“Those politicians in Caracas need to listen to what the countryside is telling them.” The words are those of a potato farmer in Palo Verde, Yaracuy state, Venezuela, who was interviewed recently by Grace Livingstone for the BBC’s ‘From Our Own Correspondent’, Radio 4, 13 February. (You can listen to Grace’s full broadcast here (about 6 minutes into the programme).
As with everything in Venezuela, there are two sides to the coin. Potato farmers around Palo Verde complain that government controls mean that they cannot obtain seed potatoes, while a pig farmer describes how government subsidies for cheap imported meat have bankrupted his own farm.
In Barquisimeto, however, in the neighbouring state of Lara, Grace spoke to some of the 2,000 peasant families settled by the government of the previous President, Hugo Chavez, on land at El Maizal which was expropriated from a large land-owner who had left it idle. There is communal land, and a clinic and school, and most families have their own individual plots.
Now all this land is under threat from an opposition motion in the Venezuelan congress to return expropriated land to its former owners. ‘We used to be treated like slaves,’ says one commune member, while a woman says ‘We fought for years to get this land. We’re not going to give it up.’
Venezuela’s politicians clearly need to listen – to both messages.
Grace Livingstone’s second broadcast (BBC Radio 4 ‘From Our Own Correspondent, 18 February. Listen here, from 5:36 minutes) returns to the theme: politicians who don’t listen. Returning to Caracas she visited a community radio station, Radio Negro Primero, now a busy community hub with a kitchen and sewing workshop. Patria, one of the broadcasting team, says of the old days: “We women were leading a stupefied life, watching soap operas and cooking. Chavez woke us up and we feel empowered to take part in politics.” The trouble is that President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’ successor, lacks his charisma. The economic crisis has led to shortages and massive queues even for basics like flour and milk. Ordinary people blame inefficiency and suspect corruption. One bystander said, “Chavez did a lot of good things. But this lot, they’re just living off his fame. I see them talk a lot on TV but I don’t see them down here in the queues.”
Main image: food queues in Barquisimeto, January 2016
Grace Livingstone is a correspondent for the BBC and LAB and author of America’s Backyard.