Venezuela’s Campesino Struggle: A Conversation with Kevin Rangel of the Bolivar and Zamora Revolutionary Current

A key organizer from the largest Venezuelan campesino organization speaks to Venezuelanalysis about some of the tensions and contradictions within the Bolivarian Revolution.

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Kevin Rangel, National Coordinator of the Bolivar and Zamora Revolutionary Current. (CRBZ)
Kevin Rangel, National Coordinator of the Bolivar and Zamora Revolutionary Current. (CRBZ)
By Cira Pascual Marquina – Venezuelanalysis
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Born in Caracas, Kevin Rangel joined the Bolivar and Zamora Revolutionary Current (CRBZ) in 2005. Today he is the organization’s national coordinator, working from the city of Calabozo, Guarico State, in Venezuela’s rural heartland. The CRBZ has been in the forefront of the intense struggles taking place in the Caribbean nation’s countryside where a rural population eager to till the land confronts an old and new landlord class aiming to expand its extensive holdings.

Two years into the Bolivarian process a new legal framework for the land was put in place. The 2001 laws opened the way for a more equitable reorganization of the rural areas, redistributing idle land to small and mid-size campesinos. The Venezuelan oligarchy reacted furiously, assassinating campesinos who were beginning to produce on once-idle land. Could you give us some background on how the Bolivarian Process impacted the rural areas?

The Land and Agricultural Development Law [2001] laid out the basis of the agricultural revolution as proposed by Chavez at a time when the strategic path of the Bolivarian Revolution was being defined. A central element of that project is sovereignty. To have sovereignty, of course, one has to make the country produce, i.e. stop being a “port” economy.

The first step in making the country productive – producing the food we need and raw materials for the country’s industry – involved the land. Land tenure has important historical dimensions in Venezuela. Since the country’s independence, the latifundio [large estate] was established as the model that would dominate rural Venezuela during its whole history. That was the cause of the Federal War [1859-63] led by Ezequiel Zamora. The interests of the oligarchy, which governed Venezuela for many years, were there: in the land. They accumulated a lot of riches, a lot of land…

The campesinos have historically been the most combative sector of our population. They were the ones who fought with Bolivar. In fact, Bolivar was only able to triumph in the Independence War after he united with the Venezuelan peasants, the poor, and the black people. The same with Zamora: the main group that accompanied him and carried out the Federal War was the peasants. That is because it was for that group that injustice and inequality was expressed in the most radical way...

The oligarchy’s response [to the 2001 legislation] was to initiate – and continue during all of these 18 years – a whole process of conspiring and bringing in paramilitaries as part of a plan to strike at the Bolivarian Revolution. Where they did it most was in the rural areas, because it was the campesinos who best understood Chavez’s call for a total war against the latifundio.

Of course, it wasn’t as if the campesinos weren’t doing anything before Chavez arrived. There were conflicts over the land and they had developed projects. As an organization, we too date from before Chavez’s arrival to power, but it was the context of the Bolivarian process that brought the campesinos into a new scenario of struggle.

A struggle emerged in the rural areas, and the oligarchy responded by contracting paramilitaries. The “demobilization” of Colombian paramilitaries coincided with the incorporation of paramilitary cells in Venezuela. They began to operate in Sur del Lago [Zulia and Merida States]. Thus there began a war, a war against campesinos which today has left a body count of more than 300 campesinos murdered. Those [killed] were people who were at the front of the land recovery struggle. They wanted to make the campesinos afraid, and they hoped our movement would stop struggling. Thus, on our end, justice for the fallen is one of our most important rallying cries. There must be an end to impunity!

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Chavez, who opened the way for an agrarian revolution, is depicted here in a 2006 visit to the Venezuelan plains. (CRBZ)
Chavez, who opened the way for an agrarian revolution, is depicted here in a 2006 visit to the Venezuelan plains. (CRBZ)

The Bolivarian Revolution once had its epicenter in the urban barrios, but now the countryside seems to be more combative. It is there that the contradictions of the process seem to be most intense. First, there are the longstanding contradictions that pit the small to medium producers and the rural communes against the interests of old landowners and agribusiness. On top of that, now tensions have intensified between the rural communes and the small to medium peasants, on the one side, and the state, on the other. Also, it’s no secret that the judicial system favors old and new landlords and that Agropatria, the state company that distributes agricultural inputs, is permeated by an anti-popular logic. What do you think is happening?

Chavez proposed not only a new Land and Agricultural Development Law but also a new institutional framework for rural development and food sovereignty. That was to be a central goal of those struggles. After the lapse of almost 18 years, the struggles have been changing, mutating. Elements of the dispute have been broadening. In 2001, we struggled against the“Adeco[1] institutional [logic].” We struggled to remove the Adecos and Copeyanos[2] from the Land and Agriculture Ministry and to get the Venezuelan Agrarian Federation out of the IAN [pre‐revolutionary land institute] and later out of the INTI [Chavez‐era land institute] and the FONDAS [National Agricultural Fund].

One of the main contradictions of the Bolivarian process is with the bureaucracy, bureaucratism, and the corruption that has been penetrating all the state’s institutions, even putting at risk the state’s functioning is some cases. For us, this is part of what explains the economic crisis that Venezuela is now experiencing. It is not only the enemy’s actions and not only imperialism’s actions, but also a question of corruption and inefficiency in government.

With regard to the campesino and agrarian institutions created by the revolution, agrarian mafias have embedded themselves, which is taking away force as well as revolutionary and transformative potential from those institutions. The logic of the bourgeois state took hold of those institutions… We have an outstanding task which is transforming and overcoming of capitalist state.

That is precisely something that is entering in the struggle today: the struggle against hired killings, against impunity, and also against the agrarian mafias. That’s because those mafias have been infiltrating institutions, not only in the Ministry of Agriculture and Land but also the Supreme Court and the Attorney General’s Office. There are members of the security apparatuses, the Attorney General’s Office, the courts, and judiciary that protect the landlord class today. We didn’t succeed in getting the Adecos and their culture out of our state’s institutions. Today, that is one of the main problems we face.

It is necessary to overhaul and restructure the institutions. We need to reorganize from the bottom up institutions such as INTI, FONDAS, and Agropatria. Agropatria was once the transnational Agroisleña. Elements of that transnational stayed there, sabotaging the institution from the inside. This is the result of a policy that derives from a lack of leadership from those who headed up those institutions – all of them, not just the current ones. There are people who, for many years, were at the head of the agrarian institutions that are also responsible for not having transformed them, and they share responsibility for the situation today.

Sometimes it seems as if we can’t find a popular tendency – one that favors the working people – inside the institutions!

There, public functionaries are totally déclassé. Their raison d’etre – the concept of a public servant – has disappeared. There are people in the agrarian institutions that are in the service of cattlemen’s associations and landlords rather than of the campesinos.

But there is something we need to ask: Who is the main interested party? Who has an interest that in this country there should be no production? The import sector. We need to identify that sector and make it visible. They have been interfering and have lobbies inside the revolution, so that nothing works. Then if things don’t work there will be chaos, there will be no production, and they will go on importing. So that’s why we say there is a need to look a the way funds are assigned, so that our first priority becomes agricultural production.

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Map of the north of Venezuela that shows hotspots of campesino struggle (Barinas and Sur del Lago). Both areas are circled, as is Caracas. (Venezuelanalysis)
Map of the north of Venezuela that shows hotspots of campesino struggle (Barinas and Sur del Lago). Both areas are circled, as is Caracas. (Venezuelanalysis)

More than 300 campesinos have been killed since 2001 and five since May of this year. The most recent victim is a 16-year-old boy in Sur del Lago, which is a hotspot in the dispute between the agrarian cooperatives and the new landowning bourgeoisie. The state has been slow to act in many of these cases, while in others the institutions themselves have become accomplices. How should campesinos organize in these circumstances?

Class struggle is intensifying in the rural areas. We are facing a new wave of violence and threats against landless campesinos who have recuperated idle land. The truth is that the situation is even more complex than it was before. As opposed to the earlier wave of violence [in 2001 to 2003], we are not only facing paramilitarism at the service of the old landowners, but also an emerging sector that uses state forces and the state’s institutions to protect and further their private interests.

For instance, in Barinas State, there have been campesino evictions from the land where they produce and other human rights violations. These were carried out not by the hired guns of the old landowning class, but by the state apparatus. We can even identify a [Barinas] state policy at the service of the new sectors that are acquiring land. Additionally, there has emerged a practice of criminalizing the campesino bloc, as a way of justifying what is happening. Thus, some sectors are implicitly granted permission to jail campesinos without due process, and to carry out other human rights violations.

There is another element: the historical enemy of the revolution is seeking to fuel contradictions between those who are in the government and the popular base. Those in the direction of the revolution must understand this. There is an active attempt on the part of the old oligarchy to generate an internal conflict.

The revolution’s most active and loyal sector is the campesinos. Campesinos vote for this project even when they are the victims of aggressions from public institutions. Campesinos are committed to the revolution and loyal. The livestock oligarchy – and especially FEDENAGAS[3] which is associated with FEDECAMARAS[4] – have been working with paramilitary leaders. We know that representatives of the landlords have been in meetings in the Norte de Santander department of Colombia with sectors of uribismo[5].

This bloc is responsible for fueling the violence in Sur del Lago, a situation that is near the boiling point, or rather, it has already reached it! In that territory there are constant threats, mobilizations, and public meetings that the cattle-owning oligarchy has been organizing. Intimidation has become quotidian. There have been threats against members of our organization to the effect that we must abandon our struggle for the land in that territory.

This is serious stuff, since we are talking about more than 10,000 families who are participating in the struggle in Barinas state and almost 11,000 families who are struggling for their right to the land in Sur del Lago. Thus, in Sur del Lago, the hottest spot, we are preparing our response. We are not going to stay put and let our people die. There cannot be more campesino massacres. The people and the Bolivarian Revolution have given us the tools to defend ourselves.

The recent assassination of Kender García, a 16-year-old son of some campesino leaders, is yet another example of the cattle oligarchy’s modus operandi. To paraphrase Sandino: The masses are patient and, for a while, will wait for justice to be made, but if that doesn’t happen, then the people will take justice into their own hands. We don’t want this to happen because the battle that could take shape would be worse than the one in 2001, 2002 and 2003.

Campesinos are more conscious and more organized today than they were before and they have now many more tools, tools that the revolution gave them. In this regard, we have been making a plan so that the people are aware of what we may have to do. The government must act in a much more forceful manner against the landowning class, both old and new. We believe that the revolution, in this moment of struggle, must take radical actions in regard to the property of those who threaten campesinos, who criminalize them, saying that campesinos are robbing the land.

It is urgent that the Bolivarian Revolution close ranks and act in a unified manner to confront the growing attacks from the old and new landowning class. Regarding the latter – the new landowning class who wear red shirts – those have to be expulsed from the Chavista bloc. We cannot let them continue in the party and at the head of state institutions!

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Funeral of Kender Garcia, a 16-year-old campesino killed on September 19. He is the son of campesino leaders who rescued land of Predio Montecarlo in the Sur del Lago and the fifth victim of the oligarchy’s violence since May of this year. (CRBZ)
Funeral of Kender Garcia, a 16-year-old campesino killed on September 19. He is the son of campesino leaders who rescued land of Predio Montecarlo in the Sur del Lago and the fifth victim of the oligarchy’s violence since May of this year. (CRBZ)

In today’s crisis, the law that Chavez put forward in 2001 calling for an agrarian revolution, seems more relevant than ever! The CRBZ has been promoting self-organization among campesinos for years and it has many projects, from the Simon Bolivar Communal City in Apure, a project in a process of consolidation, to the National Productive Alliance, a project that is still being born. Let's conclude the interview by talking about these experiences.

Our organization has a campaign to defend the achievements and advances of the revolution and to carry out the revolution’s pending tasks for campesinos. We don’t limit ourselves to work among landless campesinos. We believe that the revolution must incorporate campesinos with small plots of land, the conuqueros[6] and the collectives that have rescued land, as it has, but it should also incorporate medium producers who aren’t enemies of the people, people who are not conspiring and whose only interest is to produce, because the key interest of the nation now is to produce, thus satisfying the population’s needs.

Alliances have to be made with these sectors, which joined the right because the revolution did not know how to connect with them and didn’t know how to keep them with us. With this in mind, and with the objective of generating conditions to produce for small and mid‐size‐farmers, we are building the National Productive Alliance, which is a space of confluence and work. Those midsize farmers that are committed to producing and are not conspiring should be incorporated.

The revolution has negotiated with large capitalists who don’t produce but just import: groups in line with longstanding logic of corruption and who are not going to produce anything. The government sits at the table with them and not the real producers: the small and medium farmers. Unfortunately the latter are not invited to sit at the table. Why? I think it’s obvious!

So we have been developing the National Productive Alliance to boost agrarian production. We are committed to building an ample alliance of small to medium producers. Our main objective now is to generate conditions for production, to organize from below and form territorial networks. All of Venezuela's productive potential must be brought together and unified.

That is something, which the leadership of the process should do, but isn’t doing. The Agriculture Ministry lost its focus. Yet campesinos are working from below to unify and generate conditions for agricultural production, voicing the sector’s demands. Their demands are many, ranging from the landless campesinos’ historical claim to the land to access to seeds, agricultural implements, and fuel and machinery parts for small to medium sized farmers.

The truth is that the revolution has to build a national majority. It cannot be that the revolution has political power and it doesn’t represent a national majority. The project of the Bolivarian Revolution is a project of societal consensus, and Chavez succeeded at building that consensus. Most especially, the foundation of the Bolivarian Revolution is participative and protagonic democracy. That should be our political focus now and it’s where the CRBZ is working. That is also why we are now also in a process of giving new impetus to the “Simon Bolivar” Communal City project, which fell by the wayside when the communal project became the domain of the Ministry of Communes. We believe that the comuneros are the revolutionary subject, and we place our hopes in the commune as the path to build socialism in Venezuela.

Now, we see the commune as something that is not ethereal. It shouldn’t be a mere slogan or mural. We believe in the commune-as-government, as people’s territorial power. It is the revolutionary government that will transform the society from below, constituting what Chavez called the “new shoots” of socialism.

The “Simon Bolivar” Communal City is just that: a space where production, organization, and political revolution take front stage. Regarding the latter, it must be clarified that the economic war shouldn’t be an excuse to halt the political revolution. That is one of the issues that the leadership must come to terms with: the continuation of the political revolution. The economic war is an unavoidable feature of the present, but the emergence of new values, of new forms of organization and of popular empowerment – all these things are more important than ever if the Bolivarian Revolution is not to lose its transformative force.

As for the CRBZ movement, we are working on the Communal City, on the National Productive Alliance, and we are also developing a current within the PSUV, a current that will work from within. It is absolutely necessary that a revolutionary current take shape within the historical party of the revolution, as a force that will help to rebuild Bolivarian Revolution’s strategic objectives and reorient us towards them.

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The Simon Bolivar Communal City, in Apurte State, in an exercise of direct democracy. (CRBZ)
The Simon Bolivar Communal City, in Apurte State, in an exercise of direct democracy. (CRBZ)

NOTES

[1] “Adeco” refers to the clientist and corrupt logic established during the Democratic Action (AD) governments prior to the election of Hugo Chavez in 1998.
[2] “Copeyano” refers to the Christian democrat COPEI party, the second half of the two‐party system that governed Venezuela between 1958 and 1998.
[3] FEDELAFAS is the national association of large livestock owners.
[4] FEDECAMARAS is the Venezuelan business association or chamber of commerce. It is directly responsible for the 2002 coup that ousted President Chavez for 47 hours before he was returned to office by a mass popular uprising.
[5] The fascistoid current in Colombian politics that continues the project of former President Alvaro Uribe Velez.
[6] “Conuquero” refers to subsistence farming or very small campesino production.