The State of the Campesino Struggle in Venezuela

In this exclusive article for Venezuelanalysis, community broadcasters TatuyTV examine one of the hot topics in Venezuela in light of food shortages and economic crisis: the state of the campesino struggle and land reform.

Campesinos in Merida

The poor peasant: they shoot at him, kill his pigs, tear down his shack, sometimes they rape his daughter, hit his son, and he must die in silence. This is when the things that have happened in the world take place, because people have dignity. (Cuentos del arañero. Orlando Oramas León and Jorge Legañoa Alonso. 2012)

Venezuela is a country with ample, open, and unused rural spaces which enjoy excellent environmental conditions for crop production, cattle raising, and a host of other productive activities. It is a country which has always depended on the land, both through agriculture and later oil, and today, the campesinos sectors form the backbone of support for the Bolivarian Government. But, the struggle to retake the land from the land-owning elites has been, and is, fraught with contradictions and even blood shed at times.

The historic development of Venezuela has been interrupted by diverse violent processes such as the colonial extermination of the material foundations of its indigenous communities and the consequent development of large-landed estates under the control of the landowning oligarchy during and following the Wars of Independence in the 19th Century.

By seizing large pieces of land previously owned by Venezuela’s indigenous population, the colonial powers turned land into the principal mean of production, creating property and the usufruct of agricultural land where “our indigenous peoples had created a thousand-year social agrarian capital”. (Sanoja, 2011, pp.181-182)[1].

The new social-economic agrarian structure founded through the large landed estates the distribution and division of the land, and the ferocious eviction of the original owners, that’s to say, the people, through the indiscriminate exploitation of the labour force and constant persecution.

On the backs of not only this persecution of the indigenous population but also the slave trade from Africa, the oligarchy consolidated itself as the land-owning class. Today, the afro-Venezuelan population, the descendants of the slave trade, form a significant part of the wider campesino movement. Given this context of slavery and servitude, numerous peoples’ rebellions were generated throughout the territory, up until present times.

At the start of the 20th Century, the hegemonic control of the land revenue passed over to oil exploitation, with the ownership of the land by the land-owning oligarchy being ever more important. This is how 75% of the productive land is currently in the hands of only 5% of landowners[2].

The struggle for the land: campesinos, the Bolivarian Revolution and landowning elites.                                   

The campesinos’ struggle against the regime of the landowning elites created from that moment onwards grew in prominence during the 20th Century, and managed to find a way of disputing ownership of the land with the onset of the Bolivarian Revolution and the coming to power of President Hugo Chavez in 1999. The opportunity to greatly and forcefully advance in this struggle of the historically excluded peoples began with the approval of the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in 1999 and the Agrarian Reform Law of 2001, both of which shifted the legal parameters in favour of the campesinos and away from the landed classes, especially foreign large landowners.

Following the 2001 Law, which importantly legalized takeovers of unproductive idle land by the organized campesinos communities and prohibited latifundios (large land plots), a process of land reclamation began in Venezuela in which the campesinos communities finally saw the possibility of owning the land their families had worked on for generations.

The relationship of mutual cooperation and alliances which began to be woven between the national government, led by Hugo Chavez, himself from the rural community, and the campesino movement provoked an immediate reaction from the landowners, who consistently trampled over the new regulations on landowning rights, insisting that “the private sector are the ones who know how to produce,” that “expropriations are unproductive” and that “large-scale production is the best way to produce”. These are just some of the fallacies through which this power – the landowning oligarchy – has used to try to claw back its ownership over the land, even when “in the current situation, 70% of the food which is consumed in Venezuelan houses is a product of small-scale family agriculture” [3] – a productive model with undeniable socio-economic benefits[4].

Today our Constitution says that a system of large-landed estates goes against the interests of society, a right that was fought for and defended by campesinos, sometimes at the expense of their lives. From 2001 until 2006, the number of assassinations carried out by hired killers and paramilitaries as a means of maintaining a monopoly over the land has cost the lives of 300 peasants[5].

Recently, campesinos reached the landmark of having 6 million hectares of land under their control[6]. Although this seems a lot, it represents just 20% of the total arable land on a national level.

There are still many battles in order to win the war against the landowning class, some of them are already being fought, and many will be for the long haul. For example, “there are around 6000 cases involving the recovery of land which have been opened but never resolved”[7], meaning that “90% of what has been recovered [by the campesinos] could be lost” [8]. This is what the landowning oligarchy is aiming for, through the complicity of some actors in the state – in the executive, judicial, and citizen’s powers, as well as in the security forces[9] – and through the use of paramilitarism to “persecute and threaten the campesinos”[10].

Recovery, birth and revolution: Juana Maria

Following this brief historic and geographic summary, we come to the emphatic and momentous recent land takeover carried out by campesinos in the western state of Merida, specifically in Caño Avispero in the Obispo Ramos de Lora municipality.

The takeover of this piece of land, called La Magdalena Ranch up until that point, began in 2017, following a corresponding inspection from regional and national authorities after an official complaint was lodged in accordance with current legal norms. The complaint proved that the land parcels under the control of local landowners- the Celis Aranguren family- were apt for crops cultivation and were being underused, according to Juan Carlos, the lawyer for the campesinos. The total land contains 880 hectares, of which 94.6 percent were in a state of total abandonment, qualifying it for a legal takeover by the campesinos according to Venezuelan law. These were the results of the official technical inspection.

The campesinos who carried out this land-takeover and those of the rest of the country are defending the Constitution, not just for their own benefit, but for the benefit of all Venezuelan people in a context of economic recession, low national production, import-dependency, and significant shortages. Their values include protecting access to food, dignified work, and the preservation of the land against the rent-seeking landowner, agricultural commodification and hunger.

As the following example demonstrates, this is a struggle in which the Venezuelan state is not always clear on its role, which, we argue, should be on the side of the Constitution in the same way as the campesinos. However, for some state-officials from the Land Office in Merida, security force agents – the National Bolivarian Guard (GNB) and the CICPC Special Investigation Police Unit – and even some officials from the Citizens’ and Judicial Powers branches of government, personal benefits are more important than enforcing the Constitution.

During this particular struggle in defence of our anti-landowner Constitution, several peasants were arrested, accused of trespassing, logging, deforestation and resistance to authority. Even though the land rescue was run through the proper channels, local authorities lashed out against peasants, arresting three people with false charges.

Faced with this injustice, the other peasants who were taking part in the land seizure stood up in solidarity and mobilized in defence of those arrested. In the end, all were arrested, 32 of them, which included, and we need to stress this, 6 people over 60 years of age, 2 people suffering from cancer, and a mother with her infant daughter. All of these abuses, harassment, and severe human rights violations had as an end result that in a mere 6 months, something that in other cases was not possible in decades, the legalization of land ownership was achieved, or in other words, the liberation of the land and the emancipation of these peasants and their families who resisted and fought for justice to the very end.

This rescued land plot now bears the name of Juana María, in honour of the little peasant girl who was imprisoned along with her mother. The agricultural and political potential is now being developed through several peasant/political organizations. But it will struggle to reach its full potential without a committed action from a revolutionary state, which includes funding – credit, agricultural support, agricultural supplies, seeds, etc – proper and qualified technical training to keep up with technological progress; economic, physical and psychological security for those struggling peasants that represent the basis for food sovereignty, and who lead through their example of struggle in times when morals, productive work and commitment to the country are the highest demonstrations of patriotism we can find.

Rescuing all of Venezuela

After the “Juana María” land rescue, President Nicolás Maduro expressed on the national stage his rejection of these illegal evictions and prohibited them from taking place, and requested that the National Constituent Assembly (ANC) investigate the evictions and produce a detailed report about the land rescue processes in at least seven Venezuelan states (Barinas, Monagas, Zulia, Mérida, Portuguesa, Lara and Yaracuy).

He also asked peasants to revise their productive plans in the six million hectares which, taking into account the recently awarded 440 thousand hectares, have been handed over to them, in order to approve resources towards a major productive plan. At the end of April a meeting took place between peasants from these 7 states and an ANC commission, the State Prosecutor and the Ministry of Popular Power for Productive Agriculture and Land, to go over the forced and violent evictions in these states, as well as evaluate ongoing and future productive plans.

These meetings have started to bear fruits, for example in Barinas, specifically in the case of Fundo Gavilán – La Chaqueta, where over 100 peasants were evicted in February. An inspection process was initiated by the Venezuelan Land Institute (INTI) to decide on the rescue of 2.733 hectares of land by the Peasant Council “Mil Zamoras Una Patria”.

Land rescues are being “sown” all across Venezuela, and on May 5, the constituent presidential commission and the INTI went to “La Victoria” estate located in Chivo (Francisco Javier Pulgar municipality), of the western Zulia state to initiate an inspection and open the corresponding process to award the land to the peasants that had been denouncing since 2012 the idleness of around 400 hectares out of a total of 642 which until 2016 were under the ownership of María Auxiliadora Bracho de Muchacho.

Nieves Rios, campesino leader from “La Victoria” commented: “since November 16, 2017, access was barred to the peasants. The plot was militarized under orders from landowner Bracho de Muchacho, they brought cattle to get rid of the corn that we had sown in the abandoned areas which through the proper institutional protocols already belonged to the state”.

Beyond that they denounced their treatment at the hands of the GNB: “How is it possible that the GNB comes to evict you at 4 in the morning? It pains us that the GNB, which is said to belong to the people, comes to evict. Some are following orders, but we do not trust the GNB or the local commanding officer,” said peasant leader Luis Rodríguez.

The peasant movement has made strides in showing the national authorities the current condition of this plot that they have reclaimed for years, as well as showing the vulnerability of the peasants if the state does not act accordingly and responsibly to attend to their demands and recommendations.

In the case of the “La Bolívar La Bolivariana” farm located in Santa Bárbara, Zulia state, stretching over 1.474 hectares and made up of 5 socialist peasant councils that represent 500 families, during 6 years of struggle these peasants have been evicted three times. Although these lands were seized by the state in 2008 they were not awarded to the peasants but to the “Maricela” company, then of Mayor María Malpica – whose tenure resulted in abuses and exclusion of the peasants – only to end up under control of the agricultural branch of the armed forces, AgroFANB.

According to Virgilio Sánchez, leader of the peasant council “Pacha Mama”, the peasants decided to return to the land due to it being unproductive: “Maduro said that idle lands are meant to produce”. Their demands are that the government takes them into account, as their major aspiration is to put the land to work to support their families, as well as guaranteeing a food supply that is desperately needed in Venezuela.

The target of six million hectares handed to the peasant movement, as well as headlines such as “renewal of land rescue processes and push for an investigation of abuses” cannot remain confined to a certain electoral effervescence in view of President Nicolás Maduro’s reelection. Instead they should represent the unstoppable advance towards food security and sovereignty, and towards a new productive model based on family agriculture and eco-socialism.

[1]              Sanoja Mario. 2011. Historia socio-cultural de la Economía Venezolana. Banco Central de Venezuela. Caracas.

[2]              La Revolución Bolivariana, Allan Woods – España, 2005

[3]                http://www.albatv.org/La-Revolucion-Bolivariana-y-la-21234.html

[4]               https://news.un.org/es/story/2013/11/1288131

[5]              http://www.albatv.org/La-Revolucion-Bolivariana-y-la-21234.html

[6]               http://rnv.gob.ve/presidente-maduro-autoriza-entrega-de-44-000-hectareas-al-sector-campesino/

[7]              http://www.albatv.org/La-Revolucion-Bolivariana-y-la-21234.html

[8]              http://www.albatv.org/La-Revolucion-Bolivariana-y-la-21234.html

[9]               http://www.crbz.org/diez-claves-que-debemos-saber-sobre-la-lucha-por-la-tierra-en-venezuela/

[10]            http://www.albatv.org/La-Revolucion-Bolivariana-y-la-21234.html