With all the hullabaloo about Chavez's alleged authoritarianism, opposition strikes and demonstrations, and a possible 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 Web sites like www.venezuelanalysis.com, www.zmag.org/venezuela_watch.cfm, or www.rebelion.org, and you'll find reports on literacy campaigns, health clinics in poor neighborhoods staffed by Cuban doctors, community-based housing programs 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 laborers. In a repeat of the agrarian reform programs 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 organized in cooperatives.
This alone would be remarkable in today's globalized world, where the very idea of cooperative or collective agriculture has been dismissed as outdated and inefficient, and countries like Mexico have dismantled long-established rural cooperatives and opened their agricultural sectors to the unfettered play of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 kilometers inland from the Caribbean. Here 144 families have so far benefited from the creation of a SARAO or Self-Organized Rural Association. The Ministry of Planning and Development first provided land, funds and equipment, and people from nearby villages began to organize the new community on a cooperative basis.
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-organization 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, there are carefully cultivated gardens, a school, a health center and a child care center. A variety of crops are being produced as well as livestock and fish, and we were treated to a delicious fish barbecue. The community prepares its own compost and is already recycling most of its waste.
"I'm a member of the SARAO, I joined on April 15, 2002," says Gelipsa Rojas. "My area of work is worm composting, which will give us organic fertilizer ... so as not to use chemical fertilizers.
"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. …