Look out Florida, here they come! Land and food in Venezuela

Last week,
the Los Angeles Times gleefully reported that a crowd in Sabaneta,
Venezuela, had looted a food warehouse belonging to the state-owned Mercal
grocery-store chain.

By Patrick Irelan - CounterPunch
Short URL

Last week, the Los Angeles Times
gleefully reported that a crowd in Sabaneta, Venezuela, had looted a food
warehouse belonging to the state-owned Mercal grocery-store chain. Mercal sells
its food to the poor at reduced prices The LAT found it amusing that
Sabaneta is President Hugo Chávez's hometown. The newspaper claimed that recent
food shortages are the result of governmental price controls. The government
claims the shortages are the result of illegal hoarding by distributors and the
increased buying power of the nation's poorest citizens.

This event quickly lost its comedic
value at the LAT when Indecu, Venezuela's consumer protection agency,
discovered half a ton of powdered milk and an equal amount of chicken that a
private health clinic in Caracas had diverted from delivery to Mercal. Jesus
Benavides, an administrator for Indecu, didn't find this example of illegal
hoarding all that funny. He hopes to collect steep fines from the "upscale
Caracas Policlinica Metropolitana" health clinic. (Reuters, Feb. 18, 2008)

Although food shortages in Venezuela
sometimes occur at Mercal stores, they don't necessarily occur in other grocery
stores at the same time. In an article that appeared in the Guardian
on February 17, Calvin Tucker said that he recently arrived in
Caracas, where he shopped at a "typical Caracas supermarket in an upmarket
part of town. The only product we could not find was milk, which is being
hoarded and illegally exported to Colombia by producers and distributors in an
attempt to bust government price controls on basic foodstuffs." The food
in that store would sell at prices higher than one would find in a Mercal

When Hugo Chávez took office after
his election in 1998, his government inherited
two fundamental problems related to food production and distribution.
Fifty-five percent of the people lived in poverty, and the country imported 70
percent of its food.

Since those early days, Venezuela's
Bolivarian Revolution has reduced the number of impoverished citizens from 55
to 34 percent, thereby increasing the demand for food. The national government
has also dealt aggressively with the problem of food shortages.

Because previous governments had
relied on food imports, President Chávez had to continue that policy while also
setting out to achieve food self-sufficiency. Anyone who lives in the United
States will find it almost impossible to learn anything about these efforts in
the mainstream press. After reporting the latest heartbreak in Hollywood, our
newspapers and television news programs have no space or time to report on a
new irrigation system in one part of Venezuela or an improved milk-processing
plant in another.

To learn about events like these,
you have to find a news source such as Venezuelanalysis.com, a website
operated by five individuals who hope to make their site "the primary
resource for information and analysis on Venezuela in the English
language." It may be safe to say that this group does not have a budget
anything like that of the Los Angeles Times.

On January 14 of this year, Venezuelanalysis.com
reported that President Chávez had inaugurated the first stage of a new
irrigation system in the state of Guarico. "The day will come when
Venezuela reaches total agricultural independence," Chávez said. The new
system now irrigates 9,900 acres. Once it has been fully constructed, the total
number of acres irrigated will rise to 79,000. Local farmers will produce food
crops for their own consumption and for sale to city dwellers. The reservoir
will also benefit "local fishermen who fish in the reservoir that supplies
the irrigation system." This type of small-scale commercial fishing will
provide another way in which Venezuela can achieve food independence.

On January 21, President Chávez
inaugurated a milk-processing plant and an agro-industrial plant. Together,
these will help Venezuela attain self-sufficiency in milk and meat production.
By themselves, these projects will not relieve the country of its need to
import food. But these are not the only projects. Dozens of others are going
into production all over Venezuela.

One of the many problems that now
limits food soverignty in Venezuela is the unused farmland on the country's
large plantations. Many of these feudal remnants of Spanish colonialism have
been handed down from generation to generation for 400 years. Other large
estates were purchased more recently by wealthy immigrant families from Cuba,
Spain, and Portugal. These plantations create at least two problems related to
food shortages. They encourage one-crop agriculture, and they let good farmland
lie fallow for decades. For estates that match these characteristics, the
government supports land reform that benefits a landless peasantry living in
poverty throughout rural Venezuela.

The twin goals of land reform are to
reduce poverty and increase food production. Simon Romero of the New York
gave this account of how land reform occurs in the state of Yaracuy:
"The squatters arrive before dawn with machetes and rifles, surround the
well-ordered rows of sugar cane and threaten to kill anyone who interferes.
Then they light a match to the crops and declare the land their own."

The reader quickly sees that the old
plantation is nothing like it used to be. In the vocabulary of Simon Romero,
the rural poor are not farmers or even peasants. They're "squatters,"
a term that reduces them to the level of human society that justifies any evil
you want to inflict. The worst evil recently inflicted is murder. Romero says
the number of "squatters" recently murdered throughout Venezuela
totals 160. Eight wealthy landowners, he says, have been killed in Yaracuy.

For those who have survived the
violence of the feudal barons, the Chávez government has built farm villages
for peasants who have never before enjoyed the luxury of decent housing. The
people of the villages have schools, libraries, radio stations, free Internet
service, and other amenities. (New York Times, May 17, 2007) Although
Romero doesn't mention it, everyone has free healthcare, often provided by
Cuban-trained doctors.

The peasants who manage to acquire
land without getting killed are free to produce corn, manioe, beans, tomatoes,
squash, cucumbers, livestock, or whatever else is appropriate to their soil and
climate. They can put aside what they need for their families and sell the
surplus to fill the grocery stores of the cities.

The government avoids land reform
for those owners who farm the land in ways that benefit society. One-crop
agriculture is not one of those ways. In Yaracuy State, most of the plantation
owners instruct their farmhands to plant and harvest only sugar cane. Sugar is
a cash crop. The object of this kind of agriculture is to make money, lots of
it. The idea of planting vegetables strikes these land barons as useless. They
want cash, not tomatoes. If they don't like the the amount they get for their
sugar, they can simply take some or all of their land out of production for as
long as they wish. Unused farmland will never reduce food shortages.

This type of agriculture depletes
the soil of nutrients and requires the yearly application of expensive
fertilizer. In the past, the sugar was sold on the open market, which meant
that it might go to Caracas, or it might go to a foreign country. Single-crop
agriculture is one of the reasons why countries like Venezuela have food
shortages. Clever newspaper reporters for the Los Angeles Times and the New
York Times
are unlikely to ever understand or report this.

Once the peasants have obtained
land, they require credit in order to buy seed, machinery, and other items
needed to plant their crops. Venezuelan banks have traditionally resisted the
idea of granting loans to people with small-farm operations. To solve this
problem, the Venezuelan government pressured local banks until they agreed to
make loans available to peasant farmers.

And what happens to the old land
barons who lose their feudal estates? What about those who left Cuba and bought
sugar plantations in Venezuela? Don't worry. They all managed to put enough
money in bank accounts somewhere. Where will they go? Where do they always go?
Almost 200,000 rich Venezuelans have already moved there.

Watch out, Florida.

Patrick Irelan is a retired high-school teacher. He is the
author of A
Firefly in the Night
(Ice Cube Press) and Central
Standard: A Time, a Place, a Family
(University of Iowa Press). You
can contact him at pwirelan43@yahoo.com.