Because the international media shows one angle: anti-government protests in Caracas, Venezuelan journalists Marco Teruggi and Julián Aguirre explore realities that don’t make the headlines.
Day 1: Country on the Move
Caracas 6 a.m.: the work of the city begins. The agenda of the day shows violence on the Francisco Fajardo highway, a new media and armed confrontation, a possible epicenter of terror in the country’s interior – meaning Barinas – that will leave one or more dead, and new international pressure. As if it were an order within the siege, a daily impact incorporated by force by the majority.At this time everything is calm, particularly in the west of Caracas. No one would say that we are at war. Are we at war? Nor does it appear as if we are at war in Guárico State, a crucial point in the country because of its strategic location bordering eight states. The plan for the coming days is to walk, listen, observe the country in motion, understand what happens off camera. Both with those on the right as well as with those on the government side. Who reports what goes on in the country’s interior? Almost nobody, as we are told on the tour.
The road is the country. First a barrier for lack of food: several months without products arriving at the Local Committee of Supply and Production (CLAP). Then a protest of the right in El Sombrero, a town made famous by the leader of a crime gang structured like a paramilitary force, “El Picure,” who was killed last year in a police operation. The opposition does not close the street, they stand with their posters, horns, tricolor caps, white shirts. They are only the surface of the battles, the most authentic perhaps of the opposition.
All around is immensity: plains, mountains, birds, cows. The love of Simón Díaz.
It is hours of plains until reaching Valle de La Pascua, a cattle and agricultural zone. The tour is to Doña Goya, a private plant processing prepackaged corn flour, part of the agreements signed with the state, which provides support for the production of raw materials: consumables and machinery. The capacity is 100 tons of packaged product per day. Seventy percent is destined for the Local Committees of Supply and Production, which is the other part of the agreement. It’s an attempt to stimulate a business for the national market away from the speculative mentality of asking for subsidized dollars to import over-invoiced goods to sell in the parallel/illegal dollar.
Can a national bourgeoisie still be created in Latin America?
We talked with the company’s executives to understand the logic of immersing themselves in a market where a single company, Empresas Polar, controls 56 percent of the prepackaged corn flour market. They do not identify with any political entity, only with their business, and they need the state. In case the right wins, from their pragmatic reasoning, the country would get worse, they say.
Here, the shields, tear gas, the destruction happening in Barinas right now, seem somewhat distant. How many countries exists at the same time? In the Valle de La Pascua the siege from the right has not arrived. Will it be part of the next phase of their plan? We left at dawn for Apure. The empanadas and coffee vendor where we have breakfast tells us that she buys that same flour in her community at a black market price, which is three times more expensive.
How long does it take to know the map of the truth of things?
Day 2: The Distances of the Plains
We don’t understand the differences of the plains, we come from a crowded city that’s always on the point of some fast truck, train, motor taxi in Caracas that never arrives. Here the time stretches toward the green horizon and hours pass slowly. We travel by day, as the sun is just beginning to rise. By night, the routes are dangerous: there is little light or signposts, animals — cows, capybaras, anteaters, caimans — can run out onto the road, and there are armed hijackings.
We stop to interview a lady who sells sun-dried caiman meat, minced piraña to cure all kinds of pain, the stings of hormiga culonas, who prepares cassava bread, who resists the overwhelming heat. The heat literally crushes you. Food stands line the highway. They sell the same thing. Ahead, behind and on each side, the immensity goes on. There is no lack of produced food here. What is lacking is the food from the Local Grocery and Production Committee. During the interview, we hear something between a scream and a laugh.
“I said you can’t get rice or pasta or sugar!”
The plan was to be in the ranch El Cedral by early afternoon. We arrived at 9 p.m.
In 2008, the state bought 53,000 hectares, but now own only 90 percent. The other 10 percent belongs to the old owner. The place, in contrast to the myths of state unproductivity, is flourishing. Tourism continues, although it has fallen because of the violence and insecurity. The ranch which is now called the Socialist Agroecological Production Unity El Cedral has 14,000 heads of cattle, between cows and buffalo. It is part of the Socialist Cattle Business Bravos de Apure, also state-run, that is comprised of nine ranches and 40,000 cattle. One of these ranches, El Frio, was rescued after years of poor management. It’s true certain spaces under the direct administration of the state, did not produce results. Lack of maintenance, corruption, impunity, inexperience, giving authority to those unprepared for the job, management closed to input from workers, the eternal confidence on oil income are just some of the reasons to blame.
But other ranches did succeed, like El Cedral. They are model examples. Here policy is developed circularly and regularly. Social work takes place in the surrounding 14 communities, 13 of which are indigenous, and small-scale farmers are supported with credits for animals that don’t involve banking speculation. Business is more than just one’s own earnings, it is part of an integral, community project. When it comes to sales, they offer below-market prices and give priority to state schools like Pedvales and Mercales.
There are three types of ownership in Venezuela — state property, private property and community property. In this era of dramatic and constituent collaboration, many propose that third-parties be included in the constitution.
We have interviewed, traveled and filmed. The houses are a just small cluster in the infinity. Space spans out in every direction and we don’t know which way to go. We board a ship for a small tour of the River Matiyure. Deer, caimans, capybaras pass by a few meters away as herons one and a half meters wide fly majestically in the sky. We are speechless.
Day 3: People’s Brigades on the Border
We are in the border zone. Colombia is not on the other side of the river, Colombia is here — in the music, the economy, the people. Petrol, on the other hand, is on the other side, in a small part at least. Contraband is nothing new, it is an economy that has been present in these zones for many years — on both sides, depending on the exchange. What has changed is that now it is part of an economic war of unprecedented scale; it has transformed into destabilization. The border, according to the people who live here, has always been at least a bit open with its orders and prices, even when it was officially closed.
There is a six-hour queue to fill our tank with petrol. We use the time to follow a right-wing demonstration that marches just one block away from a Chavista group. There are no shots, no lynchings, no stone-throwing. Right-wing violence, its social base and not it street fighters and paramilitaries, is above all classist. In this town of rolling plains, no one burns Chavistas, or simply people suspected of being one. Nor does this happen in the suburbs. It takes three hours to go from Elorza to Guasdualito. It seems like a few. It rains and the immensity takes on tones of gray that stretch out the space it even further. This country is heavy in beauty.
But there are threats as well. In Guasdualito, a group of 20 Colombian paramilitaries arrives. Twenty who plan to form 20 cells. They had to come back because despite their efforts, violence has not been able to destabilize this area. There are two reasons why: because it is a region, like all of Apure, that is deeply Chavista. It is hard to comprehend the scale of the impact Hugo Chavez had in these forgotten, marginalized towns, these places which had fallen off the historic, cultural and political map of Venezuela. And because the level of organization is very high and community-based, all of Paez is filled with communes, like militias. It’s for this very reason that this area, where people’s movements have faced off against paramilitaries and contrabandistas for years, is also home to the Hugo Chavez People’s Defence Brigade. The objective is clear: to defend land public works, to prevent right-wing attacks. To do this, there is no better tool than the intelligence and organization of the people. Not just any people, those who are product of the country’s 18-year transformation.
The heat in Guasdualito is stronger than any other. The town is calm. Its last episode of violence took place in December during the crisis of the 100-Bolivar bills. The people arrived outraged at the Bank of Venezuela and burned their notes and threw them into the air. The next day, they realized the bills could be used for a month more. In this period, it was clear the unrest was mostly caused by people brought in from other states. In small towns, everyone knows each other.
Since then, there has been a climate of calm and waiting. They know what could happen, preventative measures are in place. The assemblies are also ready. The communes speak of the National Constituent Assembly, of how they will organize meetings with the entire community, to speak, listen to one another, to those who might be fed up, disillusioned, caught up in the search for food at relatively fair prices. We are in these meetings: Chavismo is at its best in community politics. How can so much be described? How can the story of Venezuela, its revolution and counterrevolution be told?
I throw a mango up so that others fall from the tree. Guacamayas rain down. Cows watch on. A colleague films the afternoon at its longest hour. We know what the right would do if they took political power.
Day 4: Theater of War
We arrive at Socopo, one of the nerve centers in this stage of the war. It is a town governed by a right-wing mayor, with a strong paramilitary and drug trafficking presence, and cattle owners. This has created a compact alliance, supported by commercial vendors. It has all the conditions for land disputes. Above all, Socopo has a key strategic position: it is along the route that joins San Cristobal, a paramilitary stronghold, with the city of Barina — and it has an incomplete bridge which blocks passage. By barricading Socopo, one of main routes to Caracas has been blocked and with it the passage of fruit and vegetables to the capital. Starving the people: a key tactic of war.
The situation when we arrive is tense. A person selling juice or arepas, the man seated in the plaza, anyone could be part of the intelligence apparatus of the paramilitaries. Here there were five days of battle — April 19-20 and May 22-24, five days of terror, as the locals say. There were nights of raids and destruction. The town’s power supply was cut. The police station was attacked in a four-hour gunfire siege. Six policemen were injured by bullets from a sniper, who tried to kill them. The station was set on fire and destroyed by a backhoe. All that is left is ruins.
In Socopo, like Guasdualito, grassroots chavistas organized and created the Hugo Chavez Integrated Defense Force. The initiative was launched for two main reasons. The first: the need for protection. Threats against directors and leaders began April 20, with motorbikes riding through the city with a list of Chavistas to kill. The second: the need for greater organization, capable of preventing right-wing actions. In this way, they helped state security forces but it is also true that Chavismo, as an organizing force in territories, workplaces, lends itself to people’s intelligence and direct participation.
This is the war. There are battles, bullets, assassinations, tactics, bridges and threatened colleagues. Arrive in Socopo and there is no doubt this is what has happened and will continue to happen.
Socopo is an rehearsal for phase two of the military insurrection. There are two elements. If there is a truce, they known they will continue fighting. It is the right-wing tactic used to spread conflict across the country, like a game of chess where key points must be destroyed.
It has already spread to more than 10 cities.
All these variables are at the highest point of tension. The right wing tries to win advantage by jumping through the air and plunging the correlation of forces. It is our duty to understand this reality, to inform others, to extract the keys to its analysis, to act, and listen, simply as Rodolfo Walsh says, confirming that writing is listening. For this reason we traveled to Pascua Valley, Guasdualito, Socopo, we met the people, the militants, we experienced the silent and profound time that is not presented by the media, and returned to Caracas and its texts. This is the reality in 2 and in the land. Here there is a country on the move, with greater sources of information, greater synthesis of communes, people and chavistas. It is country with open doors.
It asks to be taken into account.