Venezuela 2023: Oil and Water and Untelevised Revolution

Ecosocialist activist Quincy Saul offers some reflections on a recent trip to Venezuela, on issues including water, land struggles and geopolitics.
watershed cover
Between its oil industry and environmental priorities, Venezuela faces many challenges. (Wallpaper Flare)

2023 is an important year to write about Venezuela. 101 years ago this month, in December of 1922, petroleum erupted into history. El Reventón, near the village of La Rosa, was a pillar of petroleum that burst forty meters into the air and could be seen as far away as Maracaibo. For ten days the geyser continued: at a rate of 100,000 barrels a day, the black rain fell. The Shell Oil engineers couldn’t stop it. Only when the chimbangleros of San Benito de Palermo were allowed onto the site – where they sang and danced around it with an image of their saint – did the reventón reside. And so began the next century, the same one which now begins to end.

So was born “the magic state” – there are two books with this title about Venezuela – all states may be magic but this one more than most.[1] Standard Oil and the Rockefellers came running in early 1923. In the last century since the reventón, Venezuelan demographics were turned upside down, from ~90% rural to ~90% urban. Then, suddenly, came a constitutional revolutionary process which over the last twenty years has inverted the magic of Venezuela… from neocolonial comprador client state to an aspiring radical participatory democracy, insurgent against US imperialism and protagonist of a multipolar world. Oil has been booming in Venezuela for a hundred years now, yet at the dawn of the 21st century, this country has also placed itself at the center of radical ecosocialist geopolitics. In 2006, Hugo Chavez insisted in the state of Zulia: “if there is no method which can show me truly truly that they are not going to destroy the forest or contaminate the environment of those peoples, if you can’t show me, then that coal stays in the ground, we won’t take it out, it will stay underground.”[2]

It’s an important time to write about Venezuela but it’s also terribly difficult – it’s complex, convoluted, combated and controversial. There’s so much crossfire around this country that it’s difficult to make any sense of what’s really going on. But there is bright light in this turbulent tunnel, light toward which an owl of Minerva files, at the dusk of one century and toward the dawn of the next, there to rendezvous with eagles and condors. The metaphors are mixed, like the magic, like the oil and the water and the revolution. I hope this short story of a few chapters from the end of a century of oil in Venezuela, might open some windows through which that bright light might shine – from other side of the sanctions, live from the revolution that won’t be televised.

1. Watershed Schools

It begins in Yaracuy, where I attended the third national gathering of Escuelas de Cuenca que Siembran Agua – Watershed Schools which Sow Water. Teachers and students came together from all over Venezuela, in delegations organized by bioregions, to share experiences and strategies for the future.

It’s a tough time for teachers and students in Venezuela, like everyone else. The mass emigration that has resulted from sanctions, compounded immediately by the pandemic, has been catastrophic to the public education system. All in all it’s a situation never before seen. Into the breach ride delegations from Trujillo, Sucre, Miranda, and Yaracuy. Also present is a delegation from Bolivia. They have all converged in the bioregion they call Cumbe Adentro, in the Cumbe de Veroes, the heartland of Afro-Venezuelan culture and politics.

What’s water sowing? We’ve heard of sowing seeds but not water. What’s it all about? I’m going to quote extensively from the document compiled afterward, a detailed register of the week-long encounter, and a compilation of many voices.[3]

The sowing of water is the combination of actions of great importance for the water security of people, realized historically from ancestral and natural methods. These are as diverse as their cultures, communities, territories.

The theory and the practice of water sowing traverses ecology and geology and meteorology and also spirituality. Water sowers in Venezuela are known for going to dried up springs and reintroducing certain plants, and performing rituals to convoke the return of the waters. It works. Watershed Schools are connecting these elders with children, working through and alongside the primary school system. Like the chimangleros 101 years ago danced to stop the oil, today all across Venezuela, in small but significant numbers, children are dancing for the return of fresh water.

The Watershed Schools are articulate. They introduce concepts and define them based on experience. They consist of teachers, students, living books, farmers, friends, and a council of elders. A teacher tells the students: go find the living books in your community – the wise ones who remember the old ways. The living books know how to reforest, they know which plants and animals were there when the water still flowed fresh and clean. The idea is to apprentice the young directly to the old: “To sow the wisdom of living books, revindicating orality.” The Watershed schools have their own curricula “which obey the essence of the human being more than colonial structures, recognizing the existence of millennial knowledge, preserved to be inherited by children.”

It’s not complicated to get started, on the contrary it’s “an eminently practical exercise, with pedagogical field trips to springs, wells, watersheds, and wetlands, with the participation of students, teachers, and living books.” They encourage learning by doing, by singing, by dancing, by playing. Students are turned into community organizers, and also engineers, scientists, and naturalists. As homework they go door-to-door with a balance sheet. The results of their investigations they compile into Cuadernos de Lecturaleza  — “notebooks for the reading of nature,” which are pedagogical tools to help children to interview living books. “Environmental brigades have been activated to reforest the zones of the affected springs, with plants that sow water, recommended by the living books,” reports one bioregion.

As a class they compile detailed maps of their local watersheds, identifying everything from where the living books live and the paths taken by animals, to monocultures or mines or other sources of pollution.

The watershed school curriculum is both economic and spiritual. Economics are central to the program – a key part of the balance sheets taken around the community is about the assessment of the family economy. These family economies of the students and their neighbors are then incorporated by the school through Trueke, a barter system with a long history in Venezuela, both ancestral and modern. “In different forms of Trueke, children have learned to newly approach values from another point of view.” The Trueke movement is not just economic but educational and political, turning every market into a school. “Trueke has a beginning, a development, a close, and an evaluation, ending with a shared meal to which all contribute.” The economic aspect of the program is essential in Venezuela today due to sanctions, and it has an illustrious precedent. Simon Rodriguez, educator of the liberator, tutor of Simon Bolivar, wrote about how schools should be economically beneficial to students and their communities. He and his students made and sold candles – enlightenment.

The spirituality of the curricula is not explicit but implicit, based in the traditions of their territories. With Trueke children learn together with the community about what value is. With lecturaleza, they “unmask the anthropocentric vision of this model of civilization, based on the absolute domination and exploitation of nature, which has generated the disappearance of so many species.” Watershed schools have begun to lay the “foundations for the training of  a new generation identified with their territories, based on a relation of respect for biological diversity and all forms of life.”

They have come a long way. It’s not just on paper but all true: I met these school communities – teachers, students, living books, farmers and workers. I looked through their artisanal portfolios, the lecturaleza notebooks, the seed registries, the atlases of flora and fauna – all produced by the students together with their communities. They all came together in the cumbe – epicenter of the maroon movement in Venezuela, “the magic land of Andresote, in the heart of Yaracuy.”

The idea and the movement didn’t fall out of the sky; it has been percolating for centuries. It boiled up, the document says, in 2017, when “the First Ecosocialist International proposed the Department of the Rainbow of Wisdom – open classrooms with open wings… to liberate, educate, and decolonize the senses of children, adolescents and teachers.” Over the last few years, an alliance of teachers have built up the watershed school curriculum, and  recently they have begun to confederate. While this is in response to their shared and very modern problems, they also base their national and international gatherings on ancient principles: “Our ancestral peoples were autarchic and autonomous, but confederated in important moments to confront common problems and initiatives.”

Together that week they compared experiences – their obstacles and challenges but also their successes. In the state of Sucre, the schools were able to persuade four different mayors in different districts to sign legal orders for the protection of the Cerbatana watershed. This unprecedented development – an intergovernmental agreement across municipalities to protect a common watershed, brought about by a grassroots network of schools – happens to be in Paria, the bioregion through which the Spanish conquistadors first entered Venezuela. The report celebrates their political victory, but recognizes that there is “much work ahead to restore life and paradise in the bioregion, more or less five hundred years worth.”

They may be just getting started but they got the attention of a delegation from Cochabamba, Bolivia, a place which knows a thing or two about water, and who came to Veroes to learn. Maria Soledad Delgadillo, who used to work in the irrigation department of the Cochabamba government, applauded the “squadron of powerful women who were able to move the governmental apparatus,” and is quoted in the document with words ever more relevant for Bolivia, Venezuela and the whole world: “Without forests there’s no water… [Water sowing is] not just planting trees – they have to be cared for, and if we don’t care for them, well, they die. To plant and care for trees is to sow and care for water, because every forest makes clouds, which are flying rivers.”

The gathering concludes and delegations return to their watersheds, but not without making plans for the future. On their calendars already is their next national meeting – also a national gathering of the elders’ councils, and finally, proposals for international gatherings of watershed defenders.

2. Bottom-up Land Reform

The next chapter in this short story takes us just outside the capital of Yaracuy, on the outskirts of the city of San Felipe, to a place which calls itself Cooperativa 3R. The three Rs stand for Resistance, Rebirth, and Revolutionize. There I talk for a few hours with one of its founders, Fray Rivera. A couple of decades ago he and his campesino colleagues occupied this land which belonged to local big landowners – land that had been fallow for years – and began to farm it. Technically the law was on their side – according to the new constitution, land reclamation was encouraged and protected. But they had to face harassment, humiliation, and worse. Over three hundred people have been killed in the course of these bottom-up land occupations, and those are just the numbers on the books. Fray who has put his life on the line for this revolutionary process, speaks:

Not everyone puts their chest against bullets. That’s OK. The most important thing is to open your eyes… The most difficult thing is to lift up a moral. They can kill me, but the moral is immortal… We didn’t do this to be heroes, but to become immortals… I’m a humble farmer, but I’ve become an immortal.

He described everything they’ve been through, not just violence but the economic war which has been waged on Venezuela for over a decade, now topped off with sanctions. 150 thousand dead because of these sanctions, on the books. “Bread became caviar,” he explains. But he is not discouraged – on the contrary his eyes shine as he explains:

The crisis has wiped out everything which doesn’t work… Before everything was given away . Now we’re in the era of innovation. Nobody comes by helicopter. It’s the perfect moment to do a census of what does work… We’ve passed the stage of depending on papa state. In the first years we depended on the state 100%, five years later it was 50%, and now because of this crisis we are 100% self managed… We are lifting up a moral beyond the state… To get ourselves out of ignorance is really tough; capital is very astute at this, it knows how to entertain you so you don’t realize what’s happening. Now we know how to study… in fifty years, people will come and ask how we did all this, how we survived and the cows too…

He had a few questions for me, who just arrived fresh from gringolandia, questions I still can’t completely answer:

How will we make relations with other nations? … It seems like the elite of the USA is ready to kill its own people, and will even risk provoking nuclear war… And does development mean sending my kid to school with a bullet-proof vest?

He has a few things to say about the allegations of corruption in the Venezuelan government:

I like these fleas. Let them keep robbing and eating – but hold onto that flag so that this project can continue. There will be another moment for them to return what they’ve stolen, what they owe… we’re not in the moment to throw stones at Miraflores.

And he quoted the lyrics of the nationally beloved singer and songwriter Ali Primera, who sang of the noble and conscious people who know when to fight, when not to fight, and when to come together.

He had one more thing to tell us, this organic intellectual cowboy communist:

Women are surpassing men – they’re coming out on top. Because of their role in surviving this crisis, they have taken up top posts in the communal councils and everywhere. When women take power, men will stay at home and take care of the kids. Another economy will emerge. We’re going to be better protected. This is a new vanguard and a new resistance which has come after Chavez. I like it, personally. I think it’s elegant – women who know how to command and negotiate. They are more disciplined than us – imagine a country managed with discipline! It’s a big step. It won’t stay hidden much longer. What’s coming next will go beyond the limits of the communal, it will be another world, it’s infinite. This is one of the very important roles of Venezuela.

Leaving 3R on the way to the next chapter, the graffiti on the streets of San Felipe reads: “Our priority is to make the revolution irreversible.”

Campesino High Culture

Our next stop is Sanare. I arrive just in time, because some of the people I want to meet are about to leave that same evening. They are gathering in the house of neighbors to prepare for the long journey by bus to an enormous folklore festival, which gives a national stage to the diverse outpouring of cultural traditions that Venezuela is heir to. Foremost in Sanare are the zaragozas, the dancing devils. They are the protagonists of a festival of transgression, on the border between Christianity and indigeneity, modernity and ancestry. There is so much excitement and community here – no political or economic crisis in sight.

My friend Cesar Escalona explains it to me. The sanctions against Venezuela aren’t just economic. It’s like there’s an undeclared cultural blockade too, and no good news is allowed to get out of Venezuela. So you’ll never hear about this folklore festival which happens every year. There’s nothing political about it except that the communities self-organize to get transport provided by their local government, to celebrate and carry on their ancestral cultures, in dialog with other diverse traditions. Or is this the most political thing of all? Like the annual national book fair, like the countless local poetry festivals, like campesino hip hop, like trueke and lecturaleza and watershed schools and bottom-up land reform, you’re unlikely to hear about them ever again.

I’ve come to meet old friends. First the Morochos – twin brothers who are both poets and artists and authors and farmers and dancing devils, elders and like children also, deeply respected in the community and far beyond as well. They remind me to look in the eyes of children, and talk to me about rainbows and crickets and squirrels and music. They talk about Hopi prophecies and about sowing water, and they show me their latest book: Agua Viva.

Living water. It’s like a campesino Book of Kells. There’s only one copy. Every page is beautifully illustrated, with mixed media; paint or colored pencil or collage or ball point. With pages of different sizes, it’s held together with a bag and string. It includes rhyming poetry, oral histories, natural science, myths and magic, politics and prophecy. They hadn’t been able to attend the gathering in Yaracuy but  are obviously working with the same concepts, curricula and cosmovision:

Agua Viva is directed to the whole public, but especially to the lovers of nature, to the campesino and urban communities, to teachers and students, to peoples and farmers, to communards and children and adolescents, to researchers and guardians and sowers of water. Like a drop of water, Agua Viva was born from an essay by the Morochos Escalona about ‘the sowing of water’ in the campesino context, based on oral tradition and ancestral knowledge, and fulfilling the command of the First Ecosocialist International, which united in November 2017 in the the afro-descendant community of Veroes in the state of Yaracuy. It is a handmade and collective magazine, made with reused materials, with wit and work and hope. Before walking off and flying into the world, Agua Viva has had its pages turned and torn in the house and the street by dear children. Agua Viva has the enchantment of flowers just-born. Agua Viva is a discursive universe in which children create culture, philosophy and literature… Agua Viva is a magic rain of blue butterflies and the rainbow, profoundly spiritual, magic, and ecosocialist. Agua Viva is a curriculum of corn, of love and consciousness and awakened spirituality… Agua Viva is also a spiritual and loving award for everyone who struggles, believes and investigates.

The “real names” of the authors are Juan Ramon Escalona Betancourt and Juan Jose Escalona Betancourt, but in the community they go by el negro and el catire… the black one and the blonde one. They are authors of another book called Sanare Ecosocialista, which I scanned and uploaded online years ago.[4] I’ve been a long-distance friend and student of the Morochos for almost ten years. But they are off to dance the merry devil and I head up to the house of another old friend.

“There are paradigms that won’t survive this epoch,” Mario Dam explains, beloved artist and radio broadcaster, from his adobe homestead. “Chavez was the point of equilibrium between many tornadoes.” I am reminded of Bolivar, who described himself as a piece of straw in the storm. “Revolution is an element which can’t be managed, it’s less docile than the wind,” I read written in stone in the Plaza Bolivar of Chivacoa. Venezuelans have had every opportunity to reflect on the darker and lighter sides of an unmanageable revolutionary process. All night and into the next days our conversation is vast and intricate. Neighbors are constantly dropping by. There is more curiosity and intelligence and worldliness in this little farmhouse than in most Ivy League classrooms. It’s tough to explain how much these people have been through, how much has been asked of them, how much they still rise to the occasion. “The impossible is what we have to do,” Bolivar is quoted on another of his many monuments in Yaracuy: “everyone else is busy all day with the possible.”

The next morning we go to visit his brother-in-law David, who is a soil farmer, a real millionaire of worms, abundantly growing in stacked tractor tires. David has cowshit on his boots and the future in his hands. The work his father did to protect and reforest the little creek and valley on their land is their legacy for liberation. David keeps it simple: “We have to feed the land. People have to use organic fertilizer whether they want to or not.” The Laran sunset which unravels across the valley and over the distant mountains is Van Gogh every night.

4. Caracas Dreaming

And then it’s back to the capital for the penultimate chapter of this story; Caracas. I’m hosted by an old friend on the 23rd floor of an apartment building, downtown. It used to be coveted real estate, but with all the problems in recent years… I had never really thought about how much complex machinery and interrupted power supply it takes to keep a skyscraper running. Once I did think about it, I adjusted quickly to the reality of running water only for a few hours a day, and only three days a week – two hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and four hours on Saturdays, or something like that. Taking a bucket shower, I looked out the window at all the pavement and buildings, and there was no water in sight, and I remembered to be grateful for every drop of Agua Viva, purified and pumped up to the 23rd floor.

On Telesur we watch the Amazonian Summit – the speeches of the presidents of all the countries who share the Amazon, and interview with some of the Amazonian peoples who have gathered to demonstrate. It seems like a momentous occasion, and I wonder if it’s being broadcast anywhere else in the world; if anyone has even heard of it outside of South America… Like the mayors of those municipalities which share the Cerbatana watershed, at the Amazonian Summit the presidents attempt to deal with what are called “transborder resources.” It is so tempting to be hopeful that an alliance of Amazonian heads of state can be moved by their people like the watershed schools moved their four mayors, to do the right thing.

We discussed all this up there in the clouds over Caracas. If the microeconomics of ecosocialism is water sowing and trueke, then its macroeconomics must contend in the roughshod realm of geopolitics. The macroeconomy of ecosocialism in South America, we discuss over the next few days, is rooted in the relation of the Andes to the Amazon, and the conjunction of the three main aquifers of the continent; Amazonas, La Plata, and Orinoco.

Comrade and congressperson Carlos Tovar is more practical; in one version of this conversation as it traversed Caracas…“Water has many dimensions; geopolitical, spiritual, governmental, managerial and just basic survival… The struggle now isn’t even between capitalism and socialism, it’s between multipolarity and unipolarity. We are undoubtedly in a new epoch.”

Later I attend a concert, in what used to be a presidential palace, converted by Chavez into a museum and a cultural venue. Free entry. Hundreds have come to pay homage to Ivan Perez Rossi, lead singer and songwriter of Serenata Guayanesa, a beloved musician known for reviving folklore, remembered especially by his songs for children. It was his 80th birthday and many of the top performers of traditional music in Venezuela were there to honor him. And blue guacamayas flew between the palm trees and the mountain forest of Waraira Repano turned red-green in the sunset, and I saw tears in the eyes and smiles on the faces of the audience. And Cecilia Todd sang El Norte es una Quimera  and everyone sang along:

I went to New York
In search of a few cents…
The north is a chimera,
what an atrocity!
… Ah, New York
I don’t like your gold
I reject your dry law
I dislike and deplore it…
Everyone who goes to New York
becomes such a hustler…
I don’t want to speak English
I don’t want to ride in an elevator
The north is a chimera,
what an atrocity!

The song by Luis Fragachan, like the oil economy Venezuela, is a century old. But it has a new meaning as Venezuelan refugees make headlines in New York City. “The North has been a chimera for over a hundred years,” Cecilia laughs after finishing the song and the crowd laughs too in what feels like a great release. Here too I felt it – the popular power which has nothing to do with politics and yet is the most political thing of all. Suffering but steadfast, Venezuelans don’t want to live in New York.

They say oil and water don’t mix. But they are mixed – look around you – from plastic in the water to oil in the ocean. But there’s another side to it too: watershed schools in Venezuela Saudita. Chimbangleros at the Reventón. Bottom-up land reform on the old latifundio. A new world, infinite, led by women. Campesino high art. Sophisticated soil farmers. Artisans and musicians: custodians and mastercraftsmen of revolutionary spirit. The micro and macroeconomics of ecosocialism. The untelevised revolution; shaken, sanctioned, and maligned, but mixed, like oil and water with unity, self-reliance and love.

5. The Last Chapter?

This is the last chapter, maybe in more ways than one. I fly out of Caracas with my head and heart and notebook full of watershed schools and art and land reform and music. I land in the USA and in the security gauntlet of the airport I am taken aside, along with a few others. Will I be searched for evidence of revolutionary spirit, interrogated as to the purpose of my visit to this country that since Obama has been considered a threat to US national security? Three of us wait patiently as they search our carry-on bags, and it turns out we’ve all made the same mistake – we tried to carry water with us through the membrane of the nation-state. We are duly admonished. Either go back and drink it on the other side and then come through security all over again, or just throw the bottle of water in the trash. The garbage can is half full with half-empty water bottles. We’re holding up the line. One of the personnel reminds everyone, repeating like a refrain: “Make sure you don’t have any water!”


[1]    The Magical State: Nature, Money and Modernity in Venezuela, by Fernando Coronil, 1997, and The Magic of the State by Michael Taussig, 1997

[2]    He went on: “I say this as a fact, but a fact which also marks a line and a concept, which every day should be more of a reality, which should concretize itself in the model for the construction of socialism.”  For more on this subject, see: http://ecosocialisthorizons.com/2014/10/the-transition-to-ecosocialism/

[3]    “Memoria, Tercer Encuentro Nacional, Movimiento Escuelas de Cuencas que Siembran Agua en Trueke con Vision Bioregional desde la Kultura Ancestral Konuquera en Resistencia e Insurgencia. Homanaje a Livio Gocho Rangel, Coordinador Nacional. Comunidad de Palmarejo, Municipio Veroes, Estado Yaracuy, Republica Bolivariana de Venezuela. 23 al 20 de julio, 2023.”

[4]    http://ecosocialisthorizons.com/2014/10/sanare-ecosocialista/

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.

Source: Counterpunch