Juan Carlos Loyo held various posts in Chávez’s government, including Minister of Agriculture from 2010 to 2013. Today, Loyo is a researcher and a professor of political economy at the Bolivarian University in Caracas. In Part I of this interview, the former minister discusses the origins of Venezuela’s latifundia – huge, under-used tracts of landed property – and the radical land reform that Hugo Chávez tried to carry out during the heyday of the Bolivarian Process. In Part II, he addresses the problems rural Venezuela faces today.
When it comes to agrarian policy, what happened after Chávez's death?
I would say that Ezequiel Zamora [the 19th-century campesino leader] continues to be part of our historical narrative. However, while the aims of the people when it comes to [having and using] land remain constant, conditions do change. After Chávez’s death, the most active period in the struggle against latifundia came to an end.
These are complex times: imperialism put Venezuela under siege, which has severe implications when it comes to the country’s ability to purchase goods in the international market. On top of that, in Venezuela, most of the population lives in big cities. This means that it is urgent to think about an agricultural model that is efficient and satisfies the needs of the whole people.
Agricultural policies now must incorporate everybody who displays both a desire to produce and the capacity to do so. Of course, this must be done in an orderly manner, and campesinos must be incorporated into the government’s agricultural policies.
So, how would you describe the government’s current agricultural policies?
First, it is true that land recovery took the back seat after Chávez’s death, but I should add that there were struggles against latifundia up to 2016, so the break is not so clear cut.
What began to change after Chávez's death is that conditions external to the revolution were shifting. First, the government faced a huge drop in oil prices around 2014. Further, we should remember that the US increased its production capacity through fracking, which affected all those oil-dependent countries. Then, a process of political destabilization forced the Nicolás Maduro government to concentrate its efforts on maintaining peace in the nation. Destabilization efforts ranged from the guarimbas to Guaidó’s self-proclamation. Thirdly, US sanctions have also had a devastating effect on our economy.
There is another factor. While the government of President Maduro was focused on solving large-scale political problems, new regional leaderships began to emerge. Almost spontaneously, new local actors popped up. Those actors were not particularly keen on Chávez’s land reform, and they weren’t friends of Maduro’s government either.
How would you describe these new regional leaderships that emerged?
Chávez managed to contain the regional bourgeoisie’s old forms of organization. At that time, their power was based on control of the land and exploiting the campesinos. Along with that, they had the apparatus of the Democratic Action party, which consolidated their power.
After Chávez’s death, the old dynamics of regional power reemerged. The truth is that the landed bourgeoisie had never left the country: they just remained in the shadows. When the situation changed, this rural bourgeoisie openly participated in the political destabilization process. As that was happening, they also moved to re-establishing their power in the regions.
Then there is another issue. The Venezuelan bourgeoisie had never really been interested in production, but rather in capturing the oil rent. Now, these regional actors have realized that their only option is to produce, which indeed is something that the country needs.
Can you tell us a bit more about this shift in the rural bourgeoisie?
With Chávez, the oil rent was channeled toward satisfying the longstanding needs of the Venezuelan pueblo (despite the fact that the bourgeoisie was still able to capture some of that rent through various mechanisms).
In fact, the bourgeoisie's dependence on oil rent goes way back in history. Long before Chávez came to power, the rent was channeled toward importing food and other goods. This means that for decades the Venezuelan bourgeoisie favored a “port economy” over actually producing. With the drop in oil prices and the crisis of Venezuela's petroleum sector in the past decade, the oil rent has lost its central role in our economy.
That is why, lately, large-scale agricultural production is becoming more important. The first evidence of this was around 2015, as a result of the food shortages. At that time we began to see trucks arriving to the cities loaded with fruits and vegetables and selling the produce directly to the consumer, without intermediaries.
The interesting thing is that it was the small and medium producers who were feeding the people of the big cities in the midst of the crisis: there was no corn flour to be had, so people often survived on a diet of tubers.
In recent years conflicts over land have reemerged. Why is that?
Conflict is a constant in a capitalist society, and struggle for the land has gone on not just for decades but for centuries. My sense of the conflict now is that justice must prevail rapidly whenever problems emerge or reemerge. Unfortunately, there are many disputes that are being resolved by force. In some cases the violence is direct, from the landowner to the campesinos. In other cases, the landowner enlists the police or paramilitary forces, as happens in the border regions. They do this to expel the campesinos from the land.
All this is occurring as new regional forces are emerging that are not precisely aligned with the revolution. On top of that, legal institutions in the rural areas are very weak – badly hit by the crisis and often corrupt – which leaves the campesinos defenseless. We have to closely examine this problem.
I should say, however, that I don’t think that these injustices respond to a government policy or plan, but to a multiplicity of internal and external factors. These include: the reorganization of power at the regional level, the new interest of the bourgeoisie in possessing productive land, and the government’s need to attend to imminent efforts at destabilization.
However, there have been some advances. Recently, public prosecutor Tarek William Saab created a new office, that of the rural public prosecutor. This new institution should reach all corners of the country and resolve the existing conflicts as soon as possible.
Would it be correct to say that we have returned to a situation that resembles the conflicts over land that occurred during the Fourth Republic?
There are real conflicts, and they have to be resolved, but I would not say that the current situation resembles that of the Fourth Republic. There are still unresolved conflicts in Barinas, Guárico, and other states. However, the enormous contradictions that the revolution inherited in 1999 are no longer there: a good part of the large estates were recovered by the nation and put at the service of the people.
Today we have a conflict of a different nature. The pending issue now is how to produce more and better in a context marked by sanctions, in which money for importing agricultural inputs and seeds is very limited. As a nation, we have to encourage a process of sovereign production, not as an ideological desideratum, but as a concrete necessity.
This process must involve a multiplicity of actors. There is the rural bourgeoisie that cannot count on the oil rent to float their boat, and there are the campesinos, who produce an important part of the fruits and vegetables we eat. The government must support all actors, including the campesinos, with efficient policies. Scientific and technical advice for improving production, especially when it comes to seeds and inputs, is a must. The challenge now is that campesinos should be able to control the entire production chain, so that an increasingly growing and sustainable part is in sovereign hands.
In a society like ours, there will always be conflict over the land. However, the real bottleneck that producers now face is access to seeds and other implements, and technification. These are urgent issues: sovereign production should go beyond discourse, because it is now a matter of life and death.
Going back to Chávez, what is his legacy as far as the struggle for land is concerned?
Paraphrasing [George] Steiner, words are not enough when one talks about Chávez. Perhaps in other latitudes our thinking about Chávez may read as personalistic, or people may think that we are caught up in old ways of doing politics. Here, in the periphery, we can safely say that one man, Hugo Chávez Frias, made history. Chávez marks a before and an after.
Like no other, Chávez was able to survey Venezuela's vast landscape, saw the people who inhabited it, and was able to understand history from a subaltern perspective. Campesinos had struggled for more than two hundred years, leftist intellectuals wrote about the problem of the latifundia, university students joined the fight... but Chávez was the one who was able to break with the old, unjust, and inefficient forms of land tenure in Venezuela.
His humble origins, his experience in Apure, and his identification with those who struggle gave him the capacity to turn things around... with the people, of course. True to our history and following Zamora's legacy, Chávez made sure that the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela would force the state to address the problem of the latifundia. And, with the Land Law, he generated a framework that gave us a legal mandate and a roadmap. A problem that had been on the margins of our society was now put on center stage.
That is why I say that Chávez is everything: he is history and he is the present.