Third of a series of articles contributed by Joe Montero about a recent visit to Venezuela
We left Caracas, Lucho, Helen and I, and headed south and a little to the east. Through Andes mountain country, down into the Savanna. They call it the Gran Sabana here. Where the two geographical zones meet, at the point where we passed, marks the place of the greatest battle for independence from Spanish colonial rule.
We went on down the highway, accompanied by our guide Cathy, and our driver. He will remain unnamed for very good reasons. Together, we traveled through Miranda and Aragua. Through Valencia, Cojedes, and Portuguesa to Barinas. This was a long journey, giving us a living view of country folk and local cultures.
We saw urban centres. Sometimes industrial, and at other times less so. Streets were full of people going about their normal business. Shops were open. We saw small settlements.
Contrary to the claims made by some, there was no evidence that food is in short supply and people are going hungery. Food was everywhere. We never found a problem getting something to eat and drink. whether it be in a shop, cafew or street stall.
We saw villages, agricultural regions and forest. The Savanna is a natural grassland. Consequently it has a cowboy history and an economy centred around beef. The local beef is mostly a local Brahman based breed.
The Andes region is different. Those who live there traditionally grow crops.
We often stopped at places where we met with local communities. We Wanted to see the people directly affected by the economic and political situation first hand. This is exactly what we got.
We wanted to learn about how they lived, felt and coped with the challenges, about their hopes for the future and how they are trying to get there.
Since we visited up to five locations in a single day, there is no way that an account of each and every one can be shown here. For this reason, an attempt to convey the big picture is made by using a couple of examples and drawing out the pattern of whatt we found in general.
The western big media narrative is that this is a country ruled by a brutal dictatorship terrorising, starving and marginalising the population. How did what we saw and heard match up with this? let the story speak for itself.
We did not see a dejected and miserable population. On the contrary. The place was alive with what seemed to us a happy people. Life is obviously tough in some ways.
Everywhere we went, people appeared happy. They welcomed us, eager to speak and show us how they worked and lived. They fed us till we had so much food and drink in us that we were bursting at the seams. This is a developing country after all. But they have the basics. They make do and get about their day to day lives, much like people do in Australia.
A big difference is a sense of optimism. This is rare in Australia. In Venezuela it permeates, and this includes the regions in which we were traveling.
Agricultural reform has meant that those who make their living off the land have access to it for the very first time. Communities have been able to organise themselves into communes, or using the Spanish term, they are comunas.
These communes can be big and may involve hundreds of individuals. Each commune works mostly independently. Each is also affiliated to larger local and regional bodies, where they work on matters of common interest.
Communes are also linked to various social movements, like those involving women, indigenous peoples, the movement for production and much more. They are also linked to the local militia.
This is a voluntary civilian force trained to defend the community. Physical threat is real. Besides the threat of invasion by the United States, sabotage occurs. Peasants who who are now occupying land that was in the hands of the big landowners face hit squads, aiming to take out leaders.
True. not everyone is on board. It is a matter of choice. Some don’t want to participate. A smaller number are opposed. Even with this, the communes are a formidable and decisive movement in the countryside. It sets the ground for public opinion and its champions are routinely elected into public office.
Who makes the decisions. The communes are organised through elected committees at every level. Decisions are made at open meetings. What do they decide about? About what to produce and how: The best means to meet the welfare and other needs of their people, how to contribute to the building of their nation. They make decisions over how to educate themselves and their children and provide a range of services.
Commune members decide together on how to participate in the political life of the nation, and they tell us, they are building a collective socialist society from below. When there you see and feel it everywhere. This is a nation willingly undergoing a transformation.
Critics will say that we haven’t spoken to everybody – only Chavistas. That is mostly true. Most are Chavistas and those standing against Chavismo are extremely hard to find.
This does not meant there is no criticism. People are open about the negatives. There is discussion about the of corruption certain officials. There are complaints about the problems caused by red tape and inefficiency. Others complain about the profiteering and other bad practices of certain big companies. They want more done to control this.
Overriding this, is an unmistakable pride in what they are achieving.
We were in a stronghold, not only of Chavismo, but of its left variant known as the Corriente Revolucinario Bolivar y Zamora (CRBZ). The Corriente is part of the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV), which is the party of Chavez and Maduro.
The PSUV is really something of a multiparty alliance, now having more than 6.5 million members out of a national population of 32 million. No other political party comes anywhere near it.
After a ride on motorcycles along a bumpy dirt road, we came upon a commune that is largely self-sufficient. We were some way out of Santa Barbara, which is the regional capital of Barinas.
Back to the commune. It has a big tract of land, on which a range of vegetables, grains, roots and fruits are produced. They also breed livestock. A big part of the output is used to provide for the families in the commune. A portion is used to barter which neighbouring communes. What is left, is sold for the urban market and provides some cash for other needs.
We met with a substantial group of the commune members and had an open and frank discussion. after this, we were then taken into shed, for a manual sugar cane crushing demonstration. It’s heavy work. We given mugs of the juice to drink.
A second serve was fixed with a good dose of anise. Then it was was a shot of a distilled cane spirit, which is almost pure alcohol. Clealry, they want to show off this special brew. Talk about firewater.
Next was visit to their bakery. It produces a local type of bread role for local distribution. We got a demonstration on how it is made, and put into their big clay oven for baking. When the baking was done, we got to eat them. They’re delicious.
Theis commune even a special garden, where they are experimenting with the production of medicinal herbs. They organise social and sporting activities, provide schooling for their young children, teach adults new technigues in sustainable agriculture, and provide some medical services, and are re-foresting a part of the land.
The insist that sustainable agriculture that meets the needs of the community is only possible through the conscious encouragement of an ethical view of society, based on the notion that every person has rights, and at the same time, an obligation to contribute to the wellbeing of all.
At the end , we took part in a communal lunch. It was steak with rice and beans. Not bad for a country that is not supposed to have food.
Do they have any problems? They do. The main one is that funds to increase the output are scarce. Everything they have to buy from outside their community is expensive.
Then there is the problem that past farming practices put a lot of chemicals in the soil, and this resulted in a decline of the yield. Damage to the soil is being countered by using natural means.
Another challenge that for Savanna people, is change in the context of the cowboy and cattle tradition, and turning towards a new type of farming. It takes some time to get used to.
An immediate problem is a lack of machinery. This means that work is physically demanding and output per person is limited. The future depends on finding ways to overcome this.
A great deal of attention is being paid to overcoming the machismo culture. Major advances have been made on this front, and to the extent that the majority of those in leadership roles are now women. The men are supportive. But there is still the challenge of machismo in the home. The battle is not over yet.
Access to water is difficult. water pumps are scarce. Having enough non chemical fertiliser is a challenge, when it is in short supply and expensive.
All the rural communes we visited are making similar advances and face the same sort of problems. All are putting measure’s in place, to build on their strengths and overcome the difficulties.
Another commune, which was even more remote and the poorest we saw, really put out the welcome mat. A stack of people had come to see us. There were even a few from neigbouring communes. The kids came too. Few visitors come to this place, and when they do, it is a special occasion.
Housing is rudimentary. Palm thatched one room dwellings, with palm thatch walls, bits of wood and and other pieces of scrap material to patch up the gaps.
They are just as proud of their achievements, and are working hard to improve their lot. Electric power has recently been connected for the first time. This is a big deal, which opens up the possibilities for the future.
Time after time, commune after commune, we were told that the main cause of the problems is the trade embargo and currency war imposed on Venezuela, creating shortages and raising prices.
The objectives of these attacks, we are told, are to hurt the ordinary people and turn them against the government, and to prevent the nation from making economic progress, by compromising its productive capacity. There are other types of economic sabotage being carried out, they add. Like physical attacks on installations. There is the use of violence and assassinations.
Their battle to increase production is seen as resistance and the carrying out of a revolution. Resistance and revolution are the unifying factors, bringing people together, to cooperate in the conscious building a new future for all.
Like the two communes mentioned, all communes devote themselves to producing a wide range of food. It should be mentioned that another part of this are dairy products. They are important for nutrition. And the local cheese is unique. A little salty. But tastes great and is up there with the best.
It would be remiss not to mention yuka. Partly because it is novel for anyone coming from Australia. But also because this easily cultivated tuber is a great substitute for potato. In can be cooked in the same variety of ways, and it tastes just as good.
We came across some private farmers who have willingly turned their business over to serve the communes and the wider community and join in the collective productive efforts. One farmer we visited, took a special interest in a worm farm and of harvesting the waste as a natural fertiliser.
He told us that this is not about making money. ” I support the revolution and make my contribution to it,” he said.
We visited a cheese factory, the owner of which, turned his business to making cheese out of the milk from the communes. He is also making his contribution.
We three shall never forget the warmth and generosity given to us by so many people.
In the next of this series of articles, I shall talk about our urban experiences, concentrating our visits to schools, a hospital and more. This includes our visit to the state of Apure, which has a long frontier with Colombia.