can be united.

Conclusion

I concur with progressive Tamils in the Tamil Nadu state of India, who have for decades supported Cuba and the new ALBA formation. The Latin American Friendship Association there has held many solidarity activities for these countries, and published scores of books by Latin American authors, including Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Upon learning of the HRC resolution, they were appalled. The author of the excerpted letter below is Amarantha Visalakshi. For 25 years, she has translated books about Latin America into Tamil and written some herself.

We here in Tamil Nadu celebrated the 80th birthday of Comrade Fidel by releasing eight books on Cuba’s achievements in various fields… and are in the midst of our preparation for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the triumph of the Cuban Revolution and evaluation of the consolidation of Latin American countries in ALBA…

We are struck dumb and rendered disheartened and disillusioned by this act [the HRC resolution] by those countries of Latin America on which we have pinned our hopes for the future—Socialism of the 21st century.

Why do these countries wish for wiping out the Tamils from the Sri Lankan soil where they rightfully belong? What are the sources of information for these Latin American countries to decide against the Tamils and in favour of the racist Sri Lankan government in the UN Human Rights Council?… more than any other time we feel the absence of Che Guevara, the true internationalist, who laid down his life for the oppressed people of the world.

I also concur with Australia’s largest left-wing organization, the Democratic Socialist Perspective and Socialist Alliance, which publishes greenleft.org.au.

We need “to undertake work to help convince the revolutionary governments of Latin America, including Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia, to cease support for the Sri Lankan government, and to recognize the national rights of the Tamil people. There is a long-run danger if revolutionary governments, for whatever reason, fail to support genuine movements for national self-determination in Third World countries, and endorse repressive regimes on the basis of a bogus ‘anti-imperialism…’”

Notes:

(1) Fidel told writer-photographer Lee Lockwood: “Castro’s Cuba, Cuba’s Fidel”, Macmillan, N.Y. 1967.

(2) “Socialism and man”, Marcha, Uruguay, March 12, 1965.

(3) “Hugo Chavez praises President Rajapaksa’s leadership in defeating LTTE”, Sri Lanka Daily News, September 4, 2009. In this piece, published by a pro-government newspaper, there is not one quotation by Hugo Chavez, who spoke with Rajapakse when they were in Libya. The piece paraphrases what the anonymous writer asserts Chavez said—an example: Chavez apparently said that the defeat of LTTE terrorism “is a glowing example to other countries beset with the same problem,” words of the writer. Chavez allegedly praised Rajapakse for his leadership.

(4) http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/docs/11specialsession/S-11-1-Final-E.doc; http://portal.ohchr.org/portal/page/portal/HRCExtranet/11thSpecialSession;
http://www.earthtimes.org/articles/show/270638,un-resolution-commends-sri-lanka-on-human-rights–summary.html

5. http://www.preventgenocide.org/law/convention/text.htm. Although the US signed the 1948 convention, it did not accede to it until November 1988. As of 2008, 140 nation states have acceded.

For other articles by the author visit his website.

Michael Lebowitz: “It’s necessary to arm the people and develop militias from below”

On the question of the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, Michael Lebowitz is one of the thinkers who has penetrated deepest into our process. He plunges his scrutinizing gaze, into its most diverse and conflicting issues, in order to then, calmly and forcefully reveal its truth with knifelike clarity. He talks like a peasant or a worker who dips into the reality that they experience, that they suffer and feel.

At the Centro Internacional Miranda, I had a chance to converse with Lebowitz, a professor from the Simon Fraser University in British Columbia (Canada).

Lebowitz is the author of outstanding books such as “Socialism does not fall from the sky” (much discussed by President Chávez) and “Build it now: Socialism for the 21st Century”. I do not hesitate to declare that Lebowitz is an essential light for us in the Bolivarian revolutionary process. Many problems and many concerns were raised in this interview and he responded to them with simple and accurate clarity. Here I present the first part.José Sant Roz – Aporrea

Sant Roz: We are concerned with the issue of socialism, but there is sometimes a big difference between what is said and what is done in reality.

Michael Lebowitz (ML): This is always going to be true. But the first thing we need to do is to create a vision and for this you need the words. There is an old saying that if you do not know where you want to go, any road will take you there, but no, this is not true; rather, if you do not know where you want to go, no road will take you there. And I think that in Venezuela, with the development of the concept of socialism for the 21st century, we know where we want to go. We don’t want to move towards a society in which the State directs everything. It should be a society where people develop themselves through their practice, through their protagonism.

This vision is clear and it is a vision that is very different from the experiences of socialism in the twentieth century. That is the first step, a very important step, but now we come to the crucial step: Understanding how this should be done in practice and how can we establish the institutions that allow people to develop. This is being developed now through the communal councils, workers councils, where people participate in making the decisions that affect them. The problem, though, is that it’s not so easy to do that when there are people who want to do everything for others from above. They say: we are going to create communal councils everywhere, communes everywhere. And if the people are not ready to develop their communal councils, they say we’ll do them ourselves.

Part of the problem is impatience that does not respect the process and the time that must elapse for people to develop themselves. Furthermore, there are people who are totally opposed to the idea that the people themselves make their own decisions. The clearest case can be seen with worker’s participation. There are people who believe that workers are unable, that they are not prepared, and that they don’t have the knowledge to make decisions affecting their work process. The result of this attitude that workers are not capable is reflected in the fact that electricity outages are occurring throughout all of Venezuela. The workers know what the problems are, but they have not been allowed to implement the solutions, to take the necessary steps to prevent such outages. Vision is important but it is not enough; it is not sufficient— struggle is always necessary.

ST: When you say that there are people who oppose this process are you also referring to people within Chavismo?

ML: Yes, of course, within chavismo. That’s why, for example, there is no worker’s participation at PDVSA.

ST: Simón Bolívar founded Gran Colombia on 17 December 1819, and died on 17 December 1830, and then this tremendous work he created with his great strength and will disappeared. What if Chavez were to disappear today?

ML: I think it would be a great loss, not only for Venezuela but for the whole world, because under the leadership of Chavez the hope that was lost has been restored, the hope that there is an alternative to neoliberalism. If such a thing occurred at this time it would be more than a loss, it would be a tragedy, because I think the process is not sufficiently developed that it could continue with leadership from below. Perhaps by 2020 there would be a possibility that the process could continue without Chavez. But right now NO.

ST: What can be done to ensure that there are substitutes that can take over the struggle from Chavez without much trauma?

ML: There are people working very close to Chavez, in his circle, who have Chavez’s ideas, his vision, his consciousness, but they lack the charisma of the President to lead. At the same time there are others that are much better known, but I’m not sure they share the project that President Chavez is leading. And today I am speaking very carefully, sometimes I say this very strongly and openly.

ST: With the oil situation, which remains our major export product, and in the face of the new global drama of high food prices, we find ourselves with a situation of abandonment in the countryside: how in a short period of time, could we structure a form of economy different from that of mono-production imposed on us by capitalism?

ML: Oil is not a problem but a blessing. There are many countries in the same situation where agriculture has been abandoned or has been more or less marginalized by transnational corporations. The existence of oil resources allows the Venezuelan State to take a part of this revenue to build infrastructure and create conditions in the countryside so that people feel they want to return to work in the countryside and see that it is possible to have a good life. With the food crisis it is absolutely essential to encourage people to go to live in the countryside. With oil revenues these conditions can be created. Compare this situation with the situation in Cuba where they also have problems with agricultural production, and where people are leaving the countryside, and they do not have the oil revenue to attract people back to the countryside. What appears to be happening in Cuba is that they are saying we will allow private property in agriculture [and thus attract people] and some people will make lots of money producing and selling food at great profit.

In Venezuela it is possible to use part of the oil wealth to create units of agricultural production in the countryside and to attract people, not through high incomes for producers but based on the quality of life that these people can enjoy living in the country. Agriculture has been an area where all attempts to build socialism have failed. The Soviet Union ignored agriculture and in some rural areas it was impossible to walk or drive on the roads. People had to bring products to market by air. China said that they would not follow the Soviet path, and would develop agriculture, but they didn’t. They were still extracting resources from the countryside for industry. So instead of what happened in other places where agriculture served industry, here in Venezuela, you can do the opposite: make oil serve agriculture.

ST: If the countryside is abandoned, it will require a long time to train people who want to do the jobs required by agriculture. People have changed a lot in the cities and it would be very difficult to convince them to be “peasant” farmers.

ML: Yes, it will take time. This is not going to happen overnight. But I think that President Chavez understands this problem. It is no coincidence that there are so many “Hello President” shows in rural cooperatives, in the new socialist farms. I think it’s a way of saying to people who are living in the hills and barrios and who are spending a lot of time trying to get to work, to say, look, it’s time for a change. There is much more you can do. In Brazil the MST [Movement of Landless Workers] has many young people, and when the MST occupies land, they gain land for these families to begin a new life. In Brazil the stereotype that all farmers are old is not true. Perhaps what is needed is to launch a campaign aimed at young people to facilitate this process of repopulation of the countryside.

ST: In view of the international situation: we are very threatened; how should we prepare ourselves to face a more critical situation in northern South America?

ML: I just finished a book that addresses an issue which is the problem of the old state that progressives have appropriated, and not necessarily by force. In the long run, socialism requires that the old state is replaced by the new, the state from below. The immediate situation requires, though, that the two states complement each other. The new state from below that helps people develop can not initially have a global vision. The old state, though, is in the habit of giving orders from above. What is essential is to develop the interaction between the two states and for a time you have to walk on two legs; and the same is true when it comes to preparing for a crisis of military intervention. That implies having a traditional army that can protect people, but we should also arm the people and develop the militias from below.

Translators Note – this is a slightly abridged translation of the first part of a three part interview with Michael Lebowitz carried out in late September.

Translated by Kiraz Janicke for Venezuelanalysis.com

50 YEARS ON… And the same challenge of making a Revolution

Lázaro Barredo Medina, GRANMA

“THE dictatorship has been defeated. The joy is immense. And yet, there still remains much to do. We won’t deceive ourselves by believing that everything will be much easier from now on; perhaps it will be much more difficult.”

This is what Commander in Chief Fidel Castro told the people on January 8, 1959, the day of his entry into Havana. Many people could never imagine the immense challenge that they would live to experience.

Suffice it to say that just a few days later, Fidel proclaimed the right to self-determination in terms of relations with the United States and immediately, the aggressions, attempts on his life and anger on the part of U.S. politicians began, evidence of which can be seen in speeches and articles of the time, as in an editorial of Time magazine, the mouthpiece of the most conservative sectors, entitled: “Fidel Castro’s neutralism is a challenge for the United States.”

But the Cuban people could not be neutral in the face of the United States. The triumph of the Revolution that January 1959 signified for the Cuban nation, for the first time in its history, the real possibility of exercising the right to self-determination. From that moment on, neither the U.S. president, Congress nor its ambassadors could continue making decisions on what could or could not be done in Cuba. The bitter dependence had been brought to an end; a dependence that saw U.S. governors and ambassadors enjoying a degree of power in Cuba that was far greater than the actual power that they had – with respect to decision-making – within the U.S. federal government or in relation to any of the 50 states that make up the U.S.A.

When full national independence was achieved, the Revolution began to exercise that right by immediately applying the program that Fidel had announced during the Moncada trial of 1953 and which is contained in his historic self-defense speech History Will Absolve Me.

Cuba established the economic and social regime that it believed was most just and established a socialist state with participatory democracy, equality and social justice.

The country’s economy was characterized by limited industrial development, essentially depending on sugar production and a latifundia agricultural economy, where landowners controlled 75% of the total arable land.

Most of the country’s economic activity and its mineral resources were managed by U.S. capital, which controlled 1.2 million hectares of land (a quarter of the productive territory) and most of the sugar industry, nickel production, oil refineries, the electricity and telephone services and the majority of bank credits. Likewise, the U.S. market controlled approximately 70% of Cuban imports and exports, within a system of highly dependent volumes of exchange: in 1958, Cuba exported products worth 733 million pesos and imported 777 million pesos worth of goods.

The prevailing social picture was characterized by a high unemployment and illiteracy, a precarious healthcare, social assistance and housing system for the vast majority of the population, as well as abysmal differences in living conditions between urban and rural populations. There was a high degree of polarization and unequal distribution of income; in 1958, 50% of the population earned just 11% of total income, while a 5% minority controlled 26%. Racial and gender discrimination, begging, prostitution and social and administrative corruption were widespread.

Addressing the social and economic problems in Cuban society could no longer be put off and could only be resolved if the Cuban people had control of their own wealth and natural resources. Thus, using the 1940 Constitution and in line with international law, Cuba exercised its right to take control of these resources and assumed total responsibility for this action. The island paid compensation to all nationals from third countries (Canada, Spain, Britain, etc.) with the exception of U.S. nationals, given that that government rejected the provisions outright and transformed the Cuban government’s decision into a pretext for unleashing a war unprecedented in the history of bilateral relations between the two nations.

Not only did the Revolution hand over land to campesinos who, up until then, had been subjected to semi-feudal conditions of production and forced to live in extreme poverty, but it also determined that that all the country’s resources should be allocated to national economic development and improving the material and living conditions of the population. To give just one example, in the 1980s alone, approximately 60 billion pesos were allocated to the construction of productive and social facilities.

The process of industrialization underway paved the way for economic and productive diversification. Under the Revolution and up until the economic crisis which began with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the East European socialist bloc between 1989 and 1991 – what we in Cuba call the Special Period – the country’s capacity for producing steel grew 14-fold, fertilizer increased six-fold, the oil refining industry quadrupled (not counting the new refinery in Cienfuegos), the textile industry grew seven-fold, tourism three-fold, to mention but a few. The state also created complete ranges and new industries such as machinery, mechanics, electronics, the production of medical equipment, a pharmaceutical industry, construction materials, a glass industry and ceramics, as well as making investments to increase and upgrade the sugar, food and light industries. In addition to these endeavors, we have the development of biotechnology, genetic engineering and other branches of science.

The country has also made great efforts in terms of improving its infrastructure. Electricity generation has risen eight-fold and water storage capacity has increased 310 times, from 29 million cubic meters in 1958 to nine billion-plus cubic meters today. There has been diversification with respect to roads and freeways and modernization of ports and other areas. Social needs have been covered fairly well, except for housing, which has been Cuba’s biggest problem.

The progressive growth and diversification of productive potential and the application of a widespread social program has allowed the nation to confront the problem of unemployment. In 1958, with a population of six million inhabitants, approximately one third of the economically active population was unemployed. Of this figure, 45% of the unemployed lived in rural areas while, out of 200,000 women in work, 70% were employed as domestic servants. Today, with 11 million inhabitants, the number of people in work is in excess of 4.5 million. Over 40% of workers are women and today they represent more than 60% of the nation’s technical and professional sectors.

In 1958, the number of illiterate and semi-illiterate people in Cuba stood at two million. The average academic level of 15-plus year-olds was third grade, more than 600,000 children did not attend school and 58% of teachers were unemployed. Just 45.9% of school-age children were enrolled and half of them did not attend classes. Only 6% of those enrolled finished elementary education. Universities were available to just 20,000 students.

The education sector received immediate attention from the revolutionary government. Its first task was to develop a masse literacy campaign with the participation of the population. An extensive network of schools was constructed throughout the country and more than 300,000 teachers and professors were in fulltime employment in this sector. The average academic level for those aged 15-plus year-olds rose to ninth grade. One hundred per cent of school age children are enrolled in schools, some 98% complete elementary education and 91% complete junior high. One in every 11 citizens is a university graduate and one in eight has technical-professional qualifications. There are 650,000 students in the country’s universities today and all education is free of charge. Education and vocational skills are also guaranteed for 100% of children with physical or mental disabilities, who attend special schools.

The precarious situation in 1958 with respect to public health was characterized by an infant mortality rate of 60 per 1,000 live births and a maternal mortality rate of 118 per 10,000. The mortality rate for those suffering from gastroenteritis was 41.2 per 100,000, and from tuberculosis, 15.9 per 100,000. In rural areas, 36% of the population suffered from intestinal parasites, 31% from malaria, 14% from tuberculosis and 13% from typhoid. Life expectancy at birth was estimated at 58.8 years.

Around 61% of hospital beds and 65% of the nation’s 6,500 doctors were concentrated in the capital. In the other provinces, medical coverage was one doctor for every 2,378 inhabitants and there was just one hospital for all the country’s rural areas.

Today, healthcare is free of charge and Cuba has more than 70,000 doctors, providing coverage of one for every 194 inhabitants. Almost 30,000 of them are providing services in over 60 different countries. A national network of more than 700 hospitals and polyclinics has been created. Thanks to a widespread vaccination campaign (every child currently receives vaccines against 13 different illnesses) diseases such as polio, diphtheria, measles, whooping cough, tetanus, rubella, mumps and hepatitis B have been almost entirely eradicated. The infant mortality rate is 5.3 for every 1,000 live births and life expectancy exceeds 77 years.

There is also a series of advanced medical services that are not considered as “basic” in the international arena, and are provided completely free of charge, such as intensive care units in pediatric and general hospitals, cardiovascular surgery, transplant services, special perinatal care, treatment for chronic renal failure, and special services for occupational and physical rehabilitation.

The revolutionary state did not focus its attention solely on economic and social measures. It also embarked on efforts to establish an internal legal system to facilitate the right to self-determination via the population’s direct participation in discussions, analyses and the passing of the country’s principal laws. The most notable of these was the 1976 Constitution, supported by 97% of Cubans aged 16 and over through a referendum, as well as other momentous laws like the Penal Code, the Civil Code, the Family Code, the Children and Young People’s Code, the Labor and Social Security Code and many others.

Likewise, the self-determination of the Cuban people is expressed through the right to defend the nation against foreign aggression. Today, more than four million Cubans – workers, campesinos, and university students – are organized in militia groups have access to weapons in their campuses, factories and in rural areas.

However, since 1959, Cuba has had to confront the hostility of 10 U.S. administrations that have attempted to limit its right to self-determination through the use of aggression and the unilateral imposition of a criminal economic, commercial and financial blockade.

One of the universally accepted principles of international law is that state cannot be allowed to coerce another in order to deny it the right to exercise its sovereign rights. Article 24 of the UN Charter states that, in the context of international relations, nations must refrain from using threats or force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.

Over the past 45 years, the United States has prohibited any trade with Cuba, including foodstuffs and medicines; it cancelled the Cuban sugar quota; prohibited its citizens from traveling to Cuba via the imposition of heavy sanctions; prohibited the re-export of U.S. products or items containing U.S. components or technology to Cuba from third countries; prescribed that banks in third countries should maintain Cuban bank accounts in dollars or use that currency in their transactions with the Cuban nation; has systematically intervened to prevent or hinder trade with or financial assistance to Cuba on the part of governments, institutions and citizens from other countries and international organizations.

In the 1960s these reprisals forced Cuba to structurally reconstitute its economic relations when and establish its essential markets in countries in the former East European bloc – specifically in the Soviet Union – which meant that the country had to embark on an almost total re-conversion of its industrial technology, means of transport, and provisions, etc.

When Cuba lost its natural markets in Eastern Europe, the U.S. government intensified its blockade via the 1992 Torricelli Act, which used the pretext of “democracy and human rights” to prohibit U.S. subsidiaries located in third countries and subject to the laws of those nations from engaging in commercial or financial operations with Cuba (particularly in respect to food and medicines), and punishing these by prohibiting the entry into U.S. ports for 180 days of vessels transporting goods to or from Cuba or on behalf of Cuba, measures that – given their extraterritorial nature – do not just prejudice Cuba but also harm the sovereignty of other nations and the international freedom of transportation.

On March 12, 1996, the U.S. government passed the Helms-Burton Ac, further aggravating relations between the two countries and assuming the right to sanction citizens of third countries in U.S. courts, as well as determining their expulsion or denying them and their families entry visas into the United States, with the aim of hindering Cuba’s efforts to recover its economy and hampering its possibilities of securing a greater insertion in the international market. That was also a way of attempting to pressure the Cuban people into relinquishing their efforts of self-determination.

More recently, it has adopted the Bush Plan, an attempt to transform Cuba into a colony through an annexationist program and the sibylline intention to intervene via a pretext of “transition,” a scenario in which the State Department would entrust one of its leaders as “governor,” when the Cuban revolutionary state disappears. This plan, with which George W. Bush decided “to precipitate the day when Cuba becomes a free country,” has intensified the blockade and pressure on the Cuban people by repressing family relations between Cubans resident in the United States and their families on the island; grants million-dollar resources to terrorist groups in Miami, as well as to mercenary subordinates in the U.S. Interests Sections in Havana; and promotes formulas to destabilize the country and redouble international pressure on the island.

That hostility on the part of the U.S. has included other notorious manifestations of aggression, ranging from the military aggression through the Bay of Pigs in 1961, the dirty war carried out by counterrevolutionary gangs heavily supplied by the U.S. CIA, bacteriological warfare on agricultural crops (sugar, tobacco, and citric fruits), animals (swine fever), and humans (hemorrhagic dengue), to sabotage plans, bombings using pirate planes, and assassination attempts on the country’s principal leaders.

The actions of terrorist organizations executing military attacks on Cuba from U.S. territory are notorious, and are publicized and fomented by the Miami media. Groups are constantly recruiting adventurers who are willing to head off to Cuba as agents and saboteurs, who openly declare that they have no fear whatsoever of being brought to justice in U.S. courts.

That is why Cuban patriots have had to leave aside their personal interests to serve those of the nation, even sacrificing their family relationships, in order to infiltrate the ranks of those terrorist groups in order to discover their activities and, with this information, prevent the bloodshed of Cuban and U.S. people. They are willing to pay the price of the political irrationality of the U.S. government, as is the case of the five Cuban heroes unjustly incarcerated in U.S. jails for combating terrorism.

The above is compounded by the heavy military mechanism created by the United States around Cuba and its constant tension-generating activities, as well as the illegal occupation of the Guantánamo Naval Base on Cuban territory (today converted into a horrific prison camp), a part of Cuba rented out by force to the United States in the early 20th century and which the U.S. government refuses to return.

In the early 90’s, with the disappearance of the Soviet Union, isolated and reviled by the international reaction, Cuba absorbed the terrible blow of losing the bulk of its markets in a matter of months and an abrupt descent in its gross domestic product. But the island confirmed that it shone with its own light and that it had never been a satellite of anyone, given that it was able to face that juncture on account of the extraordinary resistance of the majority of Cubans, who have acted on the basis of authentic motivations, values and ethical principles.

The Cuban people have made a conscious decision to support the country’s leadership, not only because they identify the system with their own interests, but also because of the responsible manner in which the state took on the crisis, reorganized its forces and designed a recovery strategy, despite the U.S. blockade and conditions imposed by its European allies.

The sacrifices provoked by that situation have been hard, but it has been possible to endure them because of the undisputed social advances attained, because of the confidence deposited in the country’s leading institutions and because of people’s appreciation that their government is not a decadent one or one that is in management crisis or lacking in strategies, but has confirmed that the population has remained at the center of all its work, even in the most difficult circumstances.

Fifty years have gone by and the liberation process has reached this point following the same direction indicated that night, 50 years ago, when Fidel, speaking to the huge crowd awaiting him in what was the dictatorship’s headquarters, affirmed that everything could be more difficult in the future, because we would have to fight to make the Revolution.

That is the challenge of the struggle currently underway to eradicate vices and exalt virtues, with Fidel as a soldier of ideas serving as a compass in the fight for freedom and independence.

Cuba’s enemies are backing their all on the opposite of that. In this world, where politics is a caricature, they cannot comprehend that, in its thinking and action, this Revolution is a process of continuity, and that Fidel will continue to be the leader of the Revolution of today and tomorrow, because, beyond responsibilities and titles, he will continue to be the counselor of ideas to which we will always have recourse, because he has transcended political life to insert himself in an intimate way in the family life of the vast majority of Cubans.

Courtesy: GRANMA

Workers Occupy Chicago Factory: Echoes of Argentina’s 2001 Worker Uprising

Benjamin Dangl

When the 250 workers at the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago were told that the plant was shutting down, they decided to take matters into their own hands.  On Friday, December 5, the workers occupied their factory in an act that echoes the sit-down strikes of the 1930s in the US and the occupation of factories during the 2001 crisis in Argentina.

"They want the poor person to stay down.  We’re here, and we’re not going anywhere until we get what’s fair and what’s ours," Silvia Mazon, 47, a formerly apolitical mother and worker at the factory for 13 years told the New York Times.  "They thought they would get rid of us easily, but if we have to be here for Christmas, it doesn’t matter."

The workers are demanding that they be paid their vacation and severance pay, or that the factory continue its operations.  They were given only three days’ notice of the shut down, not the 60 days’ notice which is required under federal and state law.

On Friday, fifty of the workers at the plant — taking shifts in the occupation — sat on chairs and pallets inside the factory and were supplied with blankets, sleeping bags, and food from supporters.  Throughout the takeover, workers have been cleaning the building and shoveling snow while protesters gathered in solidarity outside waving signs and chanting.

The occupation of the factory — which produces heating efficient vinyl windows and sliding doors — is taking place in the midst of a massive recession, with the rate of unemployment in the US at a 15 year high, and with 600,000 manufacturing jobs lost in this year alone.  As another indicator of the economic crisis, 1 in 10 Americans — a record of 31.6 million — are now using food stamps.

The factory workers are protesting the fact that the Bank of America received $25 billion in the recent $700 billion government bailout, and then went ahead and cut off credit to Republic Windows and Doors, resulting in the subsequent closing of the factory.

"The bank has the money in this situation," said Mark Meinster, a representative of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, the union to which the factory workers belong.  "And we are demanding that Bank of America release the money owed to workers who have earned it and are entitled to it."  On Monday Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich announced that, in support of the workers, the state will temporarily stop doing business with Bank of America.

President-elect Barack Obama also announced his support: "When it comes to the situation here in Chicago with the workers who are asking for their benefits and payments they have earned, I think they are absolutely right . . . what’s happening to them is reflective of what’s happening across this economy."

Rev. Jesse Jackson delivered turkey and groceries to the workers, saying, "These workers are to this struggle perhaps what Rosa Parks was to social justice 50 years ago. . . .  This, in many ways, is the beginning of a larger movement for mass action to resist economic violence."

Occupy, Resist, Produce: Argentina’s 2001 Crisis

Argentina’s crisis was similar to the current recession in the US in the sense that in December of 2001, almost overnight, Argentina went from having one of the strongest economies in South America to the one of the weakest.  As the occupation of the factory in Chicago indicates, there are some tactics and approaches used in Argentina to combat economic crises that could be applicable in the United States.

During Argentina’s economic crash, when politicians and banks failed, many Argentines banded together to create a new society out of the wreckage of the old.  Poverty, homelessness, and unemployment were countered with barter systems, alternative currency, and neighborhood assemblies which provided solidarity, food, and support in communities across the country.

Perhaps the most well known of these initiatives were the occupation of factories and businesses which were later run collectively by workers.  There are roughly two hundred worker-run factories and businesses in Argentina, most of which started in the midst of the 2001 crisis.  15,000 people work in these cooperatives and the businesses range from car part producers to rubber balloon factories.  Though the worker occupation of Republic Windows and Doors is different in many respects to examples of worker occupations in Argentina, it is worth reflecting on the strikingly similar situations in which workers in both countries found themselves, and how they are fighting back.

The Chilavert book publisher in Buenos Aires offers one example of workers taking back a bankrupt factory to operate it as a worker cooperative.  "Occupy, resist, and produce.  This is the synthesis of what we are doing," Candido Gonzalez, a long time Chilavert worker explained to me during a visit to his bustling publishing house, with printing presses clamoring away in the background.  "And it is the community as a whole that makes this possible.  When we were defending this place there were eight assault vehicles and thirty policemen that came here to kick us out.  But we, along with other members of the community, stayed here and defended the factory."

Candido didn’t attribute Chilavert’s success to any politician.  "We didn’t put a political party banner in the factory because we are the ones that took the factory.  All kinds of politicians have come here asking for our support.  Yet when the unions failed, when the state failed, the workers began a different kind of fight. . . .  If you want to take power and you can’t take over the state, you have to at least take over the means of production."

NO PASAR
Una mirada desde el trabajo autogestionado

Back in Chicago, at a time when politicians have failed to respond appropriately to one of the worst US economic crises in history, the occupation of the Republic Windows and Doors factory is a reminder that desperate times call for fresh approaches to social change.

"We aren’t animals," Republic Windows and Doors employee Apolinar Cabrera, 43, told reporters.  Cabrera is a father of two, with another child on the way, and has been an employee at the factory for 17 years.  "We’re human beings and we deserve to be treated like human beings."

***

Click here to take action to support the workers at Republic Windows and Doors and to hold Bank of America accountable.

Benjamin Dangl is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press).  The book includes many stories of workers, families, and activists throughout Latin America working together to build a new world in the face of economic crises.

Courtesy: MRZINE

Book Review: Colombia, Laboratory of Witches

James Petras

Hernando Calvo Ospina’s recent book, Colombia, laboratorio de embrujos: Democracia y terrorismo de Estado (Colombia, Laboratory of Witches: Democracy and State Terrorism) is the most important study of Colombian politics in recent decades and essential reading in light of the Western media’s and politicians’ celebration of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. Calvo Ospina’s study provides a wealth of historical and empirical data that highlights Colombia’s peculiar combination of electoral politics characteristic of a Western capitalist democracy and the permanent purge of civil and political society characteristic of totalitarian dictatorships.
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Unlike most Latin American countries, Colombia has never experienced the modernization of its political system. Since the 19th century Liberal and Conservative parties run by urban and rural oligarchies have controlled the political process through violence and patronage.

Middle and working class ‘radical’ and center-left parties in Colombia have been violently repressed and marginalized, in contrast to the political differentiation, which took place in Chile and Argentina in the early 20th century. No labor or social democratic or Marxist parties were allowed to secure representation and legitimacy unlike the experience in Brazil, Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia or elsewhere in Sough America. The ‘two party system’ based on oligarchic family elites were ill prepared to accommodate and accept the challenges of the burgeoning urban working class and rural peasant movements of the post-World War period. In Colombia resistance to plural social representation and to a multi-party system reflecting lower class interests took the form of civil war – la violencia – as the Liberal and Conservative Parties resorted to massive blood letting in the 1950’s to resolve which of the two factions of the ruling class would rule. The result was a bi-partisan pact to alternate the presidency between the two parties. The key theoretical point is that the unity of the Colombian elite was based on rule through mass violence, social exclusion and the monopoly of political power.

Colombia’s failed ‘transition to modernity’ was based exclusively on the selective introduction of Western institutions of counter-insurgency by a traditional oligarchy devoted to the politics of mass exclusion. The historical legacy of oligarchic party continuity and mass violence provides the framework for the contemporary practice of elections and death squads.

Calvo Ospina’s study provides detailed accounts explaining the pervasive influence of the US government in Colombian politics. The entire senior officer corps with command of troops and control of strategic intelligence agencies have passed through US military and indoctrination programs. In fact, attendance and certification by US military programs are a necessary step up the career ladder. Central to these training programs is ‘counter-insurgency’; training Colombian officials to violently repress any mass movements which challenge the Colombian oligarchy allied with Washington. The strategies taught by the US military instructors include the recruitment and arming of paramilitary death squads; ambitions junior military officers are pre-selected by the US military for their political loyalty to the US and aptitude for engaging in war against the Left and the mass movements led by their own compatriots. Calvo Ospina provides numerous ‘case studies’ of Colombian generals who follow this ‘career path’: From selection and training in the US ‘advanced’ military training schools, to command of troops, to protectors and promoters of death squads, to authors of multiple massacres against civilians, to recipients of numerous decorations from Colombian presidents and visiting US political and military dignitaries (page 213).

Calvo Ospina’s study synthesizes a wealth of testimony, documents, news reports, eye witness accounts and human rights investigations detailing the organic links between the Colombian government (including the Uribe cabinet) over 60 members of Colombia’s congress (allied to Uribe), right-wing governors and mayors and the 30,000 strong death squads, the principle of which was Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia ( United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia). In fact, the rise of Uribe from Governor of Antioquia to the Presidency was linked to his ties with the death squads (page 235). Calvo Ospina’s study demolishes claims that the ‘death squads’ operate independently of the state. Not only are the death squads an arm of the state, but they also play a major role in linking the oligarchy and the political elite to the multi-billion dollar narcotics trade. The study provides us with a clear account of the complex network of inter-locking elites made up of the Colombian ruling class, the US imperial apparatus and the Colombian military. While the death squads played a major role in the killing of thousands of popular leaders and dispossessing 3 million peasants, they received the support of the Colombian oligarchy. Once the military and the regime, with $5 billion USD in US military aid, took possession of disputed regions from the guerrillas, the death squads were in part demobilized. The growth and decline of the death squads was clearly a result of US and Colombian policy: They were ‘tactical’ instruments designed to carry out the bloodiest tasks of purging civil society of popular, mass-based opposition. Calvo Ospina’s detailed survey of the horrific human rights record of the first 5 years of Uribe’s rule stands in stark contrast to the barrage of favorable propaganda showered on the macabre figure after freeing Franco-Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt by Bush, Sarkozy, Zapatero, Chavez, and Castro among others. During the first 3 years of the Uribe Presidency (August 2002- December 31, 2005) over one million Colombians were forcibly displaced, the great majority peasants violently uprooted and dispossessed of their land and homes by the death squads/military, who subsequently seized their land under the pretext of eliminating potential supporters of the FARC and other social movements. The peasants-turned-urban-squatters, who became local leaders, subsequently were assassinated by the regime’s secret political police (DAS) or death squads. Uribe’s regime has murdered over 500 trade union activists and leaders since coming to power in 2003. One trade union leader succinctly summed up the dismal political choices for Colombian activists: “In Colombia its easier to organize a guerrilla (movement) than a trade union. Anyone who doubts that should try to organize one at their workplace” (page 348). According to the European Union, more than 300 human rights activists were murdered by the Uribe regime in its first term of office (page 349). In the first two years of his regime, Uribe was responsible for the assassination or ‘disappearance’ of 6,148 unarmed civilians in non-combat circumstances.

The use of paramilitary death squads promoted/financed and protected by the Uribe regime to murder and ‘disappear’ popular leaders serves several strategic political goals: It allows the regime to lower the number of human rights abuses attributed to the Colombian Armed Forces; it facilitates the extensive use of extreme terror tactics – public amputation and display of dismembered corpses – to intimidate entire communities (psychological warfare); it creates the myth that the regime is ‘centrist’ – opposed by the ‘extreme left’ (FARC) and the ‘extreme right’ (death squads, especially the AUC). This claim is particularly effective in furthering the regime’s diplomatic relations in the US and Europe, providing a convenient alibi for liberals and social democrats who provide Colombia with military and economic aid.

Calvo Ospina’s study of US-Colombian relations provides useful insights into the mutual benefits to Colombia’s ruling class and the empire. The death squads (sicarios) were originally organized by the Colombian elites to destroy peasant movements pursuing agrarian reform. With the massive entry of $6 billion USD in US military aid and several thousands US Special Forces, the death squads expanded from scattered, decentralized local killers into centralized 30,000 strong extension of US and Colombian counter-insurgency forces. They were oriented exclusively to exterminating villages and social organizations in guerrilla-influenced regions. Calvo Ospina’s study highlights the central role of the Colombian ruling class as well as the US military in the growth of the totalitarian terrorist state. His study clearly rejects the simplistic view of many on the Left who see oppression, exploitation and terror simply as impositions by ‘outside forces’ (imperialism). The theoretical point is that the US military’s entry, expansion and influential role was possible because it coincided with the long-term, large-scale interests and needs of the Colombian ruling class.

The most important contribution of Calvo Ospina’s study of Colombian politics is his account of the construction and elaboration of a totalitarian terrorist regime, with the open collaboration and support of US, European and Latin American capitalist democracies.

The infrastructure of totalitarian terror defines the boundaries, content and participants of electoral politics. It includes: Rule by Presidential decrees suspending all constitutional guarantees (page 295); A nationwide secret police network of 1.6 million spies (page 296); Peasants forcibly recruited and forced to act as local military collaborators (“Soldiers of My People”) in 500 of Colombia’s 1,096 municipalities; 30,000 military-trained and armed death squad paramilitary forces; 300,000 active military forces, the DAS (Departamento Administrativo de Seguidad – Security Administrative Department) – the secret police numbering in the tens of thousands. The private militias of landowners, bankers and business leaders involving private security agencies number over 150,000 gunmen.

Colombia is the most militarized country in Latin America. The Congress, electorate, judiciary and civil service exercise no effective control. The constitutional protections are totally non-existent. The scope and depth of human rights violations exceed those of any military dictatorship in recent Latin American history, including those in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Bolivia.

The totalitarian terrorist infrastructure of the state defines the political character of the political system. The electoral process serves exclusively as a façade facilitating ‘normal relations’ with liberal, conservative and social democratic regimes in Europe and North and South America. In effect their praise and support of Uribe in the aftermath of the Betancourt affair served to legitimize the terrorist regime. Their condemnation of the FARC was also a rejection of the anti-totalitarian and anti-terrorist left.

While Calvo Ospina’s study has deepened our understanding of the structure and practice of contemporary totalitarian terrorist regimes, there is a need to proceed further to examine the emerging mass base of support for the regime. Uribe mobilized over one million Colombians against the FARC in the spring of 2008 in support of his totalitarian regime, at a time when the mass media, the Colombian judiciary and former leaders of the death squads revealed that scores of pro-Uribe Congresspeople, Cabinet Ministers and Generals were linked to the AUC. In other words, hundreds of thousands of middle class Colombians knowingly embraced a totalitarian leader.

The emergence of mass-based totalitarianism, replacing the traditional authoritarian oligarchy, is part of the emergence of new virulent right-wing politics in Latin America. In Bolivia, the far-right Santa Cruz ruling class has combined a mass middle class base with its own ‘para-military’ shock forces in pursuit of ‘autonomy’ (secession) and control over the massive oil and gas revenues accruing from partnerships with foreign multinationals. In Argentina, the hard right in the provinces has built a mass base of several hundred thousand in defense of huge commodity profits. In Venezuela, the hard right can put several hundred thousand in the street and engages its own paramilitary shock troops.

The emergence of the totalitarian right coincides with the inability of the ‘center-left’ and the left to capitalize on the commodity boom to finance structural changes and organize the working and rural poor into ‘fighting forces’.

In Colombia, the center-left (Polo Democrático) has generally sided with the Uribe right against the FARC – and in the process given a powerful impetus to the regime’s attraction of the mass urban middle class. The ‘center left’ regimes’ embrace of agro-mineral export strategies in the rest of Latin America have immobilized the masses and vastly increased the power of the new totalitarian right and encouraged their use of ‘direct action’ tactics. Far from Uribe’s Colombia being the ‘exception’ to a ‘progressive wave’ in Latin America, it is more realistic to view him as emblematic of the new totalitarian leaders who combine elections and political terrorism.

Colombia, as Calvo Ospina describes it, is indeed the ‘Laboratory of the Extreme Right’. Uribe’s success spells danger for the workers, peasant and popular movements of Latin America.