Caracas, February 24, 2023 (venezuelanalysis.com) – Venezuelan campesinos staged a protest on Thursday in Portuguesa state.
Over 50 sugar cane growers rallied outside the local headquarters of the Agriculture Ministry in the town of Acarigua. They demanded the Venezuelan government address a number of issues currently hurting production in the countryside.
“We find ourselves in a state of emergency right now,” spokeswoman Blondy Sangronis told Venezuelanalysis. Sangronis currently serves as the national coordinator of the Confederation of Bolivarian Sugar Cane Producers (CONCABOVEN).
The campesinos presented a document proposing a number of solutions which was received by Agriculture Ministry director Gustavo Rojas. They expressed their desire to “collaborate” with authorities but did not rule out further demonstrations, including in Caracas, should there be no response.
The main concern brought up was access to subsidized diesel. The Portuguesa sugar cane growers proposed the creation of a “rural producer” category in the digital Homeland system which the government uses to assign benefits. Producers would then have a limit of one thousand liters of diesel per month, as opposed to the current 40 available for every citizen.
“We need to be recognized in the Homeland system,“ Sangronis explained, while also stressing the need to study and allocate the necessary fuel for agricultural production.
However, access to subsidized diesel is not the norm throughout the country, Portuguesa being one of the exceptions, as the Maduro government continues to phase out fuel subsidies. Farmers are generally forced to buy at “international prices” (50c/L) or even higher black market rates.
The Portuguesa rural collectives likewise called on authorities to take action to scale down sugar imports, mostly from Brazil, which make it impossible for Venezuelan producers to compete.
“We do not oppose sugar imports if it is a food security issue,” Sangronis said. “But it should come alongside efforts to support national production. There is a lot of output presently and potential for more.” She added that sugar cane growers also want to be allowed to apply for loans. They are currently excluded from banks’ credit portfolios over an alleged low profitability of the sector.
Sangronis went on to urge the state to reactivate mills nationwide. According to the campesino spokeswoman, only two out of the 10 state-owned sugar processing plants are running: Central Venezuela in Zulia state and Central Santa Elena in Portuguesa state.
The Santa Elena mill was reactivated in late 2022 after nearly four years of paralysis. Local campesinos staged an occupation in September 2021 after a “strategic alliance” with a private entrepreneur put local cane crops in jeopardy.
The Portuguesa governorship has reportedly struck a new strategic alliance, whose terms are not publicly known. According to Sangronis, 130,000 tons of sugar cane have been processed so far, roughly half of the year’s harvest.
The strategic alliance model saw the Maduro government transfer assets to regional governorships which in turn struck deals with private corporations to run them. The Cumanacoa sugar mill in Sucre state likewise saw campesinos denounce the private partner for paralyzing the plant and defrauding campesinos.
The ongoing US sanctions program has seen Maduro administration look to offer increasingly favorable conditions for the business sector in an effort to boost the economy. In the countryside, the liberalized policies, coupled with the privatization of companies that offered affordable access to seeds, inputs and tractors, have significantly raised costs for small and midsize producers.
Campesinos have responded with a string of mobilizations from different sectors. Coffee, corn and rice producers staged demonstrations in Caracas in late 2022 with similar demands for increased state regulation.
Spokespeople expressed concern over agribusinesses being allowed to import certain foodstuffs precisely during harvest season so as to drive down prices paid to small-scale producers.
Recently signed trade agreements with Colombia are expected to generate an influx of Colombian produce into Venezuelan markets. Andrés Alayo, spokesperson from the Campesino Struggle Platform, told Venezuelanalysis that the accords amount to “free trade” deals for certain foodstuffs that will represent further difficulties for Venezuelan campesinos to survive.