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Reflections on Venezuela: Food, Health, Democracy, and a Hope for a Better World

Something is being attempted in Venezuela that has no precedent in human history -- building socialism from the bottom up in the midst of a capitalist society in a manner that is profoundly democratic (as well as chaotic).

Background

These are some brief
impressions and reflections in the midst of a short visit to
Venezuela. For 10 days I traveled with a wonderful group of 23, mainly
from the New York City area (with delegates from Washington, DC,
Washington State, and myself from Vermont). It was led by William
Camacaro and Christina Schiavoni, with the Bolivarian Circle Alberto Lovera,
a group in New York City that supports the Venezuelan revolution. The
costs were kept as low as possible to allow an amazingly diverse group
of activists, young and not so young and including two Monthly Review
subscribers, to see the transformation in Venezuela for themselves. We
traveled mainly to the west and Falcon State, but did go east of
Caracas to a cacao farming cooperative. (Later this morning, I will be
traveling to stay for a few days in a village in a rural area in Lara
State and on Friday will be giving a talk on the world food crisis to
faculty and students of the Bolivarian University in Caracas.) Anyone
in the New York area that would like to learn more about the Bolivarian
Circle Alberto Lovera, send me an email: <[email protected]>.

It
is next to impossible to capture the complexities of what is happening
here after such a short visit. However, I hope that some impressions
of what we have seen and heard will provide a glimpse into this dynamic
and exciting country that is attempting to build "21st Century
Socialism."

No Precedent

Something
is being attempted in Venezuela that has no precedent in human history
— building socialism from the bottom up in the midst of a capitalist
society in a manner that is profoundly democratic (as well as
chaotic). When you ask people what they mean by socialism, they speak
of taking care of the poorest of the poor, building a society of
equality, and establishing democracy where the people really and truly
have power — the power to decide the development and life in their
individual communities. And where the purpose of the economy is to
serve the people. Many of the new factories and processing plants are
really more than cooperatives, where workers share "profits." Here
many (but not all) of the cooperatives are in essence socialist units
of production, community-owned because any profits are used to promote
community needs.

The forces arrayed against the effort
of Hugo Chavez and the Venezuelan people are certainly formidable. We
may think of U.S. imperialism first of all, but lucky for the
Venezuelans (though not so for people in the Middle East), the U.S. is
presently overcommitted to fighting the people of Iraq and
Afghanistan. This, of course, does not mean that the U.S. is not
interfering in the internal affairs of this country, only that it has
not given it its full attention. We heard a discussion by a member of
the National Assembly about the situation with Columbia. It seems
clear that the U.S. is doing its best to foment a war with the
Columbian forces as a proxy army. However, the internal forces
antagonistic to the transformation to socialism are also strong. This
is, after all, still a capitalist country with many small shops, with
the transnational and large national firms still operating.
Additionally, much of the media is antagonistic to Chavez.
(Nevertheless, the press and TV seem amazingly free to criticize the
government — some justified but much in the way of venomous attacks.
The criticism from the U.S. over the shutting down of a TV station RCTV
is almost laughable — it is currently transmitting by satellite and
cable. The only thing that happened is that its right to transmit over
the airwaves — which belong to the people — was not renewed because
of failure to live up to its public service commitments.) Thus there's
lots of local money and other resources available to influence and
corrupt the process and a most powerful incentive to do so. One of the
many real challenges to the revolution is to somehow incorporate at
least some of these anti-Chavez
forces in the middle class
into the revolution — which is much easier said than done. To date,
things have not been bad for the middle class and upper middle class.
The economy appears to be thriving — with all its troubles and
contradictions. And with the use of oil revenue to fund so much of the
revolutionary projects, there has been no need to requisition resources
from the wealthy. In this way, Venezuela is in a very favorable
position to effect real change. On the other hand, much of the middle
class and very wealthy recognize a long-term threat to their interests
in the Bolivarian Revolution that is attempting to bring socialism to
Venezuela.

Other
internal problems that weaken the revolutionary transformation include
corruption and members of the bureaucracy — including people who
consider themselves "Chavistas" — who really do not want to give power
to the people. They consider themselves "revolutionaries" but want to
manage in the top-down way that we have seen fail so many times before.
On the other hand, there has been an active left movement, and the
programs that have been instituted have had direct beneficial effects
on the poor and very poor and the landless. Thus, there is very strong
backing for Chavez's march toward socialism among the common people.

Food and Land

Click on the photo for a larger view.
Casa Alimentacion
Outside a Feeding House.

Lunch Preparation
Food being prepared and placed into containers.


Woman picking up food at a Feeding House.


Worker in a cooperative corn processing plant. Venezuela is building
its own non-commercial storage and processing facilities for basic
foods.


Braulio Alvarez, who was with us for much of the tour, is a member of
the National Assembly. He was a guerilla fighter and involved with the
left before Chavez. There have been three assassination attempts on
his life — two bullets actually struck him. Members of the oligarchy,
especially owners of large estates (latifundia), hire killers to
intimidate peasants and land reform recipients. Alvarez has family
members living and working on the Aracal cooperative.

About
10 years ago, more than 50 percent of the Venezuelan population was in
poverty, much of it severe. Today, nine years later, it is estimated
that poverty stands at around 30% and severe poverty has been halved to
approximately 9%. Moreover, now the extreme poor do not fall through
the cracks of society as they once did. A number of social programs,
such as feeding houses (casas de alimentaciĆ³n), subsidized food stores
(Mercal), and emergency distribution of milk (currently in very short
supply); workers taking over abandoned enterprises or setting up
cooperatives of production; an agrarian reform (that at this time only
transfers poorly used or unused land of large farms — latifundia — to
people to farm the land); all have contributed to poverty reduction.

The
Feeding Houses, in the homes of volunteers and staffed by volunteers,
provide the noon meal and afternoon snacks to close to one million
Venezuelan young people as well as needy aged and infirm. This is a
huge accomplishment in a total national population of around 28 million.

Active
assistance is given to campesinos to recover land — approximately 5
million acres have been turned over to be actively farmed, mainly as
cooperatives. Some of these are privately worked (like fish farmers as
well as the ocean fisherman we visited) and cooperate on buying inputs
and selling their products. Others, like Aracal
and its 150 families, work the land in common and are paid according to
the amount of work they do. Because agriculture was neglected by
former governments and agricultural commodities were fairly cheap (for
an oil-exporting country), a very high proportion of the food is
currently imported. With the dramatic rise of world food prices
— caused by the competition with agrofuel production, increasing
demand for grain feed meat in China, and droughts in a major exporting
country — prices have risen here as around the world. Imported food
is, therefore, very expensive. In addition, price controls on locally
produced
food have caused farmers to produce less and unscrupulous middlemen to
attempt to ship food to Columbia where they can get a higher price. (A
huge quantity of food headed for Columbia was recently seized and the
trucks confiscated.) The price of milk
has recently risen 40% to induce dairy farmers to produce more. Thus
food sovereignty is an important issue in itself, in addition to the
many benefits of having people leave the city slums and return to
productive employment in the countryside. Some 85% of Venezuelan's
live in the 5% of the north central part of the country. Populating
other parts of the country with farmers and workers is a national goal.

Health


Cuban doctor in a Caracas neighborhood. The next day a number of other
doctors were coming to the neighborhood to assist her in screening
community members for blood pressure, eyesight, teeth problems, etc.


New clinic built by community with funds given from municipality. When
communities build projects such as this, they provide some labor and
serve as the contractor — thus allowing a lot to be done at lower
costs than usual. Often, the savings, sometimes quite substantial, are
allowed to be used for other community projects.


Cuban doctor and Cuban nurse in new clinic.

Preventive
medicine is being promoted and a network of clinics staffed by Cuban
doctors spread throughout the country. Some of the clinics are in
rooms in a person's house while in some larger communities they have
decided that their priority was to build a new clinic. A larger new
clinic we visited was beautiful — brand new and built because the
community gave it the highest priority, with the ability to do
emergency medicine, X-rays, ophthalmology, electrocardiograms,
ultrasound diagnosis, etc. Cuban doctors are also helping train the
new cadre of Venezuelan medical students in community medicine that
will, hopefully, take over the running of the neighborhood clinics in
the not-too-distant future.

Democracy

Impressive
as the gains in land reform (with much more to do), feeding the poor,
health promotion, and building new "socialist" units of production such
as the food processing plants and new tractor factories are, perhaps
the most impressive aspect of Venezuela today is the attempt to
actually turn over power to the people at the most local level. Not
only must their democratically run community councils turn out a quorum
of 50% plus 1 to make decisions, but the councils are setting
priorities for investment in their communities. They propose projects
to the municipal government, and a very high percent of the
municipality's funds goes to the local councils to implement approved
projects, from building schools and clinics, repairing roads, to
bringing water to the community. Although the other aspects discussed
above are extremely important, this is the heart of the attempt to
build socialism from the ground up.

Along with true
democracy at the grass roots level has come an unprecedented growth of
volunteerism. Women using rooms in their homes for feeding houses and
small clinics, men and women working at low or no wages in order to
construct schools, water distribution systems, clinics, etc. Money and
expertise has been provided for these projects that have been proposed
at the community level. But the people remain in control of the
projects and provide labor in order to keep costs down. This, of
course, builds confidence and pride in "common" men and women that is
rarely seen in other countries.

Defending the Bolivarian Revolution

Chavez
is a true internationalist, helping other countries in Latin America
loosen the grip of the U.S. and transnationals. Venezuelans also
remember their past heroes as well as others — for example posters and
photos of Che Guevara are everywhere and mention of the Cuban Five
(held by the U.S. for trying to stop terrorism based in the U.S. Cuban
community) is common. Given the forces arrayed against the revolution
— internal as well as external — the international left community
needs to do what it can to defend this new approach to building
socialism where power and resources are handed to the people for them
to decide what their own priorities are — planning from below!

Perhaps
we will need "Hands Off Venezuela" committees like those that we had in
the U.S. to try to assist Cuba. Other creative forms of support will
also be needed.

Perhaps the greatest need is to educate
others, especially in the U.S., so they can understand the significance
of what is happening here — that Venezuela under Hugo Chavez's
leadership is doing something absolutely unique in modern history,
turning more and more power over to the people at the local level while
breaking the grip of capitalism and imperialism on Venezuela and the
rest of Latin America at the same time. Even though it is fraught with
significant dangers
and not assured of success, this process is a most exciting one for
Venezuela as well as the rest of the world. A better world is
possible!!!


Fred Magdoff
is professor of plant and soil science at the University of Vermont in
Burlington and a director of the Monthly Review Foundation. He is
coauthor with Harry Magdoff of "Approaching Socialism" in the July-August 2005 issue of Monthly Review.

Source: MRZine