‘Despotic Patrimonialism’ Emerges in Rural Venezuela: A Conversation with Gerardo Sieveres & Arbonio Ortega

In this exclusive interview with Venezuelanalysis, two leaders of the Admirable Campesino March speak about their 435 kilometer trek and share an analysis of their objectives.
Gerardo Sieveres of the Admirable Campesino March and the Platform for Campesino Struggle
Gerardo Sieveres of the Admirable Campesino March and the Platform for Campesino Struggle

From July 12 to August 1st, a large contingent of Venezuelan campesinos marched across the country in what came to be known as the “Admirable Campesino March.” They walked from Guanare in Portuguesa State to Caracas to raise awareness about the many problems facing small farmers, including evictions, harassment and general neglect at the hands of state institutions.

Here we learn about the march and its objectives in the voice of two of the Venezuelan campesino movement’s most prominent leaders, Gerardo Sieveres and Arbonio Ortega.

How did the Admirable Campesino March come to be? What got a group of campesinos to walk more than 400 kilometers?

Arbonio Ortega: Our march was triggered by the deep complexities of the campesino situation. Criminalization of our struggle, difficulties getting agricultural inputs, murder of campesinos, impunity, and the lack of attention from state institutions, whose main purpose is attending to campesino issues.

Months before we began our long march, we organized many meetings and assemblies to address the critical situation of campesinos throughout the country. In these meetings, we developed a plan or proposal for how to attend to the campesino situation. From there, we began to look for a channel to make our demands heard in Caracas. So we made a visit to Caracas. There, we called for an end to the criminalization of landless campesinos by the state, and we called for protecting the lives of those being threatened by the landowning class’ thugs. During the visit, we also requested that campesinos receive agricultural inputs, particularly fertilizers, much needed for the successful completion of the first corn crop.

Upon our return from Caracas, Jesus Leon and Guillermo Toledo, two campesinos active in the movement, were killed in Palo Quemao, a recovered farmstead[1] in Barinas, in yet another case of landowner violence [May 12, 2018]. As the criminalization and threats against many campesino leaders continued, we began to hold meetings in other regions of the country. We went to Guarico, Cojedes, Barinas, Portuguesa and Sur del Lago, and out of those meetings emerged the plan to do symbolic takeovers or occupations of the regional offices of two state institutions: INTI [Venezuelan Land Institute] and Agropatria [state-owned and operated supplier of seeds and other agricultural inputs]. The last occupation was in INTI Barinas. After that occupation, we were called by the head of the INTI to a meeting in Florentino [a state‐run agricultural investigation center]. The outcome was a plan and a series of agreements, but the institutions did not act upon those agreements.

It became obvious then that we had to develop another strategy to be heard. And thus, we decided to go to Caracas again, but in larger numbers, to demand that our voices be heard. In preparing the visit, we analyzed the Zamora Takes Caracas March [a campesino takeover of Caracas in 2006 to demand an end to impunity] and many campesino takeovers of Caracas that were carried out when Chavez was still alive. The social impact of the Zamora Takes Caracas March marked a seachange in the campesino struggle, but after that there was a sort of dispersion of the campesino movement and the cooptation of some campesino organizations.

So, analyzing the history of the campesino struggle in the years of the Bolivarian Revolution, and reflecting on the current situation, we decided that we would march to Caracas, as a collective sacrifice and as an homage to earlier campesino struggles.

The 435 Km route of the Admirable Campesino March

If I remember correctly, during those June and early July days campesinos faced more violence from the landowning class…

Arbonio Ortega: Right, around that time, in a recent recovery of land in a farmstead called “El Esfuerzo” in Portuguesa State, thugs of the landowning class burnt the school and some warehouses. They also burned the sheds where the campesinos were living, and that became yet another cause for us. With this situation in mind, and in light of the upcoming two month anniversary since the assassination of Jesus Leon and Guillermo Toledo, we decided that we were going to go to Caracas on foot.

We began walking on July 12 and along the way we found tremendous solidarity from the very poor people living by the side of the road. But also enormous barriers and hurdles were set up by government institutions: they made parallel “campesino” marches, broke promises, and launched smear campaigns.

From that point forward, the story is well known. We walked more than 400 kilometers from Guanare in Portuguesa State, and along the way campesinos from different regions of the country joined us, while humble people living by the side of the road gave us water and shelter.

Eventually we were joined by Reyes Parra, a campesino leader from Barinas State, from the “La Escondida” campesino homestead, a place where we had done an assembly with more than 300 campesinos days before the beginning of the march. His truck carried the water needed to keep us walking. After a while, he went back home to fix his truck, which had some problems. Immediately upon his return to the homestead, Reyes Parra was killed. But we were not going to give up!

We continued, and as we went on with our march, we met with campesinos, workers, social movements. Everybody who we found along the way gave us the strength to continue! People gave us shelter, water, food. The alternative media committed to covering the march, to make up for the blackout from the state media, which censored all coverage.

We continued to advance, and in Valencia the column began to grow very quickly. Many more people from around the country joined us and our voice was now being heard loud and clear not only through alternative media, but also through social media which began to come to our side.

We arrived in Caracas on August 1, and social movements received us with warmth and solidarity. That was very moving! We walked towards Miraflores and found all sorts of hurdles along the way, but eventually we were able to talk to President Maduro.

So what triggered our march? The terrible situation of campesinos whose voices need to be heard. And it should be known that the problems remain, and that is why we have not left Caracas. We will stay here until there is clear evidence that solutions to the campesinos’ problems are on the way.

The Admirable Campesino March on its way to Caracas, to make their voices heard

What you call the Bolivarian Campesino Agenda brings together the grievances and requests of the campesino sector. How does this agenda develop?

Gerardo Sieveres: For us, the Campesino March was a school. We began our long journey because of the problems in the farmsteads: the problem of the criminalization and judicial persecution of campesinos. We walked to call for an end to campesino assassinations and to impunity and finally to bring to the public eye the need to regularize land tenure. We also marched to demand access to agricultural supplies.

In the 23 days that it took us to reach Caracas, we engaged in a permanent conversation and debate. In every stopping place we debated; during the long walks we talked and analyzed; at night, after the long day, we reflected. Thus we began to make our demands more precise. Our demands began to include issues like the decentralization of Agropatria and Pedro Camejo [state company for agricultural production]. In the debate some would say, “No, those are actually decentralized,” and we would say “Yes, but we want them to be independent of the government, because the Agriculture Ministry is incapable of responding to our needs.”

After hearing our demands, the president committed himself to addressing (and finding solutions for) problems in five areas: land, production, justice, public services [institutional problems], and organization. In that meeting, he ordered, in a very emphatic manner, that the lands given to campesinos in Hugo Chavez’s government be given back to them.

After that, work tables were set up, but frankly for a long time, not much happened.

Arbonio Ortega greets President Nicolas Maduro in the August 2 meeting

Let’s move to the main points in the Bolivarian Campesino Agenda: the synthesis of proposals that come out of assemblies, debates and conversations before, during and after the Admirable Campesino March.

Gerardo Sieveres: The first item in the agenda is “Land and New Territories.” Here we are talking about safeguarding the campesino population and its right to produce in the territory. Basically, we want to address the campesino population’s integrity and right to organize. We are talking about establishing a network of all campesino farmsteads with a view toward creating integrated “Campesino Development Zones.” If we are able to unite campesino farmsteads, we will be safer and more efficient. All this, obviously, goes hand in hand with the issue of assigning tenancy of unused lands.

We have a singer and songwriter in Venezuela, Ali Primera, who is really a universal artist. In one of his songs he says that the people [pueblo] should be like a dried cow skin: when someone steps on a dried cowskin, the opposite end will rise up. That is what we understand as “campesino territoriality”: an integrated space for our struggles, but also with the long-term aim of establishing an economic campesino system. This economic system that would extend from the field to the stewpot. We are thus talking about having real power, about ensuring sovereign production and the satisfaction of basic food needs.

So this new territoriality is based on a productive model. And what is our model? Our productive model is the idea of “agricultural socialism,” basically Chavez’s proposal… which has, surprisingly, been abandoned. Really, nobody talks about his model!

The productive model that Chavez proposed is based on processes of collective “recovery” of the land and socially-oriented production, with all its implications. We, the campesinos, with the right granted by Chavez to produce in the land, we must produce to satisfy collective, social needs.

This brings us to the second point in our agenda, which is “Strategic Production.”

To understand this we have to go back in history. After the massacre of indigenous populations with the arrival of the Spanish colonists, a new culture emerged: the mestizo culture. Mestizo culture results from the mixing of the indigenous peoples with the colonizers. That is how our campesino culture emerges.

We have a long historical and genetic baggage of colonization, but we also have the historical and genetic baggage of indigenous rebelliousness, of liberty and of resistance. Thus we arrive at the issue of recovering our roots. Campesino production happens in the periphery, in less inhabited territories, in the more isolated places; campesino production is resistance production, but it is also sovereign production. In these isolated areas, we have the wherewithal to produce and satisfy social needs.

So when we talk about “strategic production,” we are talking about producing in a planned process to satisfy the needs of people, who are facing a profound crisis and the threat of imperialism, which wants to take what is ours.

So “strategic production” means organizing and planning the crops of cassava, yam, plantain, and corn: producing to satisfy the Venezuelan people’s basic needs.

The third item is “Integral and Structured Justice of the Countryside.” Our proposal is that, given the justice system’s inability to respond to the campesino’s collective needs, a process of juridical self-protection should be implanted. We have to review the existing laws in this regard; for instance, the law recognizes the figure of the justice of peace in the barrio. Thus, we are proposing to build “peace courtrooms” at the local level, in the rural territories. In this system, the judge, hearing charges against a landowner who had a campesino killed, would be a fellow campesino, his peer.

This is very important, because the truth is that certain sectors of the government are using the judicial system to criminalize campesinos, to dispossess campesinos of their land. How do they do this? They make false allegations and eventually open legal cases.

For instance, on social media, government spokespeople are making false claims against us, saying that Arbonio burned a school… thus Arbonio should be put in jail because he is a threat to society! Why, because he is a thorn in the side of a power group that has nothing to do with the aims of the revolution. There is another person from the Campesino March who is being called a terrorist on social media, or myself, a humble campesino – now in social media some are claiming that I’m selling land! All these baseless claims are made on social media to threaten us. Basically, they are threatening to with press charges that would be founded on rumors that they have planted. They are, in essence, cooking up judicial “false positives.” They do similar things with landless campesinos who occupy unproductive land.

So, when we talk about Structured Campesino Justice, we are talking about a system that bypasses the current, corrupt judicial system which doesn’t want to be reformed… We are talking about establishing a model for and by campesinos, a system that will ensure justice and peace in the countryside. It’s the only way really. We [campesinos] are the only ones who know our reality.

All this must go hand in hand with the development of a campesino militia. The objective of this militia would be to protect our territory when facing the brutal landowner’s threats, the narcoviolence of those who want to build drug corridors, or the new agrarian bourgeoisie’s aggressions.

So those are the three main lines of our struggle…

Obviously, all this must happen hand in hand with a profound reform, or even a revolution, within the existing institutions.

Gerardo Sieveres: That is certainly the case. One thing that is important to underline is that when we met with President Maduro, he talked about the need to reform the government’s agricultural institutions. In this regard, what we say is that while the institutions must change, more than changing directors, we must strive to change their modus operandi, their internal logic.

And this brings us to Enrique Dussel’s recent visit and the founding of a Decolonization Institute. The truth is that our institutions are colonized by an “anti-people” logic. The first thing that must be decolonized in Venezuela is power, the power which resides in state institutions. The colonial behavior that operates in institutions must be eradicated. So let’s decolonize institutions!

We have seen the development of a “despotic patrimonial” logic colonizing institutions in the recent past, and it must end. This is the colonised practice that currently inhabits institutions. We say that institutions operate now in a despotic patrimonial manner because these spaces employ a deeply despotic logic. From the bottom to the top, there is disregard for the law, and they do with the patrimony as they wish. What should be done with this despotic patrimonialism in state institutions? Well, the state institutions must be decolonized, eliminating these practices.

I assume that when you talk about “despotic patrimonialism,” you refer to the practices associated with the emerging landowning bourgeoisie, the so-called “revolutionary bourgeoisie”[2]?

Gerardo Sieveres: Let’s explain this in three historical phases.

The historical struggle of campesinos has been against whom? First, we struggled against the feudal lord. Then there is a second moment in which we had (and still have) a very intense struggle against the oppressing landowning class. But additionally, we are now struggling against the despotic patrimonialists of the “revolutionary bourgeoisie.” They are the ones behind the terrible functioning of public institutions. That is the first block that must be overcome in decolonizing institutions with the new institute that President Maduro formed. He is our president, and we trust that he will take the right path in this regard.

What is next?

Gerardo Sieveres: We must defend with all of our strength President Nicolas Maduro. He entrusted his word to us, he committed himself to solving the campesino bloc’s problems. Thus, those committed to Chavismo, with our decision to follow Chavez’s path clear as the full moon[3], we are committed to our president and his word. The commitment he made to us is a brake against the revolutionary bourgeoisie’s logic of despotic patrimonialism, which is a cancer inside institutions that tends to take Chavez’s project out of the picture. That bourgeoisie is breaking the moral backbone of our process. But the moral objectives cannot be broken, and we count on President Maduro for that! The rural and urban youth, all who have accompanied us, all revolutionaries, the social movements, we must all walk together towards reinstating Chavez’s vision.

Arbonio Ortega, Gerardo Sieveres, Cira Pascual Marquina, Noe Bracamonte, Yudy Medina


[1] A recovered farmstead is a plot of unused land claimed and occupied by landless campesinos. The 2001 Land and Agricultural Development Law laid out the basis of the agrarian revolution and created the legal framework for granting landless campesinos the right (and conditions) for producing.

[2] Revolutionary bourgeoisie is a term used by Venezuelan Agricultural Minister Wilmar Castro Soteldo which generated a large controversy within Chavismo, as it was interpreted as a defense of the emerging bourgeoisie.

[3] As Chávez’s cancer worsened, he named Maduro his choice in a possible electoral contest. “My firm opinion, as clear as the full moon – irrevocable, absolute, total – is… that you elect Nicolas Maduro as president,” he said in a dramatic, final speech in December 2012.