Sunday, December 21, 2008

The economic triumphs of Venezuelan Socialist agriculture

One of the key pillars of the new society that Hugo Chávez wants to build in Venezuela is that it will be, in large part, a rural and agrarian society which produces its own food. His vision is of one where Venezuelans, instead of importing wheat and beef and using them to make hamburgers, will eat traditional peasant food that is grown in Venezuela, by low-input and sustainanable methods and by cooperatives that provide employment for vast numbers of people, respectng nature and the natural environment. He wants agriculture in Venezuela to switch from being dominated by large landowners and multinationals, to being dominated by peasant cooperatives where the workers and owners are identical, and where questions are settled by egalitarian debate among the peasants. He wants to empty to vast shantytowns ringing Caracas and so many big cities, and to encourage the underemployed and miserable residents to turn themselves into hard-working, strong, and proud free peasants. And he wants to do all this in a way that is ecologically sustainable, and that dos not threaten Venezuela's impressive natural endowments- soil, water, forests or natural biodiversity. There is some question about whether all these goals are compatible. I believe they are, of course, and remmeber writing an article back in undergrad for a magazine I wrote for then, about the environmental implications of land reform in Nicaragua back in the '80s and in Venezuela today. Environmentally friendly prcatices are actually more common among smaller farmers in Latin America (as well as productivity being higher) largely because the people involved depend intimately on their land and cannot afford to have it degraded.

All this of course is seriously contrary to all that "orthodox" Western thought about globalized capitalism has been saying for decades. The advocates of the Washington concensus tell us that developing countries should be trying to remake agriculture on the lines of American agribusiness, that countries should 'modernize' by encouraging people to move to the cities, that agriculture is a backward and out-of-date way to make a living, that countries should embrace a service-based economy as the United States has done, that agriculture should be done highly effciiently by a tiny minority of people, that countries should specialize in exporting what they are best at, and import everything else from abroad- comparative advantage, you know. Of course, like much of what our late-capitalist, globalized modern society preaches, these are lies and particularly pernicious ones. The government of Venezuela and its allies (in Bolivia most of all, but to some extent in Cuba) have set themselves steadfastly against these lies, and Venezuela has tried since 2000 to make agriculture a national priority, to redistribute land, and remake the agriculture sector along Socialist lines.

If the opinions of American opinion-makers were correct, this should have led to a disaster. Because more than anything else, Venezuela wasn't trying to imrpove capitalist agriculture, they were trying to destroy it and rebuild a socialist rural culture on the ruins. Ever since 2001, they have made it very clear that they will proceed by expropriating large landowners, seizing their lands and turning them over to rural peasant cooperatives, encouraging cooperative ownership rather than individual ownership, and placing limits on how large an estate one can own. They made no attempt to do away with all private estates, not yet anyway- rather, they have to date focused on expropriating estates to which the owner cannot prove title (which, in Latin America, would be a great many of them, as probably most were illegitimately acquired through excluding the peasants that worked on them) or that are larger than the limits that the state has placed on estates. Currently the limits are large (thousands of hectares) for poor quality land, but only 50 hectares for high quality land. New laws also protect 'squatter's rights', they give peasants ownership of whatever they produce on privately held land that they occupy pending the decision about the legal status of that land.

Prior to 2001, large privately held estates comprised about 6 million hectares: about 2% of the rural population owned 60% of the land. As of today, a third of those have been confiscated, and turned over to poor landless farmers. Some of this land is owned by peasants (individually or as members of cooperatives) but much is owned by the state and leased to cooperatives. (This tends to be a better, more stable method of land reform as then the workers are not allowed to sell it, which removes the danger of it ending up in the hands of the rich once more).

Naturally, the biggest impetus behind land reform were moral, not economic ones. The Chávez government wanted to give landless and destitute people some access to the means of production, and to allow them a way out of poverty. Through their stress on cooperative economics as opposed to private landholdings, they have also made it clear that they want to undermine the whole ideology of private profit and self-interest that underlies capitalism, and which has produced most of the manifold problems in the modern world. Chávez and his government want the new rural enterprises of the future to be based on people working not simply for their own private self-interest, but in larger part for the common good. They want the peasant cooperatives to devote themselves to elevating the common and collective good over the individual, to stress one's obligation to the whole over what one can expect to receive, and to emphasize discipline, sacrifice and equality rather than individual advancement. To quote from Humberto Marquez' article earlier this year:

In the back are a kitchen and a large dining table for those who are working on a given day and the families that have settled in improvised homes in the surrounding area. On one wall there are faded posters of Chávez and of the Salvadoran revolutionary Farabundo Martí (1893-1932). "We are socialists. We work as a community, according to the abilities of each, and we take turns so that we aren't always doing the same thing, and to learn about everything. We realised that if we were each on our own it would be very difficult to get ahead and leave behind our days as labourers, as employees enriching someone else," says Neptalí Quintana.

This vision of a socialism that is essentially moral, that realizes that economic equality and solidarity are useless unless they are based on a moral transformation that de-emphasizes the individual and his interests, and places more emphasize on one's obligation to others and to the collective, were articulated decades ago by Che Guevara in his "Man and Socialism in Cuba":

I am not interested in dry economic socialism. We are fighting against misery, but we are also fighting against alienation. One of the fundamental objectives of [socialism] is to remove interest, the factor of individual interest, and gain, from people's psychological motivations. Marx was preoccupied both with economic factors and with their repercussions on the spirit. If communism isn't interested in this too, it may be a method of distributing goods, but it will never be a revolutionary way of life.

However, it's necessary to keep economic factors in mind too, at least at this stage. We need to assess, how successful has Venezuelan Socialism been at producing food? Many Americans seem to be under the impression that land reform, expropriation and cooperative economics must necessarily lead to declining food production, through pernicious incentives or something like that. I'm not sure why so this view is so common, but it is. So let's look at some statistics on Venezuelan agricultural production over the last ten years.

Production of rice and corn, the major locally produced staples, is up by 72% and 150% respectively over 1998.

Production of vegetables is up by over 50%.

Production of milk is up by over 33% (so much for the so-called milk shortages).

Production of chickens is up by 33% since 1999.

Production of coconuts is up about 60% since 2001, when the revolution effectively started.

These are not the effect of government subsidies. Unlike the capitalist U.S., Venezuela doesn't really subsidize agriculture, although they do extend cheap credit and supplies like fertilizer and tools to farmers. Quite the opposite, really: agricultural production has risen in spite of adverse government incientives caused by low fixed prices for commodities. (Since last year, in an effort to increase production even further, the fixed prices have been raised and set closer to the market price.) It would seem that cooperative-socialist agriculture is simply much better suited to the Latin American context, in an economic as well as a social and moral context. (Small-scale, socialist production is also better from the environmental point of view, and the revolutions in Nicaragua and Venezuela both included a great flowering of environmental concern, but that's a separate issue). The carping of the chattering classes in the United States and the parasitic elite in Venezuela about the inefficiencies of Chavista agriculture is nothing but propaganda, pure and simple. We should give the Chávez regime our congratulations for increasing agricultural production to such an extent, for giving unemployed people from urban areas the opportunity to become self-sufficient cooperative farmers, for emphasizing collective socialism over individualist capitalism, and for taking steps to solve the problem of swollen shanytowns by encouraging people to go back to the countryside and live out their true essential nature. In the Bolivarian Revolution is the answer to the modern world's pernicious and unnatural separation of work and reward, of the rich and the poor, of people from their essential natures. As the modern agribusiness complex in the United States begins to fall apart, more and more communities will find that they have to look within themselves to set up new networks of food production that are approriate to a poorer and more resource-deficient world, and in that day the good example of the Bolivarian Revolution will save the lives and livelihoods of many.


Russell Arben Fox said...

Just catching up on my reading here, and I discovered this post. It's fascinating, Hector; thanks for calling your readers attention to all of this data. It gives me (no pun intended) a lot of food for thought; I may want to write something about it, though I really don't the knowledge base to address the way you do.

You might be interested in this piece by Bill McKibben, which takes up many similar themes as your post in connection to the Cuban experience with "revolutionary" agriculture. It's a great, thoughtful essay.

Incidentally, I just wrote a Christmas-themed post which features McKibben's writing; you might be interested. And also incidentally, merry Christmas, and thanks for the link!

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