Militant Journalism

Planting alternatives: Venezuelans survive in face of economic warfare

Movimiento Conuco, inspired by the tradition of the Black Panthers

“Con la comida no se juega,” Carmen Melendez, Assemblymember and former Defense Minister to President Nicolas Maduro, told the agricultural block of the National Assembly earlier this year. The phrase—“you don’t play with food”—has become a popular refrain in Venezuela, denouncing the particular cruelty of the economic warfare assailing the country as the right wing and their allies abroad fight dirty to end the Bolivarian government and return Venezuela’s natural resources to private ownership.

The Venezuelan right wing and foreign media outlets try to blame the crisis on the Bolivarian government—or on socialism itself—as if this crisis represents an inevitable outcome of resisting capitalism or defying the United States. In reality, Venezuela is undergoing an act of sabotage, a “soft coup,” as theorized by Gene Sharp. In place of a violent government overthrow or a NATO invasion, the people of Venezuela face psychological terrorism, including these orchestrated food shortages spread across the country in an attempt to weaken public morale and support for Venezuela’s democratically elected government and to destroy the legacy of Hugo Chávez. Venezuelans elected Nicolas Maduro in April 2013, and, in December of that same year, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) won municipal elections in a landslide.

While the opposition won a majority in the December 2015 parliamentary elections—carried by a vow that the ballot box line would be “the last line” Venezuelans would have to stand in once the right gained control of the National Assembly—since taking office, they have failed to make any significant proposals, focusing their energy, instead, on trying to secure amnesty for Leopoldo Lopez and other rightwing figures responsible for the violent destabilization efforts of 2014 that resulted in 43 deaths and, more recently, on calling for a referendum to revoke Nicolas Maduro’s presidency. The referendum petition failed to come close to the required number of signatures, so the right wing has returned to illegal methods of destabilization, calling for a new round of protests for September 1, which could result in violence similar to 2014.

To deny that Venezuelans face hardships, in light of the widespread shortages, would be to misrepresent the daily realities Venezuelans face. But, inventive and resilient, Venezuelans are fighting to continue in the spirit of the revolution and are constantly building collective alternatives to the giant national and international private companies that are strangling Venezuela’s supply of food and other basic products.

In Venezuela and around the Caribbean, a “conuco” is a small land plot for subsistence farming. Winthrop R. Wright in his book “Café con Leche: Race, Class, and National Image in Venezuela” explains the role of conucos in 18th to 19th century Venezuela, “Since they met their basic needs on their conucos, the campesinos remained relatively independent of the hacendados and could determine their work patterns for themselves, for the most part. Though they remained poor, they enjoyed a degree of freedom from forced labor not found in most parts of the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the Western Hemisphere.” With the crisis, conucos—as a reality for individual families and communities creating small-plot subsistence farms and as a concept or point of inspiration for larger communal efforts—are making a big comeback.

At monthly “conuco fairs” in Caracas, people buy and sell homemade and small-plot-grown alternatives to basic products, including homemade soaps and detergents, reusable cloth sanitary pads, and arepas made from yucca or plantain flour. The fairs are billed by their collective organizers as, “an autonomous initiative to weave a people’s network for the reconstruction of relations of production, distribution, transformation, and food consumption” and “for the defense and consolidation of the conuquero model of ecosocialism.”

The Conuco Movement, based primarily in Falcón, is an organization of young people who are small-plot farming to feed their communities and to create food autonomy from the big private food companies, like Polar Industries, the largest food and beverage company in Venezuela, found reducing production and hoarding food to help induce widespread
scarcity. Harold Camacho, a member of the Conuco Movement, told Liberation News that the movement began as a cultural movement but has taken on a broader focus, “because of the processes of transformation—dialectical processes […] We’ve entered into a process of production, since we know that we’re living under the general crisis of capitalism, the global crisis of capitalism, that’s directly impacting Venezuela.” Camacho said that the Conuco Movement has been growing vegetables, milling corn for cornmeal, and raising rabbits to provide animal protein. Members of the Conuco Movement make bicycle rounds regularly to distribute bags of food to families in their community—inspired, in part, by the subsistence programs of the
Black Panther Party.

Other efforts to ensure adequate food distribution are taking place all around the country. In Caracas, the Historic Center Commune in the central neighborhood La Candelaria has been organizing food distribution at the large supermarket Unicasa, in order to ensure that families get the food they need and to prevent bachaqueo—speculatory food-buying to resell much-needed products at illegally inflated prices. Andrea Gomez, a member of the commune, spoke with Liberation News, explaining that she saw the effort as part of “advancing people’s power in order to overcome” the crisis.

Based in Barquisimeto (Lara state), the Alpargata Solidaria connects a cooperative of farmers directly with families around the country who buy food directly from the farmers who grow it. The program currently supplies 180 families with food grown by CECOSESOLA (Central Cooperatives of Social Services of Lara), a cooperative made up of agricultural cooperatives from around the state of Lara, with over forty years of experience as a cooperative. The Alpargata is just one of many similar efforts taking place around the country to supply families with food in the face of the crisis.

Oscar Coraspe, a member of Comando Creativo and a participant in the Alpargata, spoke to Liberation News, echoing a widespread sentiment when he explained that, in addition to meeting people’s basic food needs, “what the Alpargata really wants is to consider and to question the condition of the consumer who’s a victim without free will or agency,” and, in this moment, in light of the crisis, to “think about what would be a different relationship with consumption, different relationship with production … different from the system where food has become a commodity.”



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