When I first decided to join this exciting delegation through Venezuela I will admit that my main expectation (and motivation) was that I would see, first hand, this country's efforts to transform their food system in order to re-establish food sovereignty and food security amongst their people. Whilst this is exactly what I have seen, the political context which is enabling this process has been a complete surprise to me and I am a little embarrassed to say, I had no idea about the political, social and economic transformation which is occurring in Venezuela, since Hugo Charvez's election to power in 1998.
Under the Charvez government's leadership, Venezuela has taken on the astronomical task to convert the from the capitalist society it has been for the past 300 years, into a country with a 'socialist' structure whereby the country's wealth is more evenly distributed and 'the people have the power'. With a population of 29 million and a significant disparity in the standards of living and well-being between the societal classes, you can begin to imagine the scale and complexity of this transformation, as well as the resistance from some of the wealthier middle and upper classes and foreign investors; whom have benefited most from this country's capitalist economy.
The way in which Venezuela is restructuring how it organises and governs itself as a country, economically, legally and socially, has absolutely blown my mind and has very much opened my eyes and challenged my view of the western, capitalist world as I know it. It is all extremely complex and I could write an entire novel purely on the way in which this country is organising itself; but I really want to try and share a sense of what is going on there, as it not only provides the context which is enabling the transformation of the food system, but also contradicts the propaganda, particularly in the United States, labelling Charvez as a radical and malicious dictator. From what I have seen with my own eyes and the way in which an overwhelming proportion of the Venezuelan community hold Charvez in such high regard and admiration, this could not be further from the truth. Below are some images of just some of the official and non-official promotion for Charvez. It was everywhere - all over Venezuela (not just in Caracas) and many people have created murals and spray painted walls with messages of support for Charvez etc...The poster below Charvez' picture below is in support of Capriles, the opposition. There is far less propaganda in support of him around the country from what I saw...
I will provide you with some links to read more below if you're interested, but I've decided to have a go at packaging it into a nutshell as a way of summarising it for you (and an opportunity to get my head around it too!!). This is going to be quite a long blog, purely due to the sheer amount of information, so you may want to go and grab yourself a cuppa before you settle in for the read :-) OK, so here goes...
Before President Hugo Charvez was elected as President in 1998, the disparity amongst the classes in Venezuela was exponential. That age old saying of where the 'rich get richer and the poor get poorer', could not have been more true in Venezuela, as a result of a variety of factors; a predominant factor being their neoliberal, capitalist economy and society. Almost everything was privatised and in many cases, owned by foreign investors and companies, which meant that an incredibly large percentage of the country's profits were benefiting a tiny percentage of the Venezuelan population ie the wealthier middle and upper classes or being sent overseas (hmmm, is it just me or this is sounding a little all too familiar???).
Venezuela's largest commodity is oil. It has THE largest oil reserves in the world and can therefore generate, unfathomable amounts of wealth from these resources. However, despite this wealth, under the capitalist regime, these oil stocks were owned by a handful of multinational corporations and the majority of Venezuelans did not benefit from these profits; with as much as 80% of the population living in poverty! The amount foreign investment in both the oil stocks and arable land was insane, and Venezuela found itself in a situation whereby it was operating under a false economy and suffering the symptoms of an economic phenomenon economists call 'Dutch Disease', due to the inflow of foreign currency as a result of the oil exports. In addition to 'overvaluing' the Venezuelan currency and increasing the costs of domestic production, this phenomenon had a two fold effect; firstly it increases the population's purchasing power and thus elevates inflation and secondly, it makes imported products more cost effective than any kind of domestically produced products. Consequently, cheaper imported products, including food, flooded the Venezuelan markets and practically destroyed agricultural production across the country, along with its food security.
Before its boom in oil exploration, agriculture was Venezuela's main commodity, and as such, over 70% of the population lived in the countryside. Once this agricultural economy shifted to one reliant on mineral exploitation, Venezuela became a net importer of agricultural products (despite their high ability to produce food for themselves). Farmers (called Campesinos in Latin America) could no longer sustain their livelihoods as food producers and had no choice but to move to the cities to earn a living. Urbanisation was rapid and cities across Venezuela were flooded with more people than they could accommodate with adequate housing and services, resulting in the development of enormous slums, called barrios (now called 'communities') on the outskirts of the major cities. Compounding these effects was a high level of unemployment, making poverty and extremely poor living conditions a reality amongst these communities, and the disparity between the classes even greater.
|View of Caracas - where a barrio meets the city|
|A 'community' in Caracas (view from the new cable car that has been constructed to increase access for the people who live in these communities. Before they had to walk up 1000s of stairs and the journey would take at least 2 hours.|
Recognising the need to bridge this gap between the classes and increase the quality of life amongst the overwhelming majority of this population, President Charvez and his government launched The Socialist Revolution (inspired by the Simon Bolivar Revolution in the 1800s) to shift the power back to the Venezuelan people and rebuild the country, and its economy, from the ground up.
In order to fund this incredible shift, one of the first moves the government made was to recognise that the Venezuela's minerals ie oil, belong to the Venezuelan people and if it's going to be extracted, that it should be the Venezuelan community which benefits from these astronomical profits (not a handful of multinationals). So one of the first investments the government made, was to buy back the rights and ownership of the minerals, so that profits could be invested into the development of the country and the value of these minerals, realised by all Venezuelans. Because how much has this revolution cost so far? Oh well, you know, just a cool $3.5 TRILLION... but it really highlights (a) how much profit was being generated, (b) the incredible unequal distribution of wealth in a country with the ability to generate this kind of profit, but with such high amounts of poverty under a 'capitalist' regime; and (c) how much a country can benefit by a government who takes complete ownership of minerals which are by rights owned by all who live there.
I realise this provokes a whhoollee other conversation about the enormous environmental and ethical considerations around mining (which I too have significant opinions on), but for the purposes of this conversation I've really mentioned it to show how the revolution is being funded, the importance of greater government control around these resources and how an entire population can benefit from the profits - not just a few. The investment in small to medium scale, localised, agroecologic agriculture in Venezuela is certainly occurring as a result of the government's acknowledgment of oil as a finite resource and the subsequent need to diversify their revenue streams/commodities.
In many ways, this Revolution is unprecedented in the way it has created a form of 'socialism' that is relevant and unique to the needs of Venezuela. Comparative to other socialist/communist countries around the world, Venezuela is paving their own path, whereby they are redefining socialist philosophy within the unique context of the Venezuelan population and this has meant that the government, in conjunction with the people of Venezuela, have had to construct and entire new governing constitution which is specific to Venezuela's situation. We were actually lucky enough to attend a meeting with an advisor to the National Assembly, who are the legislative branch of the Venezuelan Government and create/approve the laws, to learn more about how these new 'organic laws' were decided upon and created, and how they are being adopted by the 43,000 community councils across the country.
|The round table meeting we attend with to hear from the advisor to the National Assembly who wrote many of the laws in the new Venezuelan Constitution. You can see the Constitution is the red book on the table.|
|Kenski being interviewed to capture his thoughts on the Revolution. A superstar in his trackpants (he will know what I mean when I say that!!)|
Under the socialist society, the people have the power and the government's first and foremost role is to serve and protect the needs and well being of its people, as defined/identified by the people (and not the government's own agenda). This is done via the establishment of 'community councils' within communities across the country, whom are empowered with the ability to govern and develop their communities within the context and reality of their unique situations. The overarching laws which govern the country are those within the Venezuelan Constitution of Organic Laws, established by the National Assembly, however, community councils may request differing laws within their community, depending on their unique needs. This is then subsequently discussed and decided upon in consultation with the National Assembly.
As I understand it, the overarching philosophy is to empower the people and build their capacity to define and create solutions to the issues within their immediate communities and then provide them with the necessary infrastructure and support to address and overcome them. The way in which the government works with the people, is that each community council have leaders of specific areas; such as housing, health, land and agriculture etc and they all provide representation for their communities at the national level. So in essence, a leader of a community council takes whatever problem or need they have in their community, for which they are requiring support from the government, and presents this to the National Assembly, whom then grant the funds or the support required to rectify the issue at hand.
I can hear you saying, really every single little issue every single community is experiencing is dealt with this in way? Well as you can imagine, the issues faced across many of the communities within Venezuela are fundamental and global; such as lack of adequate housing, land and infrastructure, limited access to healthy food, education and support and access to funding/credit etc, so many of these services are being established across the country to allow for immediate/direct access for communities, and allowing for bigger/more complex or unique issues to be debated at the national assembly level. Additionally, an enormous consultative processes with the Venezuelan people has taken place over a number of years, so the country's agenda/priorities have been established and work to build the services to support the country's development, is happening in tandem.
I realise I am painting quite a simplified and somewhat 'rosey' picture of Venezuela's transformation, so I would like to acknowledge that this has/is by no means an easy feat; infact it has been a highly challenging process and lives have been lost in the process, particularly in rural communities who are taking back land under the new land reforms (check out more about this in the Food Sovereignty blog). There has been significant amounts of violent resistance from those who oppose the Revolution, and in fact, we could not make our trip to the Amazon as there were reports of para-militants in the area and it was simply too dangerous. Also, when we stayed on one of the properties that had been 'expropriated' ie 'taken back', we were constantly guarded by an armed security guard, the entire time we were on the property. What is happening in Venezuela is serious and enormous and it is taking a significant amount of time. There are still many creases to iron out in many of the processes and decisions as they move forward. But like I said, Venezuela is walking in uncharted territory with this revolution, so a lot of what they are doing is about trial and error and learning as they go; but from what I have seen, they are giving it an extremely good go and Charvez is doing it with the support of a large majority of the Venezuelan community.
This entire system sounds a bit idealistic and chaotic I know, the thought of an entire population of people (all with quite individual needs and desires) having the power to dictate the government, but however slowly, it is happening and you know what, it is working! Disparity amongst the 'classes' is on the decrease, less people are living in poverty, access to services, education, housing has increased, local food production has increased, better infrastructure for food production and distribution is being established across the country and the elderly now have greater security via a national pension scheme... and the mind blowing thing about it, is that it has all been defined and created by the Venezuelan people themselves via the support of the government. The Venezuelan people are recognised as human beings with the ability to make valuable and significant contributions to the development of the country. As an empowered community, they are the solution and their needs and wellbeing are placed ahead of profits and thus money is being invested where it is needed. Call me crazy, but isn't this exactly how all governments should be serving and protecting their people? People before profits? Communities before corporations?
So what are my thoughts on it all? Well I am still developing my thoughts but, in my opinion, I think 'socialism' and 'communism' have been tainted by greedy, radical dictatorships (ie Hitler, The Khmer Rouge etc) and in our western, capitalist worlds, the significant stigmas attached to these concepts (which are compounded by the propaganda fed to us through the media), makes us afraid of them and leaves us feeling like neoliberal, capitalist values are the best and only way to govern our countries. I am not saying I am now a converted socialist and Australia should become a socialist society. However the values which underpin this economic and political model; whereby profit is not the only consideration, the wellbeing and needs of the community are first and foremost and the government is structured to truly serve and be guided by the needs of the people, provides food for thought to say the least. I do wonder how some of these values could be applied to our society and the relationship between us and our government could be strengthened and re-oriented towards building our capacity (through support, resources, education and infrastructure) to have greater involvement in defining the issues and creating the solutions; rather than being told what the issues are and how they will be addressed (with profit and corporate agendas in the driving seats, steering us towards these 'solutions').
The food sovereignty and food system transformation effort in Venezuela is a prime example of just how well these more 'socialist' principles can be applied and are working. But, given the length of this blog so far (thank you for reading if you've made it this far!!) and all I want to share about the Mission 'AgroVenezuela', I think I'll place all of these details into a new blog, which I'll upload shortly.
As I'm sure you can tell, I am still forming my thoughts and opinions around all of what I have seen in Venezuela and my sense is it's going to take some time, in conjunction with further reading and investigation to really get to the bottom of it all. But I guess this is the beauty of a blog, whereby I can capture my thoughts at different stages and see how they are evolving (and changing) over time. I guess I just hope I have been able to convey the different viewpoint and approach Venezuela is taking and that it too, has provoked some thought for you around the status quo of our society as we know it. I'd be extremely interested to hear others thoughts around what I've seen and written about here, as I obviously appreciate the high degree of controversy and disparity in opinions around a topic like this; and I'm sure many have varying opinions and insights they could add if they felt compelled and comfortable to do so.
Phew that was a biggie - promise the others won't be this big... but anyone who can get a subject this complex into 500 words deserves a medal!
Thanks for reading and look forward to your comments.
Other articles you may like to read can be found on http://venezuelanalysis.com/. They provide a huge number of articles that seem to tell both sides of the story.
By Joanna Baker
Initially published on "Ayni Nourishes" Blog, http://ayni-nourishes.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/venezuela-socialist-revolut...