Venezuelan Land and Factory Expropriations as seen from the Labor Ministry and the Union Federation

Marcela Maspero of the pro-Chavez union federation UNT and José Gregorio Villarroel of the Labor Ministry explain to Green Left Weekly's Frederico Fuentes how they see the recent intensification of expropriations of idle land and businesses.

UNT on Recent Expropriations

The Venezuelan government’s recent moves to expropriate the slaughterhouse FRIBASA, a Heinz tomato processing plant, and PROMABASA, a wheat processing plant owned by Polar, one of the biggest Venezuelan corporations, created a frenzy in the right wing media over threats to private property and moves towards communism. In order to get a sense of what the biggest workers federation in Venezuela, the pro-revolution National Union of Workers (UNT) thought of these events, I was able to briefly interrupt the busy schedule of Marcela Maspero, one of the national coordinators of the UNT and interviewed here for Green Left Weekly (The interview was carried out on September 20 following a 2 hour discussion with workers from a number of factories who were demanding co-management including from PROMABASA, Central Azucarero Cumanacoa, and Industrias Mis Manos from the state of Amazonas).

What has been the response of the UNT to the recent expropriations?

Marcela Maspero: The UNT has a big commitment in front of this offensive of the workers today, an offensive which is a response to the conduct of the neoliberal capitalists who are accustomed to treading on the rights of workers in this country.

Our responsibility has to do with accompanying this process, giving the workers political direction, ideologically forming the comrades and helping them with the necessary solution like what happened in INVEPAL and INVEVAL [the first two factories that were expropriated and put under co-management – FF].

There, there was a much longer process than those that are occurring now but it had to be like that because they were the first ones.

We have done a census of the country, where we have found over 800 companies that are inactive at this moment, and which the owners, in the face of this offensive, are attempting to dismantle and remove the equipment from inside. They are trying to take it with them so that it is not possible to reactivate the factories. The UNT is soliciting that the national assembly issue a decree to protect these 800 companies which are inactive. To protect them and carry out an inspection because not all of them are strategic nor for agricultural production, nor are they from our point of view a priority to reactivate. There we would do a study in each region to see what are the priorities, according to the needs of the population in order to reactivate them.

Are there problems in some sectors in the government, because it seems that with PROMABASA on the one hand we read that it was going to be handed back to Polar, yet on the other it seems that the intervention of Chavez was necessary for what looks like will now be an expropriation? [Note: At that stage it appeared that PROMABASA would be handed back with a few workers being rehired. That same day unofficial information had been received that it would be expropriated as Chavez had spoken in favor of it at a meeting with the workers. A few weeks later the state government of Barinas began the process of expropriation, passing a decree in the state legislature, which has now been sent to the National Assembly to ratify.]

What happens is that we defend the protagonistic participation of the workers. There are some sectors of the government that are committed to this policy and assume a commitment in this direction and sometimes they go ahead of the actual process of the workers themselves. Of course we don’t question this but rather celebrate and accompany it, but we like to always take steps based on the participation of the workers. In the case of PROMABASA we have been organizing the workers for over 6 months, but because there was all a euphoria over FRIBASA, the slaughterhouse that was expropriated and which everyone was in agreement with, including the president of FEDECAMARAS, this generated a reaction from the government to do the same in PROMABASA. But perhaps the situation was not the same; it was a different path. That is why some differences appear. Our comrades remain in PROMABASA. We signed an agreement before yesterday in the presence of the Minister of Labour, which talked of incorporating some of the ex-workers, to take the protest site a bit further away from the company to permit access, but only to the silos because that is where the only activity is occurring in PROMABASA, storage in the silos, to allow entry but we won’t stop our protests, we will remain there with the workers.

On May 1 Chavez began a discussion over whether the Venezuelan government was a workers government or not. How do you see this issue?

I believe this government is one that is inclined towards the defense of workers rights, it is inclined, or creates favorable conditions to change the traditional conditions that workers have had, including moving towards changes in the relations of production and I believe the president, Chavez, is committed to this. I could say that if the government was only Chavez then it would be a workers government but because unfortunately the government is not only him and there are all types of tendencies within the government we find ourselves confronted with what he talks about all the time, the bureaucracy, corruption. These are some of the big problems of the revolution process, which remains in management and public administration and this means that while the president dictates a policy to follow, there are functionaries, ministers, presidents of institutions and others who make their policy decisions based on what is convenient for them as was done before, seeing how it benefits their pocket, how it helps them achieve more power or strength in this process and take advantage of it. We believe that this will be cleaned out on its own. The dynamic of the process will leave all these people behind. That is why the protagonistic participation of the workers is so important, the social control by the people and community over all these organisms, the controls that are established in the constitution.

Our biggest preoccupation with this process of co-management, which is questioned in all the countries of Europe and by the old traditional trade unions, is that we make sure not to run the risk of converting our comrades into another neoliberal capitalist and we are able to see beyond that towards the necessity of the community, how we use this benefit to benefit those who have been excluded, who aren’t employed, how we go about creating a whole new socialist culture surrounding property and the generation of benefits.

Are these problems with the government part of the reason why the UNT is nominating candidates in the elections?

Within the candidates that where selected there was the possibility, overall within the framework of the MVR party, for the representation of different social forces and some of us were selected to be there. Which is not to say, in my case particularly, that it is a break with my commitments with the workers because I am running as a substitute candidate. This will hopefully enable a better positioning at the political level in order to continue helping the UNT and the working class, which is my fundamental task.

And the participation of women in the UNT?

The participation of women in the movement is occurring at the grassroots level. Here in the national leadership there is only one woman which is me, all of them say I am worth 20 and that if there were 20 of me all the men would leave running for the door [laughs].

But there is participation, perhaps less that in other sectors of the process, which we haven’t analyzed why, but maybe the women we have here need to help the women in the grassroots incorporate themselves, maybe the task is so difficult and the conjuncture so accelerated that this has become very complicated, but there needs to be an effort in this direction.

Venezuela’s Ministery of Labour on Expropriations, Private Property, and Co-Management

Over 500 members of the community, predominately workers and cooperative members directly or indirectly employed by the Central Azucarero Cumanacoa, in the town of Cumanacoa, Sucre, turned out on Friday, September 23, to hear the news that the National Assembly would be expropriating the factory in three days time. Present at the assembly was José Gregorio Villarroel, the North East regional coordinator of the Ministry of Labour. After the event had finished I sat down to interview him for Green Left Weekly and get a sense of how the Ministry of Labour viewed the current discussions of expropriations, private property and co-management

How does this expropriation fit into the issue of food sovereignty?

In Venezuela there existed, until recently, a direct dependency on petroleum which continues to be our principal source of energy. But this dependency meant that those that governed Venezuela turned their face away from the countryside. The majority of the products we consumed in Venezuela were imported. What is being proposed now?

Within the government’s strategy for agro-production, Venezuela needs to produce, we have some of the best quality land, we have the necessary technical personnel, with the structures required to put the land to produce. However, here there was a monopoly on the ownership of land. Many people declared themselves owners of land that was not theirs and left them idle. What is happening now is that we are redistributing this land, respecting the right to private property because those that can prove ownership of the land are respected. In this case, in what has to do with this sugar plant and with much of the land that has been recognized as of public utility and strategic for the feeding of the Venezuelan people, the expropriation is being carried out to favor 172 workers, 533 producers, and more than 3,230 workers on sugar plantations. If we multiply that by 5 members in a family we are talking about the whole municipality that is going to benefit from this. With articles 299 and 115 of the constitution, it is possible to expropriate for the cause of public utility. What does that mean? It goes through a legal process, it is declared of public utility, it is not that the property right is not recognized, property rights are recognized, but the state assumes the payment for that property, which is what is going to be done with this sugar plant.

So it is as if you are simply going to buy it?

It is established, this will be expropriated for public utility because it is important for the whole municipality. The expropriation is declared, afterwards we negotiate, “Look, Mister, the state values this property at so much but for this we will discount the debts with social security, the debts you have with Venezuelan banks,” which would have declared them bankrupt. All this was a mafia because they received the benefits from the state but they never gave it to the population. What is changing is that perverse dynamic of the capitalist economy, which was the distribution of work, what were salaries, the separation of manual and intellectual labour, here what we are trying to bring in is horizontality were the workers are the owners of their proper companies. There needs to be a change in mentality as well.

Participation as well?

Of course, participation has to be direct. In Venezuela we did not see this before, a town in a stadium talking about the company. This is a change in paradigms that tells us, as representatives of the government, that we are going in the right direction.

How does the Ministry of Labour see the issue of co-management?

We had a Ministry of Labour, which I represent, that was a morgue for workers. They would only go there after they were fired from a job.

This Ministry of Labour changed its vision of what social and labour relations for the workers should be and this is why the ministry is involved in this. This is a situation that began as part of a labour conflict. It began as a labour conflict, but confronted with this conflict we are not proposing the traditional methods that the justice system gives us to solve the problem. We are using an alternative, because the other way would be to simply get the workers and order the boss to rehire them the traditional way, now we are involving them with direct participation in running the company. What do we do as the Ministry of Labour? This. We tell the workers you can be the owner of your company because involved in issue are workers’ entitlements. If this closes, this municipality loses all its history. What we are involved in is creating a different dynamic to that of the Ministries of Labour around the world. If there is a break in relations between bosses and workers, the Ministry of Labour gets involved, not us. We are involved in changing that dynamic. This is why we are participating directly in what is self-management and co-management, explaining to the workers, as we said in the speech, it is not that you will do what you like, now you have to do double because on this depends their family and the maintaince of their homes.

Is the Ministry of Labour involved in the creations of the Companies for Social Production (EPSs)?

In all the ministries there has been a break in what is the traditional state apparatus. The Ministry of Labour used to go to the companies that had labour conflicts. What is being proposed now? We are breaking paradigms, creating a new vision of what the social reality should be. What is the use of a Ministry of Labour if it can’t help organize workers? Why can’t the Ministry of Labour stand in front of workers that are being exploited and help organize them into trade unions? It is a different vision because that is how the minister and the whole ministry have taken up the role. Within the project of the nation, which is the constitution, the necessity is established to make a break with the capitalist economy that promotes greed, individualism, lack of solidarity. With these EPSs what we are interested in is carrying out the project of the constitution. We believe that it is the workers who know their company, they were the ones who sold their labour power now they should sell it to themselves and enjoy the benefits of their work.

It is impossible to explain how a sugar plant can exist here and belts of misery exist next to it. But the company never invested, never assumed its social responsibility. The workers at the sugar plant have to assume this responsibility. They have to attend to the problems of malnutrition, hunger, they have to open up the food hall put it to function not just for the workers but for the people who don’t have the resources, extend their hand to mission Barrio Adentro, the Cuban doctors, do social work, give talks to the high school students, to the young people. This is part of a company which has a social criteria, not like the monster that we see stealing labour power and surplus value from workers.

What about the discussion on private property, is it really under threat?

We respect private property. In Venezuela when Chavez got to the presidency of the republic, during the campaign they said that private property would not be respected. In the constitution there is an article in regards to private property. We respect private property, but here in Venezuela, in the case of the land reform, what you see is what we call the media war. They say that private property is being attacked. In your country can you arrive, take an extension of land 2 or 3 km long and say this is mine or do you have to prove to the state “Look, I bought this, here are the receipts”? In Venezuela what happened was that large extensions of land were taken, Misters with very long surnames tied to the big economic sector occupied large extensions. What the state is saying now is show me that you are the owner. If you are, then we respect that property, but they can’t come out with false documents like they have now. In my house, where I live, there was a transaction and I bought it, I am paying it off.

Someone comes to say prove it, I have the deed, this is my private property, but what is happening is that property of the state is turning up in the hands of the private sector. To give you an example in VENEPAL, which was a producer of paper, large areas of that land belonged to the state and the owner said it was theirs because they had fenced it off. What did the state do? “Show me the deed to the property.” If someone has a car they have to prove it to the police, you have to take out your papers. What is happening is that the media in Venezuela responds to powerful economic interests because they own the media. What do they want now? Because all their attempted dirty wars have failed they come out with the story that in Venezuela there is no respect for private property and they are taking it further. If you don’t participate in opposing this, the government won’t stop and tomorrow they will come to your house and take your house as if communism is coming. That is not what is proposed in Venezuela. In Venezuela, in the constitution respect for private property is consecrated, respect for private property is inviolable, but I have to show that I own the property. If I say I am the owner of an estate I have to prove it is my property.

That is why the media campaign doesn’t respond to the reality of what is occurring in Venezuela, that is why the media does not cover assemblies like this one.