Tuesday, October 30, 2007

La Dia de la Semilla Campesina

Campesinos from all over the area set up tables displaying their seeds. So did these girls from the school in Monte Carmelo.

The third annual “Dia de la Semilla Campesina” was celebrated on October 29th in Monte Carmelo. The whole town was involved in preparing for the hundreds of visitors, some of them coming from as far away as Maracay, Trujillo, and Caracas.

Our neighbor, Cesar Garcia, has an extensive collection of local seeds. Many people trade seeds with each other.

Events began at 9 a.m. with a mass celebrated by Father Mario, one of the members of La Alianza Cooperative. He praised the earth and the seeds and emphasized the need for harmonious relationships among humankind, plants, animals, and God. At this particular moment, Mario said, the primary enemy of these relationships is money and global capitalism, especially never-ending drive to accumulate capital by multinational corporations that are attacking the integrity of seeds and campesino life with their reckless production and dissemination of newly invented, transgenetic seeds. Children from the local schools offered prayers they had composed, some asking God to forgive us for the damage we had done to the Earth.

Father Mario, who is usually seen working in the fields above the village, has an easy-going style on the occasional Sundays or holidays when he appears in church. He asks questions of the audience and they feel free to stand and offer social commentary, scientific speculation, and general opinions and anecdotes.

Declaration of the Campesina Seed

We, the campesino seeds, gathered in assembly with
the campesinos and campesinas of Monte Carmelo, declare:
That we are the nutritious hope of our people.
That for centuries we have filled stomachs,
pockets, marusas, bags, and granaries.
That we are part of the Venezuelan people,
because we are all togetherat breakfast, lunch, merienda and dinner.
That, besides being nourishment, we are also medicine
and happiness forthe campesinos and campesinas.
That we create and give life when our love merges
with the love of the humble and unassuming people of the fields;
and that we love being grownas we were grown in the past,
without being mistreated.
That, despite the persecution and mistreatment we have received
from other seeds that are more powerful than us,
we are still curled up safely in Monte Carmelo.
That, with courage and bravery we have resisted the harshness
of herbicides and insecticides that have been spread over us.
That we are born from the womb of Mother Earth
and we cry with her because she’s damaged and unloved.
That we love being caressed by fresh water once we are sowed.
That we are friends of the insects, birds and microorganisms that
sing us songs of love and fertility
in the voice of patriotism and national identity.
For these reasons and many more we proclaim to the world:
That we need to unite with all the seeds in the world,
especially those in Latin-America and the Caribbean.
That all of us seeds should organize ourselves in cooperatives
in order to defend our existence.
That those who aren’t familiar with us should get to know us,
so that they can help us reproduce andsupport us in our struggles for justice.
That the creation of indigenous Seed Banks
should be promoted in every Venezuelan village.
That love for us should be promoted in schools, high-schools, universities
and all other centers of education.
That girls and boys should play with us when they are washing us for dinner.
That, as nourishment, we should never be missing
at the tables of any Venezuelans.
That the campesino seeds should be able to enjoy life
with men, women, boys, girls, and young people
in an environment free of contamination
by toxic agricultural substances and industrial waste;
and to avoid, by any means necessary, being displaced
by imported and transgenetic seeds;
and to be ourselves, with our own flavor, color and aroma.
The seeds of Monte Carmelo, together with their hardworking friends,
the faithful inhabitants of this village;
declare that this day, October 29th,
is the Day of the Campesino Seed
so that it will be celebrated
every year on this date in all of Venezuela,
with the respect and appropriate honors that signify
that this is a memorable a day for the Venezuelan people.

Finally, the seeds present in this assembly
agree by consensus and unanimously
to spread copies of this declaration throughout the whole world.

Signed, sealed, and delivered in Monte Carmelo,
on the 29th day of the month of October, 2005.
On behalf of the seeds named above,

The Paspasa Seed (Gaudy Maria Garcia, 2005)

Friday, October 19, 2007

Friday note: corrections and question

A nice feature of a blog is that you can easily change, correct, and add to previous posts. On a previous entry on RCTV and freedom of the press, I made some mistakes describing the course of events at the National Assembly when pro-RCTV students walked out on their chance to take part in a nationally televized debate with the pro-government students. After re-reading an excellent article by George Ciccariello-Maher, a doctoral student from Berkeley who lives in Caracas and was at the scene, I´ve corrected the inaccuracies.

This entry is worth re-reading because the opposition is now calling for help from the U.S. State Department. Manuel Rosales, the governor of the State of Zulia who lost overwhelmingly to Chavez in the presidential election last December, just met with Undersecretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Thomas Shannon in Washington and asked directly for help in putting ¨international pressure¨on Venezuela (we can assume he will also get help from the CIA and other experienced ¨helpers¨) in order to derail and/or de-legitimize the constitutional reform process and vote that will take place in December. Rosales makes the strange claim that a vote to reform the constitution is in fact a ¨constitutional coup d etat.¨ (In 2002, Rosales showed up at the presidential palace in Caracas to shake hands with those who carried out a real coup against Chavez)

Also, the other day at the National Theater in Caracas, opposition supporters and reporters acted very aggressively as they tried to interrupt and provoke a confrontation with pro-reform students who were trying to speak. This may be sign that more attempts to provoke violence
or frighten the populace before the vote.

A reader has written to ask what´s happening locally in response to the proposed reforms and I just answered the following (I´ll follow up with a longer article in the future):

The constitutional reforms are being talked about all the time. There are fairly large public meetings, discussions at comunity councils, and also smaller neighborhood meetings. I´ve actually bumped into some of these in Sanare by accident, because neighbors have pulled 15 or 20 chairs out of their houses and set up a meeting on the sidewalk -- people have copies of the reforms in front of them and pick out the ones they want to know more about. Sentiment around here is very much pro-reform, although a couple of small business owners have told me they think Chavez is crazy and they think all private property will be abolished someday, including theirs.

Television talk shows are doing a good job of explaining each provision in detail, the possible ramifications, and changes that are being proposed before the vote in December. I´ve had good discussions with campesino neighbors in front of their TVs -- they have a much better grasp of each provision than the small businessmen above. Last night at one house we talked about the land reform law that would affect latifundios (this is probably a reform that is scaring the small business types),which will no longer be able to larger than 5,000 hectares (still really big, more than 10,000 acres). This seemed pretty huge to me since there are no farms close to that size around here, but my neighbors said the reform was crucial to getting people resettled and working in agriculture. They pointed out that there are many latifundia many times larger than 5,000 hectares in los llanos and the southern and eastern states of Venezuela.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Agro-ecology Activism

(Our little hamlet is becoming a hot-bed of socialist, environmentalist activity. Gaudy Garcia, author of ¨Declaracion de la Semilla Campesina,¨ is seated on the right, with our friend Gaby from Argentina)

The 2nd Reunion of the Agro-ecologists of Monte Carmelo was held last weekend on Saturday, October 6. About fifty people attended, about one third of them from Monte Carmelo and Sanare, and the rest from the States of Lara, Portuguesa, Yaracuy, and Aragua as well as from the big cities of Maracaibo, Maracay, and Caracas. There were eight hours of spirited presentations and discussion sponsored by William Izarra and El Centro de Formación Ideológica (Center for Ideological Formation.)

Izarra, a retired Air Force commander, is dedicating himself to intellectual projects which will advance socialist thought and practice in the nation. Before Chavez came along, there was already a movement of intellectually engaged, revolutionary-minded officers in the military. Izarra, who as a young officer had studied at Harvard, tried to form a military-civilian coalition for radical change in the 1980s.

The meeting focused on the need to keep pressing forward with models of socialist agriculture based on sustainable development, while discouraging and successfully opposing models of agriculture that are allied with the methods and purposes of the transnational corporations.

Local activists and resource people, such as Omar and Gaudy Garcia and the Morochos, were pleasantly surprised that four of the visitors were Air Force officers from the country’s central air base in Maracay. This was the first time that they can remember that environmental activists from within the military have attended an agro-ecology event.

One officer named Mota said that sustainable development had become a primary concern of their socialist study group at the air base, and they were ready to lend their support to any groups that needed help. Shortly thereafter, a young man from Tamborla, a very isolated mountain area at least 3 hours by jeep roads from Sanare, described the rapidly growing cooperative in his area, comprised of more than 1200 members from 24 scattered hamlets. When he mentioned that it was difficult to get attention from the government, the military men sat down with him and made a firm date for meeting with the cooperative and learning about their environmental initiatives.

Near the end of the eight-hour meeting, Mota relays a greeting and a message of commitment from Air Force officers at the main base in Maracay.

His colleague, a burly fellow named Wilfredo, was taking notes in a planner/notebook adorned with photos and quotations of the Zapatistas, the revolutionary indigenous group that is controlling a good part of the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico. When I complimented him on his notebook, Wilfredo said, “We admire the Zapatistas a lot, not just for their unconventional tactics of resistance, but because they have a real dedication to egalitarian ethics and a respect for biodiversity. Some in our group have traveled to Mexico to meet with them.”

(Clearly this is a different kind of military. One of the Monte Carmelo residents said afterwards, “They’re using their brains for themselves now, not just waiting for orders from the top.”)

Issues and Activists

Izarra and the officers didn’t hog the stage. In fact, they were content to listen and learn from those who have been environmental activists, educators, and organic farmers for many years. El Negro Morocho, Juan Jose Escalona, otherwise known as “the anthropologist,” spoke about the harmonious relationship that humans once had in “Dintas,” the ancient Indian name for the Sanare area. “There was a magic relationship between the Indians, the land, the animals, and the air,” he said. “The first socialists and the first cooperative members were the Indians who lived in this area. In most parts of the municipality, the production system of ‘la mano vuelta’ (families working cooperatively in planting and harvesting) still existed thirty years ago.”
Walterio Lanz, a veteran ecologist and educator from the state of Aragua, gave a comprehensive presentation he entitled “Fraude,” that is, the fraud perpetrated by the so-called “revolución verde” (Green Revolution) in agriculture. The new agricultural processes that were introduced after World War II, according to Lanz, constituted “a state of warfare” which depopulated the countryside and made campesinos flee to the city. But this time, the war against the campesinos was not really about transferring power to elites in the cities (as had happened in the past all over Latin America), for the level of control was shifted not to the transnational level where giant corporations reigned supreme.

Transnational corporations produce and control the five vital elements of modern agriculture that are destroying the countryside: 1) tractors and other mechanized equipment, 2) chemical herbicides, 3) poisonous insectides, 4) synthetic fertilizers, 5) adulterated seeds. Mechanized agriculture, especially in tropical zones, said Lanz, is in the process of annihilating the soil. The adulteration of seeds and the patents on the genetic structure of plants are forces that are wiping out the accumulated work (an enormous, incalculable amount of agricultural “capital”) produced by 3,,500 years of effort on the part of the peoples of the Americas. “What do people and the land have left to show for their collective efforts?” asked Lanz, “when they were the ones who improved the soils, and created and developed thousands of varieties of seeds.”

Local activist and co-op farmer, Omar Garcia, explained the virtues of horse-power as opposed to tractor power.

Local co-op farmer and activist, Omar Garcia, spoke about the virtues of horse-drawn plows that are very practical on many of steep mountainsides in the vicinity of Monte Carmelo and Sanare. “Not only can the horse negotiate terrain that the tractor cannot handle, but he fertilizes the soil at the same time.” Local farmers figure that a horse can plow a hectare of land (more than two acres) in eight hours. Since plots of land are small, there is no reason to have a tractor that can plow twenty hectares in a day. After performing a few days work, limited to the more level pieces of land, the tractor has to sit idle for the rest of the year. Omar and others cited studies that demonstrate that tractor wheels do severe damage as they compact the earth in tropical areas; apparently this is happening in the hot lowlands of Venezuela, where the soils are particularly fragile.

At the end of the meeting, there were resolutions to keep focusing the organizational energy of agro-ecological activists on the state and national governments and pushing them toward models of sustainable development. There were also disagreements based, in part, on the different backgrounds of participants.

Alfredo Mendoza, from the State of Portuguesa, retired after 18 years of working for AT&T so that he could devote his energies to cultivating coffee on his small farm. He believes that small coffee farmers and their families around the world can be turned into 25 million forestry experts, growing and maintaining shade-grown, high-quality coffee plants in ways that preserve the soil and the environment. If they are connected directly through cooperatives to those organizations in the North who sell “comercio justo” (fair trade) coffee, then they can be guaranteed prices that will lift even the smallest producers out of poverty.

Venezuela, he pointed out, is in a better position to do this than other countries, since its 19th century coffee industry was the most highly developed in the world, but was nearly abandoned after the 20th century oil boom discouraged all kinds of agricultural activity in the country. Most Venezuelan coffee plants belong to two of the most desirable varieties for premium coffee, “tipica” and “borbon,” and they are usually grown in the traditional “criollo” method, under high shade trees on small plots of land (the size of the average coffee farm is 6.5 acres.) Thus, most Venezuelan coffee growers could convert to premium, fair trade production almost at once, especially since the government is offering various kinds of support byencouraging cooperative enterprises, alleviating poverty in the rural areas through the “Campo Adentro” program, and offering loans and grants to small producers.

While this kind of agricultural development sounded like an improvement to many participants, Leobardo Acurero, of the Center of Ecological Investigation and Information (CINECO), took issue with all kinds of farming that are primarily for export. He said that producing primary raw materials, including foodstuffs, for the capitalist North has been the downfall of economic and social development for Venezuela and other nations of the South for centuries.

Leobardo felt that coffee production, if anything, should be curtailed rather than encouraged, so that the rich mountain soils can be returned to their most valuable use -- growing healthy, organic food to sustain the farm families and the rest of the nation.
He isn’t just spouting environmental dreams, since for several years he and others have operated a cooperatively-owned, organic farming community, Buenos Aires, that lies high in the mountains on the other side of the nearby city of Tocuyo.

I’m not sure he would approve of my compromise position: encouraging cash-crop production of coffee using organic techniques while also urging each family and cooperative community to expand organic food production in their “conucos,” the large gardens that are traditionally dedicated to growing food for household consumption.

El Dia de la Semilla, October 29th

Some of you may know that October 12th was “El Dia de la Resistencia Indígena,” and maybe you went out into your local community and pulled down a statue of Christopher Columbus to protest the Conquest, which some protesters did in Caracas a few years ago when the first “Day of Indigenous Resistance” was celebrated. (President Chavez criticized the vandals and had the statues restored.)

But you probably didn’t know that October 29th is La Dia de la Semilla, “the day of the seed,” since it was inaugurated right here in Monte Carmelo by Gaudy Garcia and a few other local women two years ago. This year the agro-ecologists who visited on October 6th are returning to join in the celebration. They are hoping it will eventually become a national holiday.

Gaudy and other local activists like the Morochos have also been campaigning for a “banco de semillas,” a seed bank for storing and circulating the thousands of varieties of seeds that are native to this region. If they can find financing for the project, the Seed Bank may be established here in Monte Carmelo.

The seeds speak for themselves in “The Declaration of the Seed” of October 29, 2005.
Here are some excerpts:

“We, the campesino seeds, gathered in assembly with the men and women farmers of Monte Carmelo, declare: that we are our people’s hope for good nutrition.

“…. that we should form cooperatives of seeds to protect our existence

“…. that the campesino seeds should be able to live and enjoy themselves in the company of men, women, and children in an environment without agro-toxins and industrial wastes, and to avoid elimination (‘a capa y espalda’) and displacement by transgenetic and imported seeds.”
(by Gaudy Maria Garcia)

Thursday, October 11, 2007

El Dia de la Resistencia Indigena

When I painted the illustration for the cover of my book (Big Picture Books, 1992), I dreamed of a day when we would be celebrating resistance and liberation instead of capitalist conquest on the 12th of October. Well, dreams do come true. Tomorrow in Venezuela will be the Day of Indigenous Resistance. I´m hoping that Evo Morales will also be celebrating in Bolivia.
The figures depicted above were being herded into the silver mines in Potosi, Peru (now part of Bolivia) in the 16th century. The third chapter of Conquest and Capitalism begins with a pen and ink version of this picture and reads:
1573 - Potosi, sitting at about 14,000 feet altitude in the Andes, had become a city of 120,000 people. It was probably the most expensive city on earth, and certainly the cruelest:
On Sunday morning the Indians emerged from the mines, they drank, they danced, and then they collapsed on the ground.
On Monday morning they were beaten with iron bars and herded into the mountain where they crept many miles, deeper and deeper into the darkness.
For six days bent over in the dust and the smoke, they mined for silver with their picks and shovels.
On Saturday night they started walking, retracing their steps through the seemingly endless tunnels, so that they might emerge again on Sunday morning.
1600 - a priest who was new in Potosi exclaimed: I don´t want to see this portrait of hell!
So close your eyes! said another Spaniard.
I can´t, with my eyes shut I see even more.

The campesinos are the professors: cooperatives and Bolivarian education

Las Lajitas and La Alianza have become an integral link in local and national experiments in Bolivarian education. The cooperative farm (see an earlier article about La Alianza and Polilla) has become a teaching resource, and during the last three weeks of September they hosted three different five-day workshops. (For clarification: La Alianza is the farming cooperative that owns three different parcels of land; Las Lajitas is one of those parcels, and it produces 100% organically grown vegetables, makes yogurt, and has the facilities in its “casa campesina” - a large, extended farmhouse - for hosting seminars of 25 or 30 people for a week or more. )

First, they welcomed a group from the traditionally Afro-Venezuelan area of Barlovento, the coastal cacao-growing region just east of Caracas; these people are currently trying to organize a farming cooperative to produce their own food. Next, they hosted some government workers, mostly from Caracas, who labor in the Ministries of Agriculture and Environment -- some of these people had never been on a farm before.

After one of Polilla’s classes on vermiculture and improving soils, one student from the Agricultural Ministry, who had never met a cow, decided she wanted to pet one. When Polilla helped her get closer, she wasn’t sure she needed to touch it after all.

Finally, last week an entirely different group came from Caracas, students and professors from the brand-new UBV, Universidad Bolivariana Venezolana (Venezuelan Bolivarian University), who are in their third year of studying a new academic discipline, “Agroecologia,” or agricultural ecology. The UBV was founded a few years ago in many locations throughout the country as a new kind of university that serves those who were previously excluded from higher education. Most of the students are from the poor barrios of Caracas, and they stand little chance of gaining admission to the elite universities.

I spoke to members of each group and attended some classes with them, and they all found the experience exciting, intellectually challenging, and physically bracing -- not because of the field work, but on account of the cool nights. “It’s frigid up here,” said one guy who is accustomed to the lower altitudes near the coast, “especially after a nice cold shower.”

One of the professors who accompanied the students from Caracas, Isabel Ramon y Rivera, said that the intellectual challenge of Agro-ecology was just as great for teachers as for students. “After all, my university training was in chemistry, so I have to work hard to the develop a curriculum for my students since we’re in the process of inventing a new discipline.”

There was one evening class for the students from UBV that was conducted by someone who is not a member of La Alianza Cooperative, Honorio Dam, the director of rural education for the municipality. Honorio is not really an outsider, however, since he and five other Sanare residents -- including Los Morochos and Renato Agagliato, a linguist and director of the Sanare library -- have been working with the co-op for years as an educational resource team.

Honorio presented a highly concentrated dose of “Venezuelan Agricultural History” that was designed to spur the curiosity and imaginations of the Agro-ecology students. He pointed out that settled populations have been living in villages and cities in Venezuela for more than three millennia. During almost all of this period, he said, more than 29 centuries, society was based on agriculture. What a contrast with the recent social development of Venezuela, based on petroleum production, that has only existed for eighty years.

Honorio pointed out that the agriculture of Venezuela was also the agriculture of all America. The farmers in this hemisphere developed a tremendous variety of nourishing vegetables, foods like potatoes and corn that sustained the great early American civilizations and now nourish a large part of the world. Over thousands of years these foods arrived in Venezuela – corn from North America (Mexico), potatoes from the Southwest (Peru), and yucca from the South (Brazil.) Combined with alimentation of local origin, such as caraota (beans) and cacao, these foods provided a sound basis for sustaining settled communities in an ecologically sound manner over the centuries.

Honorio stretched out a green string that was over thirty feet long and said it was time line going back thousands of years. Along the string he placed archeological objects and different packs of seeds to illustrate when new technologies, such as smoothly crafted stone axes, and new foods were introduced. I was surprised to find out that maiz (corn) from Mexico and Central America arrived in Venezuela a little sooner than potatoes from the western Andes.

Rebuilding a more balanced society

One of the tragic effects of recent economic development, caused by the 20th century petroleum boom, was the drastic shift of the Venezuelan population from rural to urban areas in the past fifty years. Now at least 80% of the people live in and around cities, a great many of them in the barrios where poverty is endemic and opportunities for work and education have been limited. Another effect of this negative economic and social development was the vast accumulation of petroleum dollars in the hands of a well-to-do minority, and this made it possible for the nation to import most of its food, as much as 78% by some calculations. Thus a vast amount of rich and arable land lies idle.

Rebuilding Venezuela as a strong agricultural country with its own means of “endogenous desarrollo” (development from within) will not be easy or quick. This is one reason that the academic discipline of “Agro-ecologia” has been created, so that teachers, consultants, and fellow workers will be available to guide other citizens toward ecologically sustainable methods of farming and living in rural areas. One key to developing long-term local agriculture is the necessity of protecting the species and seeds of plants that have belonged to the people and the geographic area for thousands of years.

This has important political consequences. There is concern here, and in many other developing countries, about the power of multinational chemical corporations, such as Monsanto, Dow, DuPont, and Cargill. Many scientists and grass-roots activists feel that the giant companies threaten (and will ultimately damage) the world’s agricultural heritage as they seek to acquire and change the genetic structure of plants. They are already doing on a vast scale with important foods like corn and tomatoes in the United States, with ill effects for small farmers within the U.S. and neighboring countries like Mexico.

La Ley de la Tierra and national sovereignty over agriculture

I heard about “La Ley de la Tierra,” the Law of Land, when it was enacted in 2001. It was one of the major reasons that the political opposition tried to topple the Chavez government with a military/big business coup in 2002. One part of the law that really frightened wealthy Venezuelans was a provision that allowed the government to confiscate idle land (but only after paying for it at market prices) and redistribute it to landless campesinos.

The opposition still talks about an imminent attack on all private property owners, even though the Chavez government has only used the law very selectively to pressure a few giant landowners. For instance, Lord Vecsey, who resides in England and operates a multinational beef-ranching business with branches all over the world, was required to sell some of his thousands of acres that were either unused or had been purchased with false titles.

But there is another provision of La Ley de La Tierra that was unknown to me until recently, but was mentioned by one of the professors at the seminar at Las Lajitas. Article 19 states that the government must guard the integrity and heritage of the land, and in particular its duty to protect “el germoplasmo de las semillas” – that is to protect the genetic integrity of seeds and cast a wary eye on those who traffic in new genetic substances.

This is one of many developments in Venezuela that legitimize this new field of Agro-ecology, and it sheds light on the importance of creating committed specialists. These students, when they graduate, will be in the front lines of those resisting transnational corporate initiatives that market transgenetic species. They also, in their role of trying to reduce the use of environmentally harmful fertilizers and pesticides, will be trying to counteract the immense power of the chemistry industry and all its associated helpers, many of whom still reside within the old government and educational bureaucracies.

Professor Isabel, right edge of picture, and her students watch Honorio place pottery fragments on the time line of Venezuelan agriculture.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Los Morochos, education, and culture

They are called Los Morochos – “the twins.” Juan José Escalona and Juan Ramón Escalona are identical, immediately recognizable with their shaggy hair and beards, and known by just about everybody in the Sanare area. And they, in turn, know just about everything that is to be known about Sanare and Monte Carmelo, from the days of prehistory to the present day.

El Negro Morocho (“the black twin”), on the left above, is also known as “the anthropologist” because he has been studying the local population, its origins and its habits, all his life. He never had the opportunity to attend a university as a youth, but he has written ethnographic studies and books on the history and oral traditions of the area. Scholars from other parts of Venezuela visit Sanare to consult with him. Currently he is also employed in the restoration of ancient relics, particularly pottery, at the nearby archeological museum in Quibor.

Then there’s El Catire Morocho (“the light-colored twin” who really isn’t any whiter than his brother – Venezuelans simply like to give each other goofy nicknames like that.) He likes to draw, paint, and write long, narrative poems about political and social events of local and national interest. He is currently employed by the local school district to as a social worker/protector of abused and neglected children. He also encourages neighborhood kids to paint and draw, which means his house is piled high with local art, plus almost any other collectible artifact you can imagine. For instance, “los palos,” or sticks – there’s a big basket full of these next to their couch.

These “palos” aren’t just any sticks, but the traditional walking and fighting sticks once carried by the indigenous people in the surrounding countryside. They aren’t big, a little less than three feet long and about an inch in diameter, but sturdy enough to support one’s weight on the steep mountainsides or to dispatch a sharp blow to a wild pig or dog, a snake in the path, or a disagreeable human intruder. Some are completely plain and stripped of their bark, others are carved and decorated with feathers or paint and serve a variety of ceremonial purposes, especially in the dances that are native to the area.

The view of Monte Carmelo from the Morochos´ farmhouse

The Morochos share some local history

On Sunday, I climbed up the steep and rutted road that twists up the mountainside and leads to the family farm of the Morochos. The Escalona family, which includes their five brothers and sisters (two others have passed away), uses the house on weekends and lends it out for free to various groups and individuals who need to retreat or meet in a tranquil spot. They also let their neighbors graze their cows and pick berries on their ten acres of land.

Both Morochos were relaxing after taking a leading role in a nine-hour meeting on Sustainable Argiculture and the Revolution that took place in Monte Carmelo the day before. But, as always, they were happy to spend a few hours talking, so they filled me in on some personal and local history.

The Morochos now reside in a house in Sanare with their sister and her kids, but the farmhouse was their home as children. After they completed elementary school (the only school in Monte Carmelo in those days), the boys began a rigorous routine: they milked the cows and did other farm chores in the morning, then walked an hour and a half to Sanare to attend the liceo (which is equivalent to middle school and high school combined.) It was a four-mile hike on the winding road that descends a thousand feet to the valley below, then climbs back up about four hundred feet to Sanare. When they made the arduous climb back home, it was dark.

They didn’t mind the trip because life became exciting in the mid-1970s for fourteen and fifteen year-olds. The mountainous regions of Lara and other neighboring states were home to clandestine groups of armed revolutionaries in those days. These rebels were fairly inactive as far as fighting was concerned (the government had already crushed more serious guerrilla rebellions in the 1960s), but they were helping to stir up local protests on behalf of the campesinos who helped shelter them, and were working with other political activists who were not so interested in armed rebellion.

This latter group included the Morochos and other politically active high school students who developed contacts with the different clandestine groups: one group was loyal to a revolutionary named Douglas Bravo, another was associated with the Socialist League, and a third was called El Comite Lucha Popular (the Committee for the Battle of the People). The youths distributed newspapers printed by all three revolutionary factions and their followers, and they joined popular protests over the conditions that local campesinos had to endure: deteriorating schools, lack of health care, and poor quality drinking water.

Within a short time, the Morochos and their fellow students formed their own group, “2 Febrero” (named after the date of a student uprising during Bolivar’s War of Independence), that met regularly to study local problems and work on solutions. Their biggest contribution was their own political magazine, called “Tizon,” which they published regularly for five years.

At the same time that high school kids were learning how to take part in effective protests in Sanare, a few of them were also influenced by a new development in Monte Carmelo.
Three priests, two of them Italians, had come to Venezuela in 1975-76 after being driven out of Argentina by the wave of government terror and repression that swept through the countries of the Southern Cone in those years. They were members of the religious congregation called the Little Brothers of Jesus (a French order of worker/priests committed to living among the poor), and they settled in the hamlets of Monte Carmelo and nearby Bojo.

One of these priests, Arturo Paoli, was an influential thinker and writer in the ranks of those who created a “theology of liberation” in Latin America. Some of his books, such as “El rostro de tu hermano,” were written during his years in Monte Carmelo. As in thousands of other places throughout the Americas, Catholics were forming “base communities” that were determined to change the Church – they wanted to take a hierarchical institution with centuries-old loyalty to the elite, and re-form it into a “people’s church” that would meet the spiritual and material needs of the common people and the poor.

Various people gathered around Arturo Paoli in Monte Carmelo, including campesinos from the fields and students like the Morochos, and they discussed all kinds of things that could effect their lives: an understanding of the Bible and Jesus’ message to the poor, the history of Latin America and Europe, the social inequalities that affected land ownership and food production, and the usefulness of Marxist ideas about the political economy.

Out of this fertile mix of politics and religion new kinds of local institutions emerged. For instance, there was a highly popular theatre group that wrote and performed plays that outlined the history of rebellions and protests in the area. There were also two initiatives that survive to this day: the creation of farming communities that produce high quality, mostly organic food, and the idea of a “campesino university” that would serve rural people who never had the opportunity to attend high school or college. Both of these ideas are embodied today in the activities of La Cooperativa Mixta La Alianza, which is currently teaching other cooperatives in Venezuela how to organize and how to farm.


Over the years, the Morochos have found time to keep writing about local history and legends. One outstanding work that they produced jointly is called Dintas, the ancient Indian name for the Sanare area (the Andres Eloy Blanco municipality); it was published as a complementary school text with the approval of the Education Ministry of the State of Lara in 1997. This illustrated, 110-page book is designed to introduce elementary school students -- 4th, 5th and 6th graders -- to the history and geography of the area.

Dintas traces the course of historical change over thousands of years and gives a vivid depiction of the natural environment, and it also urges students to make some historical and social judgments: “Are we living as happily as our ancestors, the Coyones Indians, did in ancient times? What good things and bad things have happened over the centuries? How are we going to make this little piece of Venezuela turn back into the paradise that we would like?”

(Another blog entry on Bolivarian Education and the Cooperative will appear soon.)

Monday, October 1, 2007

Freedom of the Press in Venezuela

A conversation today with Carlos “El Navegante” (The Navigator, according to the sign on his jeep) reminded me that I had never posted the article I was writing in June about freedom of speech and the media here in Venezuela. Carlos is a driver in the taxi cooperative that transports 8 to 12 people at time between Monte Carmelo and Sanare in an assortment of old jeeps, SUVs, and pick-up trucks.

While we were waiting for others to arrive at the taxi stop, Carlos said he was glad to know I was writing about Venezuela. “I don’t think people in the United States have any idea how much freedom we have here, we can say and write anything we want. I think we are practicing a unique kind of socialism here, since the government never censures the press and businesses are free to pursue their private affairs and make money. The media in the U.S. is spreading lies about Chavez being a dictator and a tyrant.”

“True,” I replied, “the Bush Administration and the U.S.media really played up the story about RCTV and freedom of speech, as if RCTV was being shut down unfairly.”

“That had nothing to do with freedom of the press!” insisted Carlos. “RCTV did not get to renew their lease as a nationwide network, but this is exactly like someone who rents a house from you. You allow them to stay in the house until the end of their lease, but then, when the time is up, you are free to rent it to someone else who can make better use of the house. In this case, another channel has a chance to use the publicly owned airwaves and produce better programming for the nation. I don’t think this concept is so difficult to understand.”

Some Opinions about “Free Speech” and Private TV in Venezuela, June 2007

Mario thought the government had made a mistake: five years ago.

When Mario exhibits his work, he tries to get gallery owners and museum officials to allow the forbidden: “Let people touch the sculptures!”

Mario says that those with perfectly good eyesight, who all their lives have been admonished by museum guards “not to touch,” are really excited when they get to lay their hands on the sensuous curves of his sculptures.

Mario lives in Maracaibo and creates beautiful works in ceramics and wood. Because he himself is blind, he sometimes offers sculpture workshops for sight-challenged students. At the end of May, as he was heading to one of these workshops in San Carlos, he spent the evening chatting with us in Sanare.

While Mario was willing to talk about art that night, he was more interested in discussing politics and intellectual freedom. This was the week that the Chavez government was being accused by the national and international press of suppressing free speech because it did not renew the nationwide broadcasting license of a major station, RCTV. Most of the Venezuelans I talked to thought the government had done the right thing in denying the station an extension of its license.

Except for Mario, who spent many years in the U.S. and was educated there; he thought the government was at fault. “I think the government should have shut down RCTV four or five years ago,” he said. “The government was weak at the time and didn’t respond at all after Granier [the owner of RCTV] and his station participated in the coup against Chavez in 2002 and then encouraged the sabotage of the national oil industry in 2003. Granier lost all legal right to hold a broadcast license. There was no reason to wait for his 20-year license to expire this year. Besides, the quality of their programming has always been awful.”

Irlanda, a progressive Catholic and a school teacher, had emphasized the same thing earlier that day. Because she works with women’s groups and students on issues of violence, sexuality, and gender discrimination, she was elated that RCTV’s soap operas would no longer be aired. “They are blatantly sexist and stupid and, in a sense, pornographic. The relationships depicted between men and women -- most of them rich and white, materialistic and shallow -- are demeaning to everyone concerned. I’d like my high school students to see shows where the people have more respect for each other, where sex is connected to feelings of love, and where the actors look more like the rest of us.”

Antonio, whom we had just seen in Caracas, disagreed with the decision not to renew RCTV’s license: “Of course, they deserved to be shut down – not only does everyone know that RCTV participated in the coup in 2002, but they admitted it themselves. But my worry is that right now this simply plays into the hands of the U.S. State Department and right-wing media around the world – they keep looking for reasons to make our government look like a dictatorship – this episode with RCTV will only be used to present us in a bad light.”

Antonio has worked as a petroleum engineer and as a manager of construction projects in the private and public sectors. He holds a masters degree in business management from the University of Dublin, but he also has many friends who are writers and film directors. He thinks the government’s proposal, to replace RCTV with a public station that produces its own independent programming, something like the BBC or PBS, is quite feasible: “The government has already invested in studios and projects that are giving lots of these young artists the opportunity and freedom to produce their own videos and films and documentaries. So, they are already prepared to make some good shows from a variety of perspectives.”

Then he added a cautionary note, “Let’s hope the things they produce find their way onto to the new channel, TVes.” He said he hopes that the government will keep itself out of the process and allow these new TV creators the freedom they deserve. In his experience, the Venezuelan bureaucracies often are cumbersome and inefficient, and are not yet free of the old Venezuelan curses of corruption and cronyism.

“Freedom” to own the press, freedom to monopolize the news

For two weeks at the end of May and the beginning of June, thousands of Venezuelan university students began marching in the streets of Caracas. Most of them had two distinct minority characteristics: they were white and upper class. They complained about the loss of their freedom of speech, but they were speaking and yelling very freely.

In fact, the protests had nothing to do with freedom of expression, but rather with the freedom of capital to assert unlimited control over the public broadcasting airwaves. They were supporting the right of one rich Venezuelan, Marcel Granier, to renew a broadcasting license that had expired. Granier was one of a handful of citizens in Venezuela who enjoyed real freedom of speech on TV. He owned a major television station (Radio Caracas TV) that had nationwide network status, and he asserted personal control over the programming.

In most countries of the world, including many others that have a great respect for human rights, Granier would have been stripped of his broadcasting license years ago (and perhaps, put in jail.) In 2002, he and RCTV directly aided the coup that ousted President Chavez from office for two days, yet he and many other co-conspirators were never arrested for treason. For the next five years RCTV kept broadcasting a steady stream of anti-Chavez invective.

This busload of demonstrators – who supported the government – got stuck in traffic jam next to us and may not have made it to the demonstration in favor of closing RCTV.

The Protests and Coverage by the “Free” Press of the North

The U.S. media gave considerable attention to the students protesting on behalf of RCTV. These young people were allowed to march, stop traffic, and chant, even when they did had not complied with the requirements of requesting a police permit in advance. Generally they were handled very gently by the police, although a couple of times the police broke up a march after some participants bombarded the peace officers with stones and big chunks of concrete sidewalk. There were many more police injured than demonstrators. Some of the early marches drew ten thousand participants, but gradually the enthusiasm for street demonstrations waned.

While the demonstrations were still going on in the streets, the North American press kept the headlines coming on a daily basis. The Bloomsburg network ran a typical headline, “Thousands protest closing of television station,” that was a fair enough description, because at some of the marches there were 5 or 10 thousand people showing up.

One day, June 2nd, the U.S. media had a chance to provide some balance by covering the other side of the issue, since many people were also demonstrating in support of Chavez. Once again, a typical headline read: “Thousands march in support of government shutting down RCTV.”

This may seem like balanced coverage, but it was not. The media conveniently avoided mentioning that on this particular day “thousands” meant five hundred thousand (the low estimate), or a thousand thousand (many sources estimated over a million participants) – fifty to a hundred times more than the biggest turnout in support of RCTV earlier in the week.

On that day, Saturday June 2, I was returning to Caracas from the city of Barquisimeto and hoping to see the march before getting on a plane for Miami. But I never got close. An enormous traffic jam of would-be demonstrators engulfed us for more than two hours. Alongside us were hundreds of buses and thousands of cars full of people waving banners and chanting -- they didn’t get to the march on time either. As we were waiting, I telephoned a friend, a fellow U.S. citizen and long-time resident of Venezuela who was at this pro-government march, and he said it was like a gigantic fiesta.

In the case of the smaller, pro-RCTV demonstrations, there had also been people from the United States taking part, including some Venezuelan-Americans who flew down from Miami and were interviewed by The Miami Herald. Among the other North American participants, according to veteran journalist and essayist Luis Britto Garcia, was Rowen Rosten, CIA chief for Latin America. A picture of him grinning amidst the protests was captured by an enterprising Caracas cameraman.

The Pro-RCTV students blow it
Several days after the huge anti-RCTV, pro-government march, the National Assembly hosted a remarkable event. It invited twenty students, ten who supported the pro-RCTV
position and ten pro-Chavez students who were against renewing RCTV’s license, to speak and debate before the legislative representatives. When they arrived, the ten pro-RCTV students were wearing red T-shirts, which are usually associated with Chavez supporters.

Douglas Barrios, who supported RCTV, spoke first. He read a statement about supporting RCTV in the future without much inflection or emotion, and he did not really present arguments about the freedom of expression. At the end of his speech, Barrios said, “I dream of a country in which we can be taken into account without having to wear a uniform.” Then he and his nine colleagues pulled off their red T-shirts and revealed other T-shirts that had pro-RCTV messages on them. They were about to walk out of the National Assembly when pro-Chavez students and members of the Assembly convinced them to stay, and asked them to take part in the debate and listen to their counterparts’ arguments against renewing the license of RCTV.

The second speaker was Andreina Tarazon, a student at the Central University of Venezuela, and she supported the moral and legal position of the government. She said that the opposition students were confused and could not distinguish between “libertad de prensa” (freedom of the press) and “libertad de empresa” (freedom of big business). Eighteen more speakers were scheduled to follow, evenly divided between pro- and anti-positions. Andreina and the other nine speakers who supported the government were well-prepared, and they proceeded to defend their position with reason and passion.

But not the anti-Chavez students. At this point they really blew it. The third speaker, and the second spokesperson for the pro-RCTV side, Yon Goicoechea, stood up briefly to say that his group’s position was non-political, and so they were not going to continue with the debate. They were giving up on an unprecedented opportunity, for this was the first time in Venezuelan history that university students had been invited to address the national legislature, and the debate was being broadcast on national television.

Goicoechea and his followers simply walked out of the National Assembly, and from that moment they lost the limited amount of public sympathy they had built up in the previous two weeks.

Yon Goicoechea, it turns out, is not just a student at the private Catholic University, Andres Bello. He is also an experienced organizer for Primera Justicia, a small, ultra-right political party which gets most of its support from the richest neighborhoods in Caracas and meets regularly with representatives of the U.S. Embassy to chart anti-Chavez strategies. When Goicoechea and his nine cohorts marched out the back door of the National Assembly, they left an incriminating document behind on the speaker’s lectern.

The first and only speaker on behalf of RCTV, Douglas Barrios, had been reading his speech from printed pages, but he forgot to take the last page with him. This page, it turns out, was printed by ARS Publicity, a Caracas public relations firm owned by Globovision, the stridently anti-Chavez media empire. Globovision and ARS had helped orchestrate the attempted “media” coup of April 2002 and the shut-down of the oil industry in 2002-3. The page not only contained parts of Barrios’ speech, but also the scripted directions that instructed Barrios about the exact moment he was supposed to remove his red T-shirt.

So, even though they had taken a beating in the international press, Chavez and his supporters had emerged victorious, at least on the domestic scene. Ariela Mamreia, a law student from the Central University who also spoke at National Assembly, explained in a newspaper interview that opposition media and foreign media had focused on a minority of students, mostly at elite and private universities, who did not represent most university students (there are over 600,000 in Venezuela), who were firmly behind the government. The margin of support for Chavez is even more overwhelming, she said, if one considers the hundreds of thousands of adults who have returned to school, usually at night, to finish their college level studies under the Mission Sucre program.

But what about freedom of the press?

The majority of television stations in Venezuela continue to be owned by wealthy Venezuelans and they still criticize Chavez constantly. An even larger percentage of newspapers are privately owned and critics of the government. The spectrum of opinion in the major media is far wider than in the U.S.A.

In the United States and many other parts of the world, the ownership of the major media is concentrated in very few hands, so that a rich oligarchy gets to choose what you see or don’t see, what you read or don’t read. They have succeeded, at least in part, in getting most North Americans and many Europeans to view Hugo Chavez as a dangerous leader and a “menace to democracy” (to quote the Bush Administration.)

Yet we English speakers in the North (and in Australia) may be the ones suffering from the biggest deficit of democracy, especially when it comes to the opinions that are expressed in the news. In 2005 British/Pakistani author Tarik Ali questioned how much “free press” really exists under the ownership of Rupert Murdoch, the media baron who has just taken over The Wall Street Journal. Why is it, asked Ali, “that all of Rupert Murdoch’s 247 editors in different parts of the world supported the war in Iraq?”

After the pro-RCTV students embarrassed themselves by not taking advantage of their opportunity to speak in front of the national legislature, their marches ended. But a few of the hard-core kids decided to do what they do best: Go shopping! The last protest photograph I saw was of several young women riding the fancy escalator in the Sambil shopping mall. (Unfortunately I can’t get that photo to upload onto the page.) They all looked similar to the young woman to the right and they also wore tape over their mouths.

If you need to know more about why Venezuela is not becoming an authoritarian country, or you need more evidence and arguments to put in front of others, please read the opinion of one of the best-informed Latin American scholars in the U.S.

“Freedom of Speech Alive and Well in Venezuela”
By Greg Grandin
June 15, 2007

The government of Venezuela has decided not to renew a broadcast license for RCTV, one of the oldest and largest opposition-controlled TV stations in the country. The U.S. media, in keeping with its reporting on Venezuela for the past eight years, has seized upon this opportunity to portray this as an assault on "freedom of the press."

It's not clear why a TV station that would never get a broadcast license in the United States or any other democratic country should receive one in Venezuela. But this is the one question that doesn't seem to come up in any of the news reports or editorials here.

RCTV actively participated in the U.S.-backed coup that briefly overthrew Venezuela's democratically elected President Hugo Chavez in 2002. The station promoted the coup government and reported only the pro-coup version of events. It censored and suppressed the news as the coup fell apart.

Even ignoring RCTV's role in the coup, its broadcast license would have been revoked years ago in the U.S., Europe, or any country that regulates the public airwaves. During the oil strike of 2002-2003, the station repeatedly called on people to join in and help topple the government. The station has also fabricated accusations of murder by the government, using graphic and violent images to promote its hate-filled views.

The whole idea that freedom of expression is under attack in Venezuela is a joke to anyone who has been there in the last eight years. Most of the media in Venezuela is still controlled by people who are vehemently (sometimes violently) opposed to the government. This will be true even after RCTV switches from broadcast to cable and satellite media. All over the broadcast media you can hear denunciations of the president and the government of the kind that you would not hear in the United States on a major national broadcast network. Imagine Rush Limbaugh during the Clinton impeachment, times fifty, but with much less regard for factual accuracy.

Pick up a newspaper — El Universal and El Nacional are two of the biggest — and the vast majority of the headlines are trying to make the government look bad. Turn on the radio and most of what you will hear is also anti-government. Television now has two state-run channels, but these only counterbalance the rest of the programming that is opposition-controlled. Venezuela has a more oppositional media than we have in the United States.

In fact, if the government carries through on its promise to turn RCTV's broadcast frequency over to the public, for a diverse array of programming, then this move will actually increase freedom of expression in Venezuela. It wouldn't suppress it, as the media and some opportunistic, ill-informed politicians here have maintained.

Sadly, some human rights officials here have also, without knowing much of the details, jumped on the media and political bandwagon. In a press release this week, José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, said that "The move to shut down RCTV is a serious blow to freedom of expression in Venezuela." (Of course RCTV will not be "shut down," since it can continue to distribute its programs through cable and satellite media).

But in an interview the same week Vivanco gave a different view, criticizing "those who claim that the fact that the Chavez government is not renewing the license for RCTV, per se implies a violation of freedom of expression. That is nonsense. ... you are not entitled, as a private company, to get your contract renewed with the government forever."

So why is a station that has repeatedly violated the most basic rules of any broadcast license entitled to another 20-year, state-sanctioned franchise?

It is not surprising that a monopolized media here would defend the "right" of right-wing media moguls to control the airwaves in Venezuela. Still it would be nice if we could get both sides of the story here — like Venezuelans do from their major media, which is right now saturated with broadcasts and articles against (as well as for) the government's decision. Then Americans could make up their own minds about whether this is really a "free speech" issue. Is that really too much to ask from our own "free press?"

Greg Grandin is one of the foremost historians of Latin America in the United States, Professor of History at New York University, and served on the United Nations Truth Commission for Guatemala. He wrote this piece for the Center for Economic and Policy Research — www.cepr.net. His recent book, THE EMPIRE’S WORKSHOP, (Metropolitan, Henry Holt, 2006), is one of the best guides to understanding current and past conflicts between the U.S. and Latin America.
George Ciccariello-Maher, a doctoral student from Berkeley who lives in Caracas, was on the scene at the National Assembly for the student debate and produced a detailed article about the nature of the so-called ‘student rebellion’ – “Who’s pulling the Strings? Behind Venezuela’s “student rebellion,” which appeared online at Counterpunch, June 9/10, 2007.

The next two you have to find for yourself. For other good articles on the RCTV controversy by North Americans who have spent many years in Venezuela, see Charlie Hardy (at his website, http://www.cowboyincaracas.com/, also see his fascinating new book of the same name, COWBOY IN CARACAS) and Bart Jones, a former Associated Press reporter in Caracas who has just written the best biography in English on President Chavez, titled HUGO!