I am writing to you from the bolivarian planes in the state of Barinas, in the centre of Venezuela. I am here doing a "recorrido" [tour], as they say, to learn about the agrarian reform process in Venezuela. I am impressed. I am very impressed. After all, as the oriental proverb goes: "The eyes see more than the ears". Venezuela had a glorious past in the 19th century brought about by the heroic struggles for independence led by Simon Bolívar, Ezequiel Zamora with the aid of a brave Brazilian combatant who reached the rango [rank] of general: Abreu Lima, born in Pernambuco, whom Venezuelans are very proud of, even though we Brazilians regrettably do not even know his history.
Nevertheless, the 20th century reserved to Venezuela a true economic and social tragedy. Its territory sits on a giant oil sheet and the North American civilization built on energy derived from oil, has practically transformed Venezuela in its colony, in order to guarantee the supply of its main energy source to the United States. Venezuela is responsible for supplying 25% of all oil consumption in the United States. There was an "unholy alliance" between a local minority oligarchy, which took over the state and oil resources. And on the other hand, the ideological-economic-political and military power from the northern empire, maintained them intact.
Consequence: 80% of the population immersed in deep poverty, while 2% lived sumptuously. Only 8% of the population has survived in rural areas, since the agriculture was completely marginalized. And the country was forced to buy 88% of all its food abroad.
It was in this historical context that finally in 1998, with the electoral victory of a young and impetuous colonel, banned from the army, change was initiated. They have entered the 21st century under a new perspective. Venezuela is no longer a US colony. It is now the Bolivarian Republic of the Venezuelan People.
In the beginning, it looked like he was going to be another one of those deceitful populist "army guys" that many times got to power in our continent. The local oligarchy lost the elections, but tried to maintain the same economic team from the defeated government, (have you seen this film in other countries?...). This cooptation attempt last for six months. But it looks like that young colonel Chavez was not kidding. He immediately changed the institutions. He called a constituent assembly, which altered all laws in the country and paved the way for popular participation. People believed and started to mobilize and participate in the government, which slowly transformed itself into a popular and revolutionary government. And they started incorporating more and more Simon Bolivar's anti-imperialist and independent feelings.
I was here in 2001, for a seminar on the challenges of humanity. I did not see significant changes then. On my return I could not report much to my friends from via campesina Brazil. Now, I see that progress was brewing. I have returned now and I can see enormous changes. In the government, among the people, in the process, in the way changes have been made. Only the elite, the oligarchy have not changed, they are holding on to their privileges like parasite ticks, trying to stop changes at any cost.
President Chavez went through six plebiscites, one referendum and two elections. He won each one of them. And still, he has been called a dictator and a despot. Some bit players from Brazilian bourgeoisie also say that
But what is really changing?
The meaning of politics for the people has changed. People are aware, actively participating in all state and government decisions. This is the main path: to make the masses participate in the life of the country.
The direction of the economy has changed. Even more so here which is 80% dependent on oil. Very well, those billions of dollars from oil which in the past were used by only 8% of the population to indulge themselves in luxuries and extravagancies are now financing the universalization of public and health services for the population. They are now used for wealth distribution, to guarantee food at cost prices, free education, building popular housing and for land distribution.
It has changed its foreign policy. Now exercised with pride and a clear sense of independence from imperialism.
The role of the army has changed. I was impressed to see the level of political awareness of young lieutenants, majors, captains, who do not live in military quarters but rather take an active role in the administration of social projects: building roads, bridges, managing popular markets, etc. They have given meaning to their uniforms. Now I saw armed soldiers, but armed by the people, as in the song of Geraldo Vandré, helping to occupy Marqueseña farm, which recently had its totally unproductive 8,600 hectares expropriated, even though its soil is the best in the country, in the plains of Barinas.
I saw poor, enthusiastic young people, who now have access to education, not only primary or secondary education, but they also can register for any university course. I saw the President announce the opening of 20,000 spaces for medical students, as for this academic year. I saw the President participate in a television programme for seven hours, discussing all the problems in the country.
I saw a generous process of agrarian reform, which expropriates all land claimed by large farmers who cannot prove its source. But it still honors all properties up to 5,000 hectares in size. I saw the oligarchy snarling like stinky dogs, stating that the law, which was approved by more than 80% congressmen, is an outrage to property rights!
I saw on the streets and popular libraries, the state distributing more than one million copies each of the classics of literature, such as Les Miserables - Vitor Hugo and Don Quixote, etc.
I saw a highly mobilized and conscious people defending their interests and struggling for true economic and social transformation.
I saw the president of the Republic denounce on TV , that there was an oil company operating 15,000 petrol stations and three refineries, inside the United States, for 35 years, owned by the Venezuelan state, and that in these 35 years, before the Bolivarian Government, had not sent even a penny to Venezuela. And finally now, after many interventions, for the first time, in 2005, in only eight months, the new direction has sent to the country 500 million dollars net profit. Imagine what they have stolen in 35 years! And the president announced that this money which was not included in the budget, would be used for social investment, among the poorest layers of the population.
However it is also certain that they are facing enormous challenges. Many obstacles, such as eliminating their food purchase dependency. As well as the challenge to rebuild the productive structure of the country, using oil resources for other productive investments, generating work for all. They say that the greatest challenge is to build a new economic model, breaking away from oil dependency and the financial empire and moving towards socialism. They call it the process of building a new endogenous development model, local and Venezuelan.
I saw many changes which are improving the life of the poor in Venezuela. I saw men and women walking with pride and dignity with raised heads.
I saw that there is a way out for Latin America. All we need is conscious, organized and mobilized people. And a government committed to the people and not to capital.
Boys/girls I swear that I saw all that!
Joao Pedro Stédile,
Economist and National Leader of the MST (Brazil's Landless Rural Workers' Movement)
Member of the Direction of Via Campesina Brasil