Democratize the Land, Empower the People: A Conversation with Zuleima Vergel

A campesino organization calls for a new way of doing politics, inspired by Chavez.

Zuleima Vergel is the international relations liaison of the Bolivar and Zamora Revolutionary Current (CRBZ). In this interview, she walks us through the current situation in rural Venezuela and examines the formation of the National Productive Alliance, a CRBZ initiative that seeks to respond to the crisis while democratizing the countryside and recovering of Chavez’s way of doing politics.

The rural oligarchy has carried out a low-intensity war against campesinos in Venezuela since Chavez promoted the Land Law in 2001. However, it seems that the war has become more intense in the last year or so. On July 27, six militants of the Hugo Chavez Popular Defense Brigades and the CRBZ were killed in Ticoporo, Barinas state. On October 28, another CRBZ member, Reedys Morillo, was assassinated. What are the structural causes of the landowning class’ violence against campesinos, and why has that violence picked up more recently?

One of the first important things that happened after Chavez’s arrival to power is that he legitimated the struggle for the land, a struggle that goes way back in time. He did this through his discourse but also by promoting a very advanced Land Law. However, that produced an immediate reaction from the oligarchical class.

Their response was (and still is) tremendously violent. They went full force against campesinos and small producers that were committed to recovering idle land. The landowning class was responding to its own interests, since the political and legal changes were undercutting their privileges and damaging their interests.

So the landowning class’s violence has been present in the campo for a long time, but it has intensified in recent years. They have “polished” their methods by cooperating with Colombian paramilitarism.

You mentioned the Ticoporo Massacre, but we should also remember that last year, in May, CRBZ campesinos were killed in La Escondida. All this must be understood as a military operation that is directed at one political organization: the Bolivar and Zamora Revolutionary Current.

There are many issues at play here, but the main one is that our organization is very active in the territories, and we are proposing an alternative. We organize the campesino sector, we mediate with the state, and we develop plans and proposals together with the producers. At the same time, we continue to support occupations of idle land and work toward the eradication of latifundios [large estates historically devoted to livestock farming or monoculture]. All this goes against the interests of the landowning class.

Ticoporo is actually located in a strategic area of Barinas state, where there is a complex relationship between diverse actors. The CRBZ is committed to recovering that territory and defending the sovereignty of the nation. All this threatens the interests of the oligarchy, and that is why terror rears its head. It’s a message to our organization, and it aims to break the morale of the pueblo. They won’t succeed.


You mentioned Colombian paramilitarism, but as I understand it, the key issue here is class struggle. It’s a struggle for the land between campesinos and landowners.

Yes, that is correct. I mentioned paramilitarism, because it is a resource that landowners use to impose terror. No doubt, however, this is a class struggle between the oppressed people – the campesinos whose vocation is to produce – and the landowners who struggle to maintain their privileges and even widen their control.

The involvement of paramilitarism is due in part to the fact that some of the largest concentrations of land, where the struggle against latifundio is most intense, are in border regions.

The state and the legal system are not responding effectively to the landowning class’s violence. There are even cases where the state’s security forces participate in campesino evictions and they have actually been involved in assassinations. Why does that happen?

Only if the state addresses this situation in an integral manner will it be able to effectively combat the assassinations and all forms of violence against campesinos. Democratization of the land and justice go hand in hand. In the campo, one can’t happen without the other.

That means there must be an overall plan that is not limited to technical and administrative support, which is what the INTI [Venezuelan Land Institute] now offers to campesinos. The justice system must be reformed, while the Public Defender [Defensoria del Pueblo], the agrarian courts and, of course, the police forces must be incorporated into the plan.

Without a [governmental] plan to guarantee the lives and protect the work of those recovering land, the mafias will continue to use force against campesinos.

Instead, we have institutions that are remiss in their duties, investigations that don’t go anywhere, and we experience procedural delays. How many more compañeras and compañeros will have to be killed? Aren’t twenty years and hundreds of dead campesinos enough? The government needs to design a comprehensive policy to address these issues. It should be a priority.

As the CRBZ understands the crisis, there are three main causes: foreign aggression, the government’s economic policy, and rampant corruption. However, the CRBZ doesn’t just criticize the government, but you also have a proposal: The National Productive Alliance. Let’s talk about that initiative.

The National Productive Alliance proposes to address Venezuela’s agricultural production from a holistic perspective. Our idea is to bring together different sectors, from small campesinos to midsize producers, from agricultural cooperatives to communal councils and communes. We are aiming to build a broad alliance to help overcome the crisis that Venezuelan people are facing today.

We believe that agrarian production should really be a strategic objective (not just one that is talked about), and it must bring together all those who have a patriotic vocation. Only an organized [patriotic] bloc will be able to make its demands heard and bring the state into the fold… The objective would be raising productivity to satisfy collective needs while we build sovereignty. That is the intention of the alliance, which is now being built.

To achieve this, it is important to have unity and coordination among all these sectors, from those who work the land to those who work for human rights. Our objective is not only to get the state to cooperate on some points, but also to insist that it act in a coherent manner. In doing so, we will advance towards a different social and productive model.

In other words, we are talking about a shift from an agroindustrial, latifundio model that displaces campesinos and does not organize itself according to the people’s needs, to a model based on their needs. It’s about the people becoming protagonists.

We believe that the struggle for transforming the economic model should not just be a political diatribe. However, that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be accompanied by a strategic project and a political vision. The alliance is open to sectors that aren’t necessarily aligned with the government so long as they are patriotic and intend to produce.

As we build this alliance aimed at transforming the current agricultural model, it’s necessary that the state address issues such as the democratization of the land, the eradication of the latifundio, and the transformation of the security system. The state must also address the undignified conditions in which Venezuelan campesinos live today and confront a judicial system that is very weak and vulnerable.

Getting seeds, tools, and machinery has become a nightmare for campesinos in recent years. I understand that the National Productive Alliance also works in that area.

That’s right. Access to seeds, tools, and machinery is an ordeal for campesinos today. Just as there are mafias in the judicial system, the same happens with the distribution of seeds and tools. However, if our goal is to make these agricultural inputs available, then we need an organized force. If campesinos – including conuqueros [subsistence farmers] and midsize producers – and communes don’t cooperate and unify, then the state won’t listen.

All this has to go hand in hand with a leadership that emerges from the very people who are casting their lot with the National Productive Alliance. Unity, coordination, and organization – all that is key in the democratic transformation of the campo.


How widely does the National Productive Alliance extend in Venezuela’s territory?

The work began in early 2018. Now, near the end of 2019, we can say that we have some clear results. The National Productive Alliance is now present in thirteen municipalities in six states. The states where the Alliance has grown fastest are Apure, Tachira, Barinas, and Yaracuy. In total, we are now working with 7480 producers, and our goal is to work with 21,000 producers by the end of 2020.

The Alliance is organized in “mesas productivas” [productive boards] at the national, state, and municipal level, each with its own leadership. The role of the mesas productivas across the country is to discover the most critical issues: the “knots.” From there, we relay information to institutions at a local, state, and national level… We try to unravel “knots” by finding timely solutions.

In 2019, the National Productive Alliance was able to coordinate with the Agriculture Ministry, and the associated producers received seeds (corn, rice, beans, depending on the territory) and some inputs.

The National Productive Alliance is growing rapidly, and at the same time, we are working toward producing and distributing agricultural inputs in an autonomous way. All the producers that received seeds this year must commit to a process of “ensemillamiento” [process of preparing seeds for the next crop]. In this way, they are learning how to care for seeds and prepare for the next planting season… We want them to be less dependent on the state.

What do the figures of Ezequiel Zamora and Hugo Chavez stand for in the campesino struggle?

Zamora is a key symbolic figure in Venezuela’s struggle for the land… That is why our organization uses his name. Zamora stands for total war against the latifundio. Our roots as an organization are there. He represents the origin of our struggle.

Zamora led the Federal War [1859 to 1863], but more important than that, his project was to totally destroy the latifundio. His rallying cries were “Horror to the oligarchy,” and “Free men and liberated land,” (now we say, “free women and men and liberated land”). We still use those slogans today. Actually, Chavez took his cues from Zamora, in formulating his project of radically transforming the campo.

Beyond the political and ideological legacy, I think that Chavez left us with a very important idea, the idea of empowering ourselves. That is not only because he talked about new forms of organization, which is very important, but also because he created mechanisms and tools to advance towards that goal.

Chavez would say that power “is not taken as easily as a glass of water,” but rather that power is built, and that it takes time to do so. So we learned from him that when people really have power, that is when we will really be in a condition to transform our society.

I think that is key. Today we are committed to making sure that Chavez’s project of empowerment will not vanish. Our organization is tirelessly working toward that goal.

In a capitalist society, the process of empowerment is never an easy one.

No, we have to generate conditions for a different kind of democracy – a democracy that should be participative and protagonic, by and for the people from below. That won’t happen spontaneously or by decree. We have to build mechanisms and our own theoretical, political, and practical toolbox. Chavez sketched the path forward, but now we have to finish it and make sure it is accessible to all… That means thinking creatively since we have to think about how popular power can be built in these new, complex times.

It has to be we, the people, who build the new [social] relations. We can’t depend on guidance that comes from above and from a single source. The CRBZ is committed to the struggles of the people and their empowerment.

Chavez would say that if people are empowered, they can change their reality by creating, producing, and organizing new forms of life. This comes together with another mainspring of the CRBZ: recovering a profoundly ethical way of doing politics, inspired by Chavez.

As we conceive popular power, we think that it should have a social, moral, and ethical dimension. That is why we are on the ground, preparing new, ethical leadership. To state the obvious, our formula is not about empowering those from below for the sake of personal gain; it’s about empowering people for the sake of collective welfare.

I think that all the popular forces – all the Chavista organizations – should commit to this. How to recover Chavez’s way of doing politics? Let’s think about the leaders that Chavez would have wanted for this moment. Recovering Chavez’s way of doing politics should be an ongoing task for all revolutionary forces… Coming back to where we began, this should go hand in hand with the project of democracy. If we don’t do this, we will continue to encounter problems in the realm of politics.