Campesino Leader Arbonio Ortega: ‘We Didn’t Come Here to Play’

The campesino leader explains the reasoning behind last week’s hunger strike, and what he expects to come from renewed efforts from government officials.


Venezuelanalysis.comLast Wednesday, a group of small farmers, or campesinos, held a short-lived hunger strike in protest against the lack of progress in the implementation of the direct orders by President Nicolas Maduro in relation to the complaints which they had presented him with.

The campesinos, who are all staunch Chavistas, had marched 435 kilometres to Caracas to present the demands to the president, and following the ground-breaking encounter in early August, decided to stay in the capital until they saw the government, and different state bodies, fulfill Maduro’s words.

At the live televised meeting between Maduro and the campesinos, the president issued a series of orders to address the problems that the campesinos had brought to light, and charged Vice President Delcy Rodriguez and President of the National Constituent Assembly (ANC) Diosdado Cabello with carrying them out.

Four work groups were to be set up (to address irregularities concerning rural violence, legal processes, land ownership, and production), and the campesinos proposed a fifth work group (on political issues, including the restructuring of the Agricultural and Lands Ministry and other government bodies), which never materialised. When announcing the hunger strike, the campesinos stressed that those work groups which had been set up had barely made any progress.

The hunger strike started Tuesday at 5pm and was called off Thursday at 1am following discussions with top government spokespersons and the reactivation of all five workgroups.

Following the strike, the campesinos issued a statement in which they state that it was agreed that the National Land Institute (INTI) would assign 80% of the land titles by Thursday September 20, and that the remaining 20% would be resolved before the upcoming Campesino Congress, scheduled for October. Having overcome this problem, the [government organised national agricultural plan] 2018 Crop Plan would then be extended by the campesinos to cover 100 percent of the available land. It was also agreed that the campesinos would supervise the execution of these plans at every level.

The following is an interview with Arbonio Ortega, one of the spokespeople of the campesino movement who also participated in the hunger strike, by Luisana Colomine.

Luisana Colomine – The campesinos’ hunger strike lasted some 30 hours, starting Tuesday September 11 around 5pm, and ending the following day when ANC President Diosdado Cabello sent ANC member Dario Vivas to talk to the rural workers.

Whilst Diosdado was shooting his TV program ‘Beating with the Club’, Vivas set up a meeting which lasted until midnight. Around 1am the strikers who slept in the entrance of the Fermin Toro school were woken, “Go and relax and pick up the mattresses, the strike is over,” they were told.

The action had a quicker effect than the 20 days and nearly 500 kilometers of march from Guanare [Portuguesa state] to Caracas.

Amidst threats of invasion, economic war, and a plan of economic recovery which attempts to overcome the crisis, it didn’t seem to be very convenient that some campesinos sleeping on mattresses in the entrance of the school were to receive the students the following September 17 when the new school year began.

The sector which has been grouped into the Platform of Campesino Struggle has made some grave denouncements regarding obstruction in the workgroups and even more serious things, such as a certain bias in favour of large landowners by those functionaries designated by the Vice President Delcy Rodriguez [to take part in the workgroups], who have stalled the advancing of the fair demands of land ownership, production, fair legal processes, and [protection against the] assassination of peasants, which the campesinos explained to President Maduro (Ortega highlighted the “sophisticated guns” used only by “paramilitaries and drug lords” found during a campesino inspection at the Los Rastrojos farm in Guarico state). The campesinos were adamant when they affirmed that the strike was to defend the word of President Maduro that August 2 on national television, radio, and on social media.

Not even the workgroup which was to address so called “political” topics, and which was to discuss the restructuring of the Ministry of Productive Agriculture and Land, as well as the relation between large landowners and the military, had been installed. This had not been achieved because, according to the denouncements, lawyer Luz Escarra [who had been assigned to set it up] had procrastinated.

After so many difficulties the campesinos moved to the Fabricio Ojeda Endogenous Development Nucleus and are awaiting the approval of PDVSA. If they are still in the Fermin Toro school when classes start, they will hold meetings with the students so that they may understand their struggles and become conscious of the importance of the campesino sector in the economic activity of the country.

“We didn’t come to play”

Arbonio Ortega – [The strike] had a communicational and political impact.

We felt that we were obliged [to do it] because the other path was to continue with these workgroups which did not advance, and we didn’t come here to play.

It is the art of politics, to resolve differences, and we came to do politics. We never wanted to confront anyone, our objectives were very clear, we want to help the country, to increase production and to do this, we need help, resources, land ownership, and protection for our lives and families. And now we want the orders of President Maduro to be carried out.

LC – Why was the hunger strike lifted so quickly?

AO – Not five minutes had passed after the news had been spread by you, the alternative media, when the calls started.

The ANC President, Diosdado Cabello, sent Dario Vivas and he immediately came to the Fermin Toro school and set up a workgroup where the President of the National Lands Institute (INTI), Luis Soteldo, Maite Garcia, Luisana Melo, and Gilberto Pinto were all present. This meeting lasted until midnight and then we asked that the people named by Vice President Delcy Rodriguez be replaced, as they are lazy, incapable, and in favour of large landowners. Straight away the creation of the political workgroup was authorised, that which Luz Escarra had not wanted to install. As such Dario Vivas realized that we had strong reasons for the actions we had taken.

LC – President Maduro had ordered Diosdado Cabello and Delcy Rodriguez to attend to your demands. Had Cabello not participated in the workgroups? Wasn’t he aware of the situation?

AO – Diosdado trusted that things would work out…

LC – You denounced that the campesinos were excluded from the 2018 Crop Plan. What happened there?

AO – In this meeting, we were surprised by a lie of Luis Soteldo who assured Dario Vivas that the problem of the 85 plots of land in contention had been resolved, and it turns out that not even 20 had been, despite the fact that Delcy Rodriguez ordered the resolution of this issue without political or military godfathers.

Now they have been given eight days to sort out the land titles and we [the campesinos] are to participate in the inspections. As such, the 2018 Crop Plan will cover 100 percent, and there will be more than 50,000 hectares producing 23 crops.

LC – Do you trust [President of the Venezuelan Land Institute INTI Luis] Soteldo?

AO – With what happened last night, which was not pleasant, he must now fulfill his duty.

LC – Will Vice President Delcy Rodriguez continue to be at the workgroups?

AO – We have to wait for her to arrive from the Presidential trip [to China] with Maduro, and replace the people in charge of the work groups.

LC – What happened with the Admirable Campesino Congress?

AO – Support for the mobilization and logistics and institutional help of other regions has been agreed upon, but the date may be postponed until the first two weeks of October.

LC – What happens next?

AO – We want to transcend the march and have the Platform of Campesino Struggle bring together all of the producers of the country. We want to function like a training school to set up a unified campesino movement, because we also have to look inwards.

There are six million hectares of land which are not producing and this has to be revised, because we have to change the importing model, and if there is no production then everything has to be bought from outside, only benefiting the mafias. We want to produce your food, everyone’s food, the people’s food. We even wanted to bring some plantains to Caracas, but we couldn’t as there weren’t any vehicles. In Zulia state, in Berbere, there was a warehouse full of avocado which went bad because no one helped us bring them [to Caracas].

LC – The Admirable Campesino March continues then?

AO – The Admirable Campesino March continues…

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.