With all the hullabaloo about Chávez' alleged authoritarianism, opposition strikes and demonstrations, and the August recall referendum, you could be forgiven for thinking that nothing constructive is being done in Venezuela and that the nation's energies are entirely absorbed by political mud-slinging. Indeed, that's just what the corporate media would like you to think.
But go to alternative websites like Znet, Venezuelanalysis.com or Rebelión, and you'll find reports on literacy campaigns, health clinics in poor neighbourhoods staffed by Cuban doctors, community-based housing programmes and agrarian reform. Venezuela is undergoing a social transformation the likes of which have not been seen in Latin America since the early years of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua.
In the past fifteen months the government has begun to redistribute uncultivated land from private estates or public lands to poor peasants and landless labourers. In a repeat of the agrarian reform programmes carried out decades ago in several Latin American countries, some 2.2 million hectares (5.5 million acres) has already been distributed to 116,000 families organised in cooperatives.
A peasant woman receives a land title
This alone would be remarkable in today's globalised world, where the very idea of cooperative or collective agriculture has been dismissed as outdated and inefficient, and countries like Mexico have dismantled long-established rural cooperatives and opened their agricultural sectors to the unfettered play of the free market and the consequent domination of private agribusiness.
But the Venezuelan agrarian reform goes beyond satisfying peasant land hunger and alleviating poverty. It is based as far as possible on organic practices and is intended as the foundation stone of an entirely new social and economic model, oriented towards self-sufficiency, sustainability and "endogenous development".
Chaguaramal is a newly-cultivated strip of land surrounded by tropical forest and isolated poverty-stricken communities, a few kilometres inland from the Caribbean. Here 144 families have so far benefited from the creation of a SARAO or Self-Organised Rural Association. The Ministry of Planning and Development first provided land, funds and equipment, and people from nearby villages began to organise the new community on a cooperative basis.
Working at Chaguaramal
But at first the Ministry delegated implementation of the project to a bureaucratic public corporation, CORPOCENTRO, which imposed technical decisions without consultation. Only in August 2003, when the INTI (National Land Institute) took over responsibility for projects of this type, did Chaguaramal take on the characteristics of community self-organisation as originally intended. "We listen to the communities, we open our doors to them so that they can bring to life their own projects and dreams", says Silvia Vidal, the INTI official now responsible for the SARAOS.
The new settlement (asentamiento) consists of attractive houses built by the residents themselves with materials and technical assistance provided by the state, with carefully cultivated gardens, a school, a health centre and a child care centre. A variety of crops are being produced as well as livestock and fish, and we were treated to a delicious fish barbecue. We saw how the community prepares its own compost and is already recycling most of its waste.
New housing at Chaguaramal
"I'm a member of the SARAO, I joined on 15 April 2002", says Gelipsa Rojas. "My area of work is worm composting, which will give us organic fertiliser ... so as not to use chemical fertilisers ...
"At first [under CORPOCENTRO] they only paid attention to the men, we women stayed at home and only did housework. When the INTI arrived, things changed. There is still machismo but we are gradually getting rid of it. This worm-compost project is run only by women. Now the men help with the housework, we're both responsible for it."
Chaguaramal is in Miranda State, with a Governor ferociously opposed to Chávez and the revolutionary process, and so everything achieved in the new settlement has been done despite systematic obstruction by the State government. In a neighbouring hamlet called Buenos Aires which was not initially included in the project, opposition politicians turned people against the cooperative, saying that it would do nothing for them and would be run on principles of "Cuban slavery". But now several families from Buenos Aires have been incorporated into the SARAO and everyone can see its benefits.
Developing the interior
Hundreds of kilometres away, over the coastal mountains and in the llanos, the sweltering tropical plains of the interior, we visited a major development project which reflects the Chávez government's aim of moving people and resources away from the coastal cities. The "Ezequiel Zamora" Agro-Industrial Sugar Complex (CAAEZ) is centred on a state-of-the-art sugar mill now under construction with Cuban technicians and Brazilian equipment, a reflection of the desire for Latin American collaboration. The complex and its associated agricultural cooperatives will produce not only sugar but rice, yucca and other crops in order to promote agricultural self-sufficiency (Venezuela, chronically dependent on its oil exports, imports 70% of its food despite having abundant fertile land).
As long ago as 1975 this area was designated as ideal for sugar production - cane yields here are several times higher than in Cuba or Brazil - and a first-class irrigation system was built but then abandoned due to corruption under previous governments. Then in the 1990s a Costa Rican investor offered to go into partnership with local farmers, making loans for them to produce cane and promising to build a mill, only to abandon the project and take the funds, leaving them in the lurch -"I was one of those who sowed cane and waited nine years for the first harvest, and was unable to harvest the cane because of that gentleman," declared Francisco, a member of one of the associated cooperatives, bitterly denouncing this example of capital flight.
But now the CAAEZ project is well advanced: a huge undertaking which will eventually employ 15,000 workers, it comprises the sugar mill and other industrial plants as well as the agricultural area. Here too organic methods will be favoured: among other things, sugar-cane bagasse (the dry refuse) will be composted and supplied to mixed-farming cooperatives. All of the new social programmes are also being implemented here, such as the literacy programme (the Robinson Mission) and the "Into the Neighbourhoods" Mission with its health clinics staffed by Cuban doctors.
The greening of Caracas
But the greening of Venezuela is not limited to the countryside. In the heart of Caracas, just behind the Hilton Hotel, an abandoned strip of land has been turned into an organopónico, an organic market garden for the intensive production of lettuces, tomatoes and an impressive variety of crops for the urban market. Unemployed people from nearby shanty-towns are given work here and trained as agricultural specialists.
Urban agricultural plots like this are springing up in cities across Venezuela and further contributing to the aim of self-sufficiency. When the project began it was ridiculed by the escuálido opposition, who said it was impossible to produce food here, or that it would be uneconomic. But now people from wealthy neighbourhoods themselves buy the produce when they can get it (which is not easy since demand is so high).
A new socio-economic model
Agrarian reform, cooperative enterprise, organic agriculture, use of local resources - these are all features of an entirely new socio-economic model for Venezuela. The model is summed up in a programme called the "Vuelvan Caras" Mission (a term derived from the battle-cry of a nineteenth-century rebel leader), which attempts to coordinate all the other programmes and "missions": it provides government assistance in the form of technical advice and funds derived from oil income, for agricultural, industrial and commercial cooperatives, generating employment and training. It encourages local initiative, self-sufficiency, sustainability and "endogenous development", development from within and from below, with popular participation. The leading role of women, blacks and indigenous people is also explicitly promoted.
This new model will take years to develop, but it is already under way and being promoted with great enthusiasm. It does not exclude possible nationalisation of some major industries, but it points in a direction which challenges both globalised capitalism and state socialism of the traditional variety. It is also the foundation of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA in its Spanish acronym), which Venezuela is proposing as a progressive alternative to the ALCA (the US-sponsored Free Trade Area of the Americas). This is why Washington hates Chávez: not because of his revolutionary rhetoric, not because of any threat to "democracy", but because the Venezuelan process offers a real alternative to US plans for the hemisphere - and it is this which Venezuela, and the world, would stand to lose if Chávez were to be defeated in the recall referendum.