Venezuela: the struggle against food sabotage begins, now expropriate the monopolies!

More than 13,000 tonnes of food have been seized in the last two weeks in Venezuela as part of the Food Sovereignty Plan launched in order to fight speculation, hoarding and sabotage in the food distribution chain. In announcing the measures in his radio programme Allo Presidente on January 22, president Chávez said that "among the responsibilities of the government one of them is to attack the capitalist model, the monopolies and rackets, so that the people, the workers, together with the revolutionary government can take the country forward".

This offensive is to be welcomed. Food scarcity has been a constant problem for most of 2007 with basic food products missing from the shelves in both private shops and the state-owned distribution network Mercal (for detailed information see Erik Demeester's article The economic tug of war between revolution and counter-revolution).

Food scarcity is the result of a combination of factors. On the one hand there is open economic sabotage on the part of the ruling class, aimed at undermining the basis of support for the Bolivarian revolution. Products are being deliberately withdrawn from the food distribution chain; scare stories are published in the capitalist media with the intention of provoking panic buying. On the other hand, the price controls and regulations, introduced by the government to try to protect working people, have squeezed profit margins for capitalist farmers, who have responded by refusing to produce or by selling their products on the black market, and also by diverting production towards products that are not regulated. Finally, the existence of the black market has fuelled corruption at all levels of the distribution chain, including in Mercal, where bureaucrats at different levels are diverting products from the popular markets onto the black market where they are sold at a much higher price. All these factors are added to the problems of an economy based on the export of oil, in which a parasitical capitalist class is not interested in producing for the national market, and where a large part of agriculture is concentrated in the hands of a few capitalist agro-businesses that sell their products on the world market. As a result Venezuela is forced to import 70% of its food consumption.

The crisis of food scarcity last year had a major impact on the results of the constitutional reform referendum. The defeat of the proposed reforms was due to a massive increase in abstention in working class and poor areas which had traditionally voted for Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution en masse. Just two examples clearly illustrate this: in Coche, a working class area in the South of Caracas, which played a key role in the defeat of the coup in April 2002 by coming out massively and surrounding the nearby Fuerte Tiuna barracks, the vote for Chavez in the 2006 presidential elections was 21,000 but the vote for the constitutional reform collapsed to 12,000. The opposition only increased their vote by 2,000, from 11,000 to 13,000 but this was enough to defeat the reform proposals in this neighbourhood. Petare is also a working class and poor neighbourhood in the East of Caracas, known for its revolutionary mobilisation, playing a key role in retaking the studios of Channel 8 during the struggle against the coup. Here Chavez received 112,000 votes in December 2006 but the constitutional reform only received 61,000. The opposition increased just 1,000 votes to 97,000 and defeated the reform.

But food scarcity in itself was not the reason why 3 million Bolivarians abstained in the referendum. Most of them know from their own experience that food scarcity is created by a deliberate campaign of sabotage by the oligarchy. The crucial factor was that the government was seen to be doing nothing about it. Some Ministers dismissed the scale of the problem or even denied that shortages existed at all. In fact in March 2007 the government passed a Law against Sabotage, Hoarding and Speculation which already allowed for the seizure of food stocks and the expropriation of those involved in these activities. However, as with many other things, this law was never implemented in any serious way.

It is clear that that Chávez himself was becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of action in this field. At a meeting of the National Economic Planning Commission he asked Minister of Agriculture and Land Elias Jaua to produce a list of those companies involved in sabotaging food distribution and production in order to expropriate them. If he was not prepared to do it, Chavez said, he should resign. But still no serious action was taken then. It took the defeat in the constitutional reform for measures to be implemented.

Smuggling, hoarding, speculation, part of a deliberate plan of sabotage

The regions where the largest amounts of food have been seized are those on the border with Colombia, particularly in Táchira, since many businesses, instead of selling their products on the Venezuelan market, where the prices of basic foodstuffs are regulated, smuggle them into Colombia to sell them for a much bigger profit. To prevent this from happening, the government has now introduced very strict regulations for the transport of a number of basic food products (milk, rice, coffee, maize, pulses and sorghum) to the border states of Apure, Táchira and Zulia.

In explaining these measures Chávez insisted that if the National Guard was not enough, the reserve Army would be sent to guard the border and prevent smuggling: "I have ordered that if the National Guard is not enough to keep safe our borders, roads and short cuts, and we have to send the complete Army to stop smuggling, then we will. And if we have to arm the people, we will go with the battalion of reserves."

On Monday, January 21st, more than 500 tonnes of food were confiscated by the National Guard aboard 18 lorries on their way to Colombia, in the border state of Táchira. Amongst the products seized were many which have been scarce in Venezuelan shops for many months, including sugar, rice, pasta and milk. In the state of Zulia (ruled by opposition governor Manuel Rosales), another 400 tonnes of food were seized and more than 190 establishments were sanctioned. The total amount seized in the first three days of the Plan, just in the states of Táchira, Zulia and the Alto Apure was 1,600 tonnes. By the end of the week, the figure had risen to 5,000 tonnes in the region alone, the overwhelming majority seized in wholesale warehouses.

In the East of the country by the end of the first week of the Plan the National Guard had seized 8,000 tonnes of food, mainly in Anzoategui but also in the states of Bolivar and Monagas, which were then sold at regulated prices to the public. Another 770 tonnes of food were seized in the centre-west region. These figures give an indication of the scale of the campaign of sabotage and they are probably only the tip of the iceberg.

The operations have been launched at all levels of the food distribution chain and they show the different ways in which the oligarchy has been sabotaging the distribution of basic food products. Thus in Carabobo on January 17, the National Guard seized 7.5 tonnes of sugar from different supermarkets, markets and shops, which was being sold at 25% above its regulated price, and then proceeded to sell it to the public. In Zulia, the National Guard found 71 tonnes of powdered milk in warehouses of the Nestlé company, which according to their own records had been stored and were not being distributed. They were then sold through the Mercal network of popular supermarkets. Regarding the retail sector, the Institute for the Defence of the Consumer (Indecu), imposed fines and temporary closures to 1,635 establishments which had been found to be involved in speculation and selling above official prices.

The National Guard also targeted the main monopoly group in food distribution, Polar, which shows that food scarcity is part of a deliberate campaign organised by the oligarchy against the Bolivarian revolution. On January 24, 27 lorries belonging to Alimentos Polar were seized, containing 350 tonnes of basic foodstuffs and 165 tonnes of maize flour in the states of Táchira, Mérida, Bolívar and Monagas. The manager of Palmonagas, a subsidiary of Polar in Monagas, was taken into custody as a result. Grupo Polar is owned by the Mendoza family, one of the wealthiest and most powerful families of the Venezuelan oligarchy, and number 119 in the list of the 400 richest people on earth. They played a key role in the sabotage of the economy during the bosses' lockout in December 2002 - February 2003. In fact, their property should have been expropriated at that time.

National Assembly MP Manuel Villalba said it clearly: "All this shows the existence of a campaign, led and orchestrated by powerful economic groups, which were the same that opposed the constitutional reform, particularly in the proposal which aimed at outlawing monopolies. With their criminal actions they want to provoke a reaction of the people which would lead to a social explosion".

This will not be news to revolutionary activists in Venezuela who have known about this campaign for months. In November 2007 the National Peasant Front Ezequiel Zamora (FNCEZ) called a demonstration outside the headquarters of business federation Fedecamaras under the slogan "If you take away our food, we will take away your factories". So, why was no action taken before the referendum? It is quite likely that reformist elements in and around the leadership of the Bolivarian movement advised Chávez to be "moderate," not to appear to "threaten private property", that it was "not the right time", etc. We now see where this "advice" led to. The policies of the reformist bureaucratic elements of the Bolivarian movement are the surest recipe for destroying the revolution, which can only survive and advance to victory by relying firmly on the revolutionary mobilisation of the Bolivarian masses to strike blows against the reactionary oligarchy.

However, despite the excellent initiatives of the FNCEZ and the appeals by Freteco, none of the wings in the leadership of the UNT organised a serious campaign of factory occupations to struggle against economic sabotage. In this, the leadership of the left wing of the UNT, the CCURA has the main responsibility. They could have easily linked up with the FNCEZ and Freteco to organise the occupation of warehouses, dairy plants, meat processing plants, mills, installations of Polar, etc and demand that they should be expropriated under workers control.

Concessions will not solve the problem

At the same time as implementing a strict policy against speculation and hoarding, the government made concessions to private producers. Price controls which affect around 400 different products were lifted, with only 20 remaining. The first of these measures to be announced was the increase in the regulated price of milk for producers from Bs.F. 1.1 to BsF 1.5. These concessions were scorned by the president of the National Association of Cattle Ranchers (Fedenagas). He said that the price increase for milk was "too little, too late" and that the price should be fixed at between 1.8 and 2.2, therefore asking for a 100% increase. Statements like these just underline the point that production for private profit is in direct contradiction with production to satisfy the needs of the people. No amount of concessions will satisfy the oligarchy, short of the end of the revolution itself.

In attempting to deal with the production side of the problem, the government modified the law that regulates credit for the agricultural sector, by fixing a maximum interest rate of 15% and increasing the length of the credits from 3 to 20 years. Chávez insisted that if the banks broke these regulations they should be sanctioned, "and not just with a small fine, those banks which do not comply should be intervened". While inaugurating the first Socialist Dairy Plant in Machiques, Zulia, Chávez declared that companies that sell their milk directly to foreign multinationals above the regulated prices so that then it is converted into cheese or other dairy products that are not regulated would be expropriated, along with the dairy plants involved.

As part of the Food Sovereignty Plan, the government also announced the setting up of PDVAL (a food production and distribution wing of state-owned oil company PDVSA). "Pdval should be like a brother to Mercal, and their aim is to ensure basic foodstuffs to all Venezuelans, without speculation and without exploitation of the workers".

The seizure of food stocks by the National Guard and other bodies can temporarily ease the problem, but cannot solve it in the long term. Relying on the institutions of a state apparatus which is still a capitalist state to solve the problems of working people is like putting a fox in charge of guarding hens. Corruption and capitalist interests dominate all parts of the state apparatus, even those in charge of securing the distribution of food. As part of the Food Sovereignty Plan, the installations of the Regional Food Products Provisioning Office in the San Antonio del Táchira Border Crossing Point were also raided because of an investigation into a corruption network operating from within that office. In the state of Zulia a speculation ring was discovered within the state-owned network of food supermarkets Mercal. For a long time the workers of Mercal, organised in the United Union of Bolivarian Mercal Workers (Sinutrabmercal) had been denouncing such mafia rings within Mercal and demanding control by the workers and the communities as the only way to stop them.

For a revolutionary campaign of land and factory occupations

The only real way to deal with the problem is nationalise under the control of workers and community groups the key strategic sectors of the economy which are now in the hands of two or three monopoly groups. In expropriating the oligarchy workers cannot rely on the state bureaucracy but rely instead only on their own revolutionary initiative. It is therefore encouraging to see that in a whole number of regions of the country, communal councils have taken up the struggle against speculation, setting up commissions of enquiry and uncovering the businesses that participate in sabotage and speculation.

The National Peasant Front Ezequiel Zamora (FNCEZ), which has been at the forefront of the revolutionary peasant struggle against latifundia, also declared their wholehearted support to the struggle against sabotage, and said that they were putting all their forces in a state of alert. "We are putting all of our accumulated social and political assets, organised in 1000 communal councils, 60 peasant settlements and 360 organised communities at the disposal of the Venezuelan people, at the disposal of comandante Chávez, " said Orlando Zambrano, FNCEZ national spokesperson.

In the Caracas working class neighbourhood of El Valle, the community also took the initiative. On January 30th, a mobilisation organised by the 49 communal councils in the parish occupied a gas filling station which had been abandoned since the bosses' lock-out in 2002. They decided to put the installations under the direct control of the communal councils, and to demand that a filling station for cooking gas bottles (which are also affected by scarcity) be installed there, together with a local PDVal. Local revolutionary leader Alí Verenzuela declared that this was their response to a campaign of sabotage aimed at leaving working class communities in Caracas without cooking gas supply.

In the state of Sucre, the UNT (National Workers Union) trade union has declared that "in the year 2007, a large number of businesses involved in the production, importing and distribution of food, and also a number of supermarkets and other retailers, started a campaign of sabotage with the aim of destabilising the Bolivarian government". In order to participate in the struggle against speculation, the UNT in Sucre has decided to set up teams of workers which will go to any business or warehouse which is breaking the law and organise a picket until the time when the National Guard arrives.

This is the kind of initiative that should have been undertaken by the UNT nationally a long time ago. It shows the tremendous potential the workers have to control and plan industry if they are organised. The workers know very well which businesses are participating in this deliberate campaign of sabotage. Their installations and factories should be taken over and occupied by the workers themselves, and the demand should be, as president Chávez has said himself, for their expropriation, and, we add, for them to be run under workers' control.

A national campaign on these lines, launched by the revolutionary wing of the UNT, together with peasant organisations like the FNCEZ, the communal councils and rank and file revolutionary organisations, the local Socialist Battalions of the PSUV, the movement of occupied factories Freteco, etc, would achieve a number of things. On the one hand it would make clear that the responsibility for food scarcity lies squarely on the shoulders of the oligarchy. Secondly it would show a way forward by posing the need for the peasants and workers themselves to take over responsibility for food production, processing and distribution. It would send a clear signal of what socialism should look like. Finally, it would give a boost to the mobilisation of the Bolivarian masses. The workers and peasants would take the initiative again and put the reformists and bureaucrats and the oligarchy on the defensive.

The food crisis in Venezuela contains very important lessons for the future of the Bolivarian revolution. First of all, you cannot regulate the capitalist market. Capitalism is based on production for profit, if you try to prevent or limit that, there will be no production. Therefore, the continued existence of private property of the means of producing, processing and distributing food is in direct contradiction with the needs of the majority of the people. Private property in the food industry should be taken over and run as part of a democratic plan of the economy in the hands of workers, peasants and consumers.

Concessions to the capitalists cannot solve the problem. On the contrary they make it worse. They introduce demoralisation and apathy amongst the ranks of the revolutionary masses. And they are taken by the oligarchy as a sign of weakness and will lead to an intensification of their offensive against the revolution.

The current state apparatus cannot be relied upon to carry out revolutionary policies in favour of the masses. It needs to be replaced with revolutionary institutions based on the communal councils, factory councils, peasant communities, etc through which workers and peasants can exercise their power directly.

The defeat in the constitutional reform referendum was a warning: if the revolution is not able to solve the immediate needs of the masses, it will fail. The spontaneous response of many workers, peasants and community groups at a local level to organise to end food shortages is a glimpse of what would be possible if there was a conscious, national campaign. The revolutionary instinct and will-power of the masses shows that the balance of forces is still favourable to the revolution - but also how, for lack of leadership, this will-power alone is insufficient to smash the oligarchy and finish the revolution. The lack of food and lack of leadership are two sides of the same coin. The task of solving the immediate needs is therefore linked to the task of building the revolutionary leadership and organisation that is necessary for the workers to take power and move towards the genuine socialist transformation of society.

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