Not even Brahma, the Brazilian multinational beer company, stood a chance. [Brahma’s] plant in Barquisimeto was left to be occupied by its workers, who didn’t accept being fired and having to see the factory closed after its shares were sold to Cisneros. The beer business in Venezuela was strategically designed so that that only three brewing companies could become part it, which with the passing of time became two: that of the Mendoza family– Polar– and that of the Cisneros–Regional/Zulia.
For this purpose, they created a juridical framework aimed at preventing the birth of small and medium sized breweries– with unsustainable taxes, for example- and [guaranteeing] a market for import, production, and commercialization controlled at all points. And for all of those who tried to build, challenge, or question [this framework], the responses were flawless: buy them out, strangulate, threaten, [and] fire them.
But if the course of the revolutionary process has taught us something it is that nothing has been so well designed– by the dominant classes– that the organized people can’t transform it. And in the face of so much of the same beer imposed on millions of Venezuelans, someone should think about creating other types of beer; and in the face of so much exploitation of the workers of Polar breweries, a union had to be born which would fight for the rights of the thousands who produce 7 million beers daily.
A 102 Day Strike
102 days [of strike] were necessary before Polar industries had no other option than to sit down to negotiate with the union Sintraterricentro, chosen by the workers. During those days– from April 7 to July 17– there were marches, solidarity strikes in the plants at Los Cortijos and Oriente as well as at distributing agencies, and also open threats, attempts by hitmen, lack of pay, regardless of the legal rights of protest, etc.
“The law forced Lorenzo Mendoza to sit down to discuss a collective contract with Sintraterricentro,” explained Johan Nieves, a worker with the Turmero agency in Aragua. The Labor Ministry and the Ombudsman’s office intervened. In fact, with the initiation of negotiations over the arbitral award, Sintraterricentro was recognized [as the union representing the workers], a historic victory.
“Lorenzo Mendoza, apart from continuing to promote the economic war, wants to boycott the arbitral award [and] not recognize the union, because it is class-conscious, workerist, where 82% of its affiliates are in the sectors that produce the most profit. He keeps refusing us, boycotting our struggle,” Johan analyzed.
One of the entrepreneurial attacks against the struggle, which additionally contributes to the economic war, is the recent decrease of beer [production]: “We have conclusive proof and we have issued a denunciation that Mr. Lorenzo Mendoza removed the barley– raw material indispensible to brewing– from the San Joaquin plant– which produces 52% of all beer [in the country]– and took it for storage to other companies not prepared to store [barley]: to Protinal, to Maracaibo, to Oriente, in order to thereby lower the production of beer.”
Diverting raw materials, alleging a lack of [raw materials] to produce, creating shortages in the market, and blaming the national government [are part of] a maneuver that deepened with the paralyzation of the Los Cortijos, San Joaquin, and Oriente plants. In the face of this, the unions of Polar, ever more united with 5,500 workers, headed by Sintraterricentro, put article 190 of the Constitution on the table.
“Exercising our right under article 190 of the Constitution: the owner who refuses to produce will have his or her company taken over by the workers, plain and simple,” affirmed Johan, who was recently assaulted by the [rival] pro-Polar union, in name of those who know the labyrinths, lies, and millions that Mendoza makes each day with the beer he has been monopolizing.
Another Beer is Possible
Not only because of the conditions under which it is produced, but also because of the beer in itself. Because hundreds of possible styles of beer exist, already made and yet to be made, but with the market in the hands of Mendoza and Cisneros, millions of Venezuelans know only one: the Pilsen style.
In the face of this, from about two years ago, alternatives trials began: from the more well known, like Tovar or Destilo, up to the new proposals, such as Yaracuy, O’Leary, and Old Dan’s. More than thirty producers in total [are] searching for new flavors, recreating beer in all of its possibilities.
Take Daniel Lopez, producer of Old Dan’s, who decided to try to read a few books about how to make beer, acquired a bottle stopper from abroad, some of the raw materials, and began to experiment with a pressure pot from his kitchen.
Little by little the beer universe– closed in Venezuela– was being opened for him [Lopez]: the different malted barleys– carmelized, toasted, smoked, roasted, etc., the cooking temperatures, the types of hops, how much hops to add to achieve different aromas, flavors, and bitters, the adding of papelón [unprocessed sugar cane] or cilantro seeds, orange peels, etc. A variety of beers: white, blond, amber, dark, from which [Lopez] regularly produces six styles and four new ones every year that are never repeated.
And at the same time that the infinite possibilities [opened up for him], the current Venezuelan beer reality stared [Lopez] in the face: laws to prevent him from legalizing– there doesn’t exist a tax scale [for small and medium breweries], for example– the consequential impossibility of registering in order to receive dollars to import. Because, apart from the papelón, the bottles, the bottle caps, and the cooking implements, everything else is brought from abroad.
Legalization would be the possibility to leap forward: to invest in infrastructure, larger machines, more adequate spaces, to have competitive prices without losing desired quality, and to produce legally more, much more than the 300 monthly liters of Old Dan’s, which together with the other artisanal beer producers represent .09% of the annual market that should be made accessible to all producers.
It Will Change
Just as reality changed since that producer who in 1843 made the first beer in the country, [this too will change]. Because the beer makers, who have been organizing themselves in the Association of Artisanal Brewers of Venezuela, have advanced in their [public] recognition via the Artisanal Beer Route. The workers know who they are, what they can do, and against whom they fight, because fundamentally it’s about the people’s struggle against a monopoly that excludes and commands the economic war.
Here it’s not a case of shares, as in the case of Brahma which solved its problem selling [its plant] to Cisneros– which thanks to the struggle of the workers and the Pio Tamayo commune, has been transformed into the socially owned enterprise Proletarios Unios– but one of will to break with the anachronistic order, born in the entrails of the IV Republic that oppresses, exploits, and represses, disguised by millionaire publicity.
And in the center of this scheme that is collapsing, thanks to popular struggle and creativity, stands Mendoza, opposed to the path chosen by millions, muddling through his attempt to strangle the public which does not work out, because there is a desire among these masses to be free, happy, to not return to the starting point that meant sadness and misery.
Photos by Gustavo Lagarde y Orlando Herrera