The Conflict between State-led Revolution and Popular Militancy in Venezuela

In
Merida, Venezuela socialist governing officials clashed last June with families
that took over unproductive farm land. This clash illustrates an apparent
contradiction within the Chavez government's "participatory and protagonistic
democracy" which calls on citizens to seize control over their communities and
lives yet must also ensure political stability in strategic regions of the
country.

By Zachary Lown – Venezuelanalysis.com
Short URL

In
Merida, Venezuela socialist governing officials clashed last June with families
that took over unproductive farm land. Throughout the month of June the
government evicted and dismantled the ranchos,
or makeshift homes, built by hundreds of migrating families on these privately
owned lands. The lands which these families took over, located on the border of
Merida and Zulia, are situated near a conflict ridden zone that has been known
for paramilitary, narcotraffic and criminal activity. This zone also serves as
an important corridor for commercial transport. This clash illustrates an
apparent contradiction within the Chavez government's "participatory and protagonistic
democracy" which calls on citizens to seize control over their communities and
lives yet must also ensure political stability in strategic regions of the
country.

The
Chavez administration seeks to bolster citizen participation in various political
arenas, and Presidential rhetoric provides an impetus to collective action. In
2005 President Chavez explained that, "Workers often demand a fair salary and
other benefits, and they have the right to demand this. But the working class
is obliged not just to demand its rights, but to constitute itself into a
factor for the transformation of society" [1]. Chavez frequently declares that
the Caracazo, the massive urban riot
of 1989 in response to IMF austerity measures, was the "founding act" of the
current Bolivarian Revolution. While such statements draw supporters to the
streets they also create problems for governing officials.

Inherent
within the Bolivarian Revolution is the conflict between working class activism
and the rule of law in a constitutional democracy. This conflict will be
explored by examining the land takeovers in Merida. It is also worth taking a
step back and examining the scope of collective action in Venezuela. It will be
seen that behind these collective actions there are long established traditions
of political struggle. This government's challenge has been to unite
Venezuela's diverse revolutionary currents and Leftists factions into a single
political program.

The
empirical data which exists on the range of collective actions shows that
during the first ten years of Hugo Chavez's presidency there was an average of
1,314 street protests per year, ranging from road blockades to congregations of
people to protest marches, more than 3 per day [2]. This does not take into
account both legal and illegal strikes which also disrupt daily life. Many of
these protest methods, such as the road blockade, although they have long been
utilized by Venezuelans to express discontent, are nonetheless illegal. The
protesters are frequently supporters of President Chavez yet the high level of
popular mobilization can confound governmental attempts to provide orderly and
institutional solutions to volatile political problems.

Venezuelans
often address pressing social ills by utilizing militant protest methods. To
cite just three examples of protest actions from the month of June: 1) On June
10th nearly 100 individuals invaded and took over the Tower of the Americas
located in the center of Caracas to demand affordable housing, an event which
recalled similar waves of building invasions in 2004 and 2006 [3]; 2) In
Piñago, local families shut down the highway which connects Caracas to the
neighboring cities of Urdaneta and Guaicaipuro on June 18th to express
discontent over the tight rationing of drinking water in this sector [4]; 3) On
June 23rd a group of patients in the General Hospital of the Tuy Valley,
located about an hour's drive south of Caracas, left their hospital beds on
wheelchairs, crutches and stretchers and blockaded the hospital entrance to
protest the long wait for an operation [5]. One can encounter anecdotes like
these in Venezuela on a daily basis.

Another
recurring protest method is the autosecuestro
("self-kidnapping") whereby the family members of prisoners refuse to vacate a
prison upon the conclusion of visiting hours. Last April 20th, 184
family members of prisoners in nine different penitentiaries in the state of
Bolivar initiated an eight day sit-in to demand the annulment of a law which
dictates prison terms for repeat offenders and punishments for prisoners [6].
Prisoners themselves also engage in militant action. The Venezuelan human
rights organization PROVEA cites 29 cases in 2008 in which prisoners have sewn
their own mouths closed to protest their living conditions [7]. Finally, another
frequently used protest method is the takeover of private or public land by
families who are in need of a home.

A
preliminary examination of the data on street protests suggests that many of
these protests are conducted by individuals that belong to Venezuela's lower
classes and who carry out these actions in their own local communities.
According to the reports issued by PROVEA, between October of 2007 and
September of 2008 there were a total of 1,763 street protests. Of this number
83 were violent in nature and 1,680 were peaceful. During this period the most
common method of manifesting discontent was the road blockade which accounted
for 749 out of the 1,763 street protests, or over forty percent. This also
implies a high level of militancy since this method of protest is illegal and
participants are therefore risking arrest. The road blockade violates Article
50 of Venezuela's constitution which guarantees the right to free and unimpeded
transit for all Venezuelans within national territory. Of these 749 street
blockades 53, or one in every 14, were repressed [8].

The
high level of popular mobilization in Venezuela dates back to the 1980s. Statistics
demonstrate that it was beginning with the collapse of Venezuela's political
and institutional order in 1983 that Venezuelans dramatically stepped up their
street actions [9]. Yet the roots of this mobilization may date even further
back. Alejandro Velasco, a historian at New York University, studies political
activism in Venezuela's largest urban housing development called 23 de Enero.
He suggests that over a long period of time revolutionary groups based in lower
class communities developed specific traditions of political struggle. He notes
that these methods of collective struggle differ from one community to the next
and that such differences contribute to current debates among revolutionaries.

"To
be sure," says Velasco, "ideological differences among revolutionary factions [in
and out of office] stem from the clash of competing visions over the shape of
the future.  But these visions are forged
in and against the backdrop of specific memories of the past, in the ways revolutionary
factions remember their relationship with the ousted regime, and the strategies
they deployed, at times over the course of decades, to usher in its downfall"
[10]. Today, many protesters identify themselves as revolutionaries and they
utilize protest methods developed and tested "over the course of decades" even though
such actions are illegal and sometimes pit them against socialist officials.

Land Takeovers in Merida

Another
common form of protest is land appropriation which is a long established
tradition in Venezuela. Many of the barrios, or sprawling slums which ring
Venezuela's major cities were built by migrant families who constructed entire
neighborhoods. In Merida itself migrant families built the Ali Primera barrio
in El Vigia which is named for the iconic Venezuelan folk singer. There have
been at least 33 land takeovers in Merida so far this year [11]. The
utilization of the land takeover as a protest method illustrates the difficulty
of trying to channel the mass collective energy unleashed by the Bolivarian
Revolution into the framework of government institutions.

The
primary motivation of the land takeover is the lack of access to adequate
housing or to parcels of farm land. The United Nations estimates that perhaps
as many as 2 million Venezuelans live in inadequate housing conditions [12].
Universal access to housing and land are both legal rights protected by the
Venezuelan constitution. Recognizing the need for collaboration between an
active citizenry and the state in solving societal ills, Article 82 which
guarantees the right to an "adequate, safe, comfortable and hygienic home" also
posits that, "the progressive satisfaction of this right is the shared
obligation between citizens and the state in all of their environments."

In Merida, Venezuelans who lack access to both housing and land took matters
into their own hands. Beginning in early 2009 hundreds of families took over
and built makeshift homes on unproductive, private land in the municipality of
Alberto Adriani. In response, on June 15th the socialist Governor of Merida,
Marcos Diaz, and the socialist mayor of Alberto Adriani, Roberto Ramos,
initiated operation "Evacuation South of the Lake." The stated goal is to clear
"invaders" from nearly half-a-dozen different zones in the municipality [13].

Municipal
authorities claim they are planning to build a school house, a drug prevention
office and a food distribution center on the occupied land. For her part,
Omaira Hernández, one of the squatters, says that, "This isn't the first time
we've invaded these lands," adding that even if they are cleared from the area,
"we will return to take possession of these lands." She also notes that
authorities first announced their intention to build new government facilities
here years ago but that these plans never materialized [14].

Following
the first evictions the municipal spokesperson, Arrieta Truco, asserted that
the Municipal Chamber together with the Governor's office would apply drastic
measures due to the failure to reach an accord with the occupying families. "We
want to respect the laws and of course private property, having exhausted
dialogue, and following the norms and directions laid out by the president of
the Republic, Hugo Chavez" [15].

According
to plan, on June 19th the evictions continued as authorities sent earth moving
vehicles to dismantle 820 ranchos
from the Chama Park and the La Forteleza farm in Alberto Adriani. At 2:30am,
290 police officers and 50 soldiers from the Armed Forces began the first
evictions at the Chama Park. At the La Forteleza farm 200 National Guardsmen
and 100 soldiers dismantled the squatter settlements. Authorities also
conducted a census in the Chama Park and promised the squatters that this
information would be used to provide them with homes [16].

"Inititally
we tried to negotiate with the families," Diogenes Andrade, who was secretary general
for the Governor's office from this past December to March, said during an
interview in July. "Nonetheless, in certain areas the families refused to
negotiate and for this reason the Government began the evictions in the
presence of the Public Defender (Defensor
del Pueblo
) to ensure the protection of human rights."

Andrade,
currently the director of infrastructure for Merida, distinguishes between
several different kinds of invasions. In the first place there are invasions by
people who are in need of a home and of land. Secondly, there are invasions
that are induced by the political opposition, sometimes with the participation
of Colombian paramilitaries with the purpose of destabilizing the Chavez government.
Finally, there are the invasions which are a combination of the two.

"This
zone, [where the land takeovers have occurred], besides being a zone of rapid
transport, and of cattle production for Tachira, Merida and Trujillo, has been
converted into a corridor where paramilitaries want to advance in the creation
of a fortress so as to gain greater control over the half moon," said Andrade. The
term ‘half moon' refers to the violent separatist movement led by elites and
land holders last year in Bolivia's oil and gas-rich eastern provinces, which
form a half moon shape. In Venezuela the "half moon" refers to the three border
states controlled by opposition governors or mayors, Tachira, Merida and
oil-rich Zulia.

In
May of 2008 Zulia state legislators proposed a "feasibility study" for autonomy
using the Bolivian efforts as a model. Last March the opposition governor of
Tachira, Cesar Pérez Vivas, created a parallel state security force not
answerable to Caracas with the participation of business groups and private
security firms.

Andrade
also worries that the land takeovers will heighten tensions between large land
owners and peasants. "Don't think that the latifundistas (large estate owners) in this country are little
angels," says Adrade. "In the Panamericana zone any person is worth
3,000 bolivars ($1,400)." Speaking in a telephone interview last June Alex
Alayo, a leader of the National Peasant Front Ezequiel Zamora, affirmed that
mercenaries hired by estate owners have murdered over 200 peasants since 2001.
At least a dozen murders have been attributed to paramilitary death squads in
the Merida-Zulia border region this year [17].

During
the Chavez presidency land conflicts have intensified since 2001 when the Land
Law established that land which is unproductive ("ocioso") can be nationalized and redistributed. Article 115 of
Venezuela's 1999 constitution explains that, "The right to property is
guaranteed," and that, "only for the cause of public utility or social
interest, mediated by a firm sentence and a prompt payment of just indemnification,
can any class of goods be expropriated." The Constitution also guarantees
indemnity to the owners of expropriated goods.

The
land takeovers in Merida are also condemned by Governor Marco Diaz who suggests
that some of the invading families are acting in a dishonest manner. He asserts
that the takeovers are the work of "professional invaders" who in fact
currently own homes in different parts of Alberto Adriani. Ostensibly, they are
merely attempting to acquire more land in an illegal manner [18]. Other
representatives of the PSUV speaking at a local press conference assured that
these squatters had sold their previous homes in neighboring states for as much
as 12,000 bolivars ($5,580 dollars) before moving on to invade new land [19].

A
confrontation ensued on June 15th when local police moved to clear 33 squatting
families from the Las Rurales and Las Pernías sector of the Pulido Méndez
parish of Alberto Adriani. Reportedly, the police fired shotguns of plastic
shrapnel, an anti-riot weapon, while families threw Molotov cocktails at the
officers, though it is unclear who initiated the violence [20].

On
June 23rd, after another failed attempt to conduct a dialogue, Alicia Medina, a
squatter, explained that during the electoral campaign Mayor Ramos had visited
her home offering her a new living plan. For that reason she decided to stay so
as to fight for a "dignified home," as is encouraged by President Chavez [21].

Meanwhile,
the political opposition to President Chavez has leapt at the opportunity to
decry the expulsions. Leonardo Carrero, president of the social Christian COPEI
party in El Vigia categorized the evictions as "brutal" and as representing
"capitalist trickery" [22]. On the other hand, Ramon Guevara of the Democratic
Action party, one of only two opposition legislators in Merida's nine person
state assembly, explained that, "The only thing left for us to do is to
congratulate [the socialist officials]" and hope that their actions will
reflect "the universal thinking of all of the legislators of [Chavismo]" and
that "this action allows us to recognize that private property is untouchable"
[23].

Conclusion

Government
representatives finally came to an agreement with some of the families that
took over land in El Vigia during a meeting on July 12th. 302 of
these squatting families formed committees and nominated spokespersons to meet
with officials from the National Institute of Land (INTI). The spokespersons, wearing
matching t-shirts of the governmental job training program Mission Che Guevara,
expressed their desire to receive governmental support for the raising of crops
and animals.

Guido
Molina, a government official, explained that rather than distributing
individual parcels of land the government's intention was to assist in the
formation of "social organizations that are in charge of working the land in a
social manner" [24]. Government officials cite "food security" as a reason for
creating farmer cooperatives. Venezuela currently imports nearly 80 percent of
the food which it consumes. The principal spokesperson for the occupying
families, Elisa Quivera, bemoaned that not all of the families who participated
in the government census conducted during the evictions would be eligible for
state support [25].

The partial resolution of the land conflict in El Vigia demonstrates the
socialist government's attempt to assuage the collective action of its own
revolutionary supporters while also ensuring political stability. It also
highlights the way in which criminal conspiracies are woven into the conflict
between the Chavez government, rural peasants, and opposition forces.

The
land takeovers in El Vigia are emblematic of the high level of collective
mobilization in Venezuela. This mobilization is encouraged by governmental
rhetoric. As a political strategy the Chavez government has often called for
massive demonstrations of support so as to counter the efforts of the country's
well-financed political opposition. Chavez himself may owe his political career
to the slum dwellers of Caracas who surrounded the presidential palace and
demanded the President's reinstatement after he was briefly kidnapped by
military generals in the failed coup of 2002.

Yet
governmental support for "participatory and protagonistic democracy" based on
popular initiative is sometimes at odds with the desire to "advance within the
Bolivarian revolution" through a process of "orderly development," as one socialist
delegate in Merida put it [26]. The specific methods of political struggle
developed in Venezuela's working class communities "over the course of decades"
form an enduring legacy. Currently the utilization of long tested protest
methods can hinder the achievement of strategic governmental goals even as the
government calls on revolutionaries to seize control over their communities and
lives. "Indeed," writes Steve Ellner, political science professor at the
University of the East in Puerto La Cruz, "achieving distinct and not always
compatible objectives is a formidable challenge for Venezuela's unchartered
path to socialism" [27].

Special thanks to Professor Marco Antonio Ponce for
his generous help.

Author's email is Zacharylown[at]gmail.com

Notes

[1]
Wilpert, Gregory. Changing Venezuela
by Taking Power, the History and Policies of the Chavez Government
. NY: Verso 2007.

[2] Antonio Ponce, Marco. Chapter: "Derecho a la
manifestación pacífica" in: Situacíon de
los Derechos Humanos en Venezuela. Informe Annual Octubre 2007/Septiembre 2008
.
Programa Venezuelano de Educación-Acción en Derechos Humanos (Provea). Caracas,
Venezuela. 2008.

Note:
Provea monitors more than 50 regional news publications per day for reports on
street protests. Its researchers also note the demands of the protesters,
whether the protest is repressed, and other attributes. Wherever an individual
case is in question the organization seeks corroborating sources. Inevitably,
the numbers cited here with regards to instances of street protest will reflect
a tendency rather than an exact figure.

[3] Mabel Sarmiento Garmendia. "Renace la zozobra en
el centro por nuevas invasions." Últimas
Noticias
. 10 June 2009. p 2.

[4] Janet Queffelec/Dique. "Falta de agua sacó de
quicio a familias de Piñango." Últimas
Noticias
. 18 June 2009. p 36.

[5] Janet Queffelec/Dique. "Pacientes de traumatología
se hartaron de esperar quirófano." Últimas
Noticias
. 23 June 2009. p 32.

[6] "Reclusos acuerdan finalizar autosecuestro en 9 cárceles
del país." Radio Nacional de
Venezuela
. 27 April 2009. Ministerio del Poder Popular para la Comunicación
y la Información. Online. Accessed: 3 August 2009. <http://www.rnv.gov.ve/noticias/index.php?act=ST&f=19&t=96037>.

[7] Situacíon de
los Derechos Humanos en Venezuela. Informe Annual Octubre 2007/Septiembre 2008
.
Programa Venezuelano de Educación-Acción en Derechos Humanos (Provea). Caracas,
Venezuela. 2008. p 56.

[8] Antonio Ponce, Marco. Chapter: "Derecho a la manifestación
pacífica" in: Situacíon de los Derechos
Humanos en Venezuela. Informe Annual Octubre 2007/Septiembre 2008
. Programa
Venezuelano de Educación-Acción en Derechos Humanos (Provea). Caracas,
Venezuela. 2008.

[9]
Lopez-Maya,
Margarita. "Venezuela after the Caracazo:
Forms of Protest in a Deinstitutionalized Context." Bulletin of Latin American Research. April 2002, Vol. 21 Issue 2, p
199. UK. Blackwell Publishers. Online. EBSCO. Accessed: 3 August
2009) 

[10]
Velasco, Alejandro. "‘We Are Still Rebels': The Challenge of Popular History in
Bolivarian Venezuela."  In David Smilde
and Daniel Hellinger, eds. Participation,
Politics, and Culture in Venezuela's Bolivarian Democracy
.  Durham:
Duke University Press, forthcoming.

[11] Liliana González. "PSUV apoya deportación de
colombianos invasores de El Vigía." Frontera.
26 June 2009. p 3A.

[12] Cubas, Raúl. "Derecho a la tierra." Chapter in: Situacíon de los Derechos Humanos en
Venezuela. Informe Annual Octubre 2007/Septiembre 2008
. Programa
Venezuelano de Educación-Acción en Derechos Humanos (Provea). Caracas,
Venezuela. 2008. p 214.

[13] Jorge Galvis Jr. "33 familias desalojadas en Los
Pernías." Frontera. 17 June 2009. p
5C.

[14] Elaiiner Ríos. "Desalojados invasores de terreno
ubicado en el sector Las Rurales." Pico
Bolívar
. 17 June 2009. p 27.

[15] Jorge Galvis Jr. "33 familias desalojadas en Los
Pernías." Frontera. 17 June 2009.
p 5C.

[16]
Jorge Galvis Jr. "820 ranchos fueron
desmantelados en desalojos." Frontera. 19 June 2009.
p 5C.

[17]
Paramilitary activity has also been
sighted in the Merida-Zulia border region. On March 26th pamphlets containing
death threats began circulating in this area. The pamphlets, some of which are
signed by the Colombian paramilitary group the Black Eagles which engages in "social
cleansing," threatened to kill "prostitutes, criminals and drug
users" and anyone who is out past 10 pm.

Source:
James Suggett. "Venezuelan Government: Separatist Opposition Uses
Paramilitaries for Social Cleansing, Destabilization." Online. Venezuelanalysis.com.
15 June 2009. Accessed: 5 August 2009. < http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/4521>.

[18] Jorge
Galvis Jr. "820 ranchos fueron desmantelados en desalojos." Frontera. 19 June 2009. p 5C.

[19] Elaiiner Ríos. "Miembros del PSUV en contra de
invasiones originadas en el municipio." Frontera.
24 June 2009. p 27.

[20] Elaiiner Ríos. "Desalojados invasores de terreno
ubicado en el sector Las Rurales." Pico
Bolívar
. 17 June 2009. p 27.

[21] Jorge Galvis Jr. "Invasores no dejarán tierras de
la zona industrial." Frontera. 23
June 2009. p 5C.

[22] Jorge Galvis Jr. "Oficialistas impulsaron
invasiones en Alberto Adriani." Frontera.
24 June 2009. p 5C.

[23] Rosa Elena Quiñónez B. "Somos y seguiremos
siendo defensores de la proprieadad privada." Pico Bolivar. 29 June 2009. p 2.

[24] Jorge Galvis Jr. "Ocupantes ilegales no volverán
a invadir La Forteleza." Frontera. 13
July 2009. p 6A.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Jorge Galvis Jr. "Psuvistas rechazaron
ocupaciones de tierras de El Vigía." Frontera. 24 June 2009.
p 5C.

[27]
Ellner, Steve. "A New Model With Rough Edges: Venezuela's Community Councils."
Online. NACLA Report on the Americas.
Vol. 042, Issue 3. January/February 2009. Accessed: 5 August 2009.
<https://nacla.org/node/5750>.

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