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Interview With Christina Schiavoni On Food Shortages And The Politics Of Food In Venezuela

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Hosts Rania Khalek and Kevin Gosztola are joined by Christina Schiavoni, who is a food sovereignty activist and doctoral researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague. She has engaged in solidarity work in Venezuela and focuses on food issues, and she lived in a working class community in Caracas from early 2016 to 2018.

Schiavoni describes how she became involved in activism around food sovereignty in Venezuela. She addresses the issues of food shortages and who owns most of the major food companies. She also grapples with the lack of diversification in Venezuela’s economy.

Later in the interview, Schiavoni talks about food aid that is handed out to poor and working class Venezuelans by the government. She outlines the impact of sanctions and provides an explanation for why the government may not want to allow the humanitarian aid from President Donald Trump’s administration to enter Venezuela.

Click on the above player to hear the interview or go here.

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Below is a partial transcript of the interview

GOSZTOLA: Let’s begin by talking about your background, your work, and why you’re involved in Venezuela.

SCHIAVONI: For quite a while I’ve worked on issues of food justice and food sovereignty organizing and advocacy in the U.S. And in 2006, I was working for a U.S.-based NGO when I was sent to Caracas to attend the World Social Forum, which happened to be in Venezuela that year. Going there, what was much more interesting than the formal sessions was just talking to people and talking to farmers and rural and urban community activists about what they were up to.

And what they were up to was a tremendous amount of organizing around food and agriculture issues that involved engaging with their communities on their needs. What really fascinated me was—first of all, you could feel the energy and excitement and hopefulness and also how these efforts were so proactive compared to my organizing experience in the U.S., where we were often putting out fires trying to defend cuts to food stamps and family farm foreclosures.

So it was really interesting and inspiring to see all of this energy toward food sovereignty in Venezuela, and the fact that for many of the movements that I was involved in food sovereignty was an aspiration. Whereas in Venezuela it was actually already written into law and the legal framework was providing a helpful mechanism for grassroots groups.

I got back to the U.S. and I was all excited about this, and I just realized no one even in my food justice/food sovereignty circles was talking about what was happening in Venezuela. And as I started looking at the broader media, I started really paying attention to how much distortion there was. So this got me really committed to try to learn as much as I could, share as much as I could, get back to Venezuela, create more linkages between grassroots activists in Venezuela and the U.S., lead solidarity delegations, and ultimately, to make this the focus of my graduate research.

KHALEK: That’s really interesting that you mention the lack of understanding about what was happening in Venezuela, even from certain leftists. I do want to ask you about the issue of not just food but the economy in Venezuela. You participated in this article for Monthly Review that goes into the colonial history of Venezuela to connect it to the current state of the economy in that country. And we often hear that they never diversified the economy. Why isn’t the economy in Venezuela diversified and does that have to do with its colonial legacy?

SCHIAVONI: Something so important and among the many mischaracterizations in the media is this idea that the problems being seen in Venezuela today, all of them just started in 1999 with the Bolivarian revolution and the rise of [Hugo] Chavez and later [Nicolas] Maduro. When in fact, to understand what’s happening today, it’s important to look way back in history, starting back in the 1500s with the colonization of Venezuela by Spain. And at that time—people talk today about the focus on a single export product—well that started way back then, first with the product of cacao and then with the coffee, where the whole economy became centered around just one or two products. It was these large scale plantations based on slave labor and later low-wage labor.

The entire economy became oriented around agro-exportation. In the 1920s, Venezuela’s food system took a major turn with the exploitation of its petroleum industry. At that time, almost a singular effort of the government and of the elites of the country turned to petroleum, and there was a massive exodus out of the countryside into cities, into the petroleum exportation areas at the same time that Venezuela began to import its food. And very early on, already by the 1930s, Venezuela became a net food importer, and at the same time, it began to orient its entire economy around petroleum.

Just to say that’s been going on for quite a long time, and with the process of colonization and later agricultural modernization, which we also talk about in the piece, massive inequalities really began to develop. Food was a tool for these inequalities. Food at first was used to separate the identities of the Europeans and later the European-descended elite from the indigenous population and later the Afro-indigenous population. So food was really used as this tool to divide.

Then, through the modernization period, when petroleum was developed, a middle class began to emerge, and this middle class was largely European-descended. This was facilitated by an immigration policy of the government, starting in the 1930s, where they actually wanted to bring in more white Europeans to help “purify” and “strengthen” the identity of the population. So these links between race and class and food used as a division—these go way back. And they continued into the period of neoliberal globalization.

By 1989, these disparities that had been growing over the years really came to a head in what was called the Caracazo. The Caracazo basically means the explosion of Caracas. At this moment, the president at the time signed a deal with the IMF, and almost overnight prices of food shot through the roof and also of fuel. For people who had already been living on the edge, enough was enough. So people rushed down. The poor communities living on the hillsides of Caracas rushed down into the capital in a major protest and popular uprising that was known as the Caracazo.

From 1989 onward, that was kind of the period building up to the Bolivarian revolution. By the time the Bolivarian revolution started in 1999, the Caracazo was still very much in the collective consciousness, and by 1999, at the start of the Bolivarian revolution, half of the country was living in poverty and about a quarter of the country was living in extreme poverty. When the media reports talk about Venezuela of the past being a model democracy and an example of development in Latin America, they’re missing a huge piece of the story.

With the rise of the Bolivarian revolution, when it comes to food, there were two things to be done. One was to attend to the immediate needs of the population, about half of which was facing hunger, and the other was to try to work toward broader transformation of this food system that had helped to produce many of these inequalities. So this is something seen from the start of the Bolivarian revolution.

Now the media reports are saying that today what we’re seeing is the failure of all of that—the failure of efforts under the Bolivarian revolution, the failures of socialism, they love to say. They’re missing some huge pieces from those analyses.

First of all, up until 2015, Venezuela was still being pointed toward as an example by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization for having nearly eradicated hunger. By around 2011, hunger in Venezuela was down to under 3 percent. That was a huge achievement. They surpassed the Millennium Development goal [inaudible]. This continued to be recognized up until 2015. So often in the media, it’s portrayed that there was this gradual degradation and things slowly, steadily worsened. That is not at all the case, and there’s ample data about the many gains, particularly including the eradication of hunger under the Bolivarian revolution.

Already that points to the fact that there’s a particular confluence of factors going on at the moment, which we can get into. But another important point is the fact that socialism was an aspiration, but it’s not like, boom, there was socialism. In fact, most of the food system remains in private hands, and in fact, there’s one single company that’s the largest single private company in Venezuela that controls most of the products in the Venezuelan food basket. So basically the food products are monopolized.

One of these products is pre-cooked corn flour, which forms the basis of what is the daily bread of Venezuelans, the arepa. This pre-cooked corn flour was the top missing product that people were lining up outside of supermarkets for that was captured on media across the globe. And, again, this was all deemed a failure of the government, not even stopping to ask, well, who controls the corn flour to begin with?

KHALEK: We can talk more broadly about the issues that are happening in Venezuela now, but is that happening intentionally? Like who are the owners that dominate and monopolize food, the different areas of food in Venezuela, and are they intentionally trying to cause shortages? I actually don’t know. I know that’s the case in other countries, where the U.S. government was involved in trying to overthrow the government in the ‘80s and the ‘70s. Like in Chile, they would advise the people who owned everything to hoard. Is that what’s happening in Venezuela?

SCHIAVONI: I’m glad you mentioned Chile because there are many parallels—I mean, so many parallels that it’s almost following the same playbook between what is happening now in Venezuela and what was happening in the early 1970s in the lead-up to the coup against [Salvador] Allende in Chile. And there are several things going on.

So first of all, going back to that corporation that I mentioned, that is the largest private corporation in Venezuela that controls many of the products that Venezuelans rely on daily, including pre-cooked corn flour. That company is named Polar, and it is owned by the Mendoza Fleury family, which is a very, very wealthy and influential family in the country, whose power and wealth date back to the colonial period. And they are openly aligned with the opposition.

It’s hard to point to how much of the shortages can be attributed to Polar, but there’s no doubt that the fact that this company that is aligned with the opposition is the one that controls the products missing from themselves—that’s really no coincidence.

When some of these questions were put to Polar, they’ve had to walk a fine line because they’re also trying to present it as if Polar is feeding the nation, even in the midst of all these woes. While at the same time they also need to present that they’re being impacted by these woes. So there was an interesting interview that we refer to in the piece with the spokesperson of Polar, who said, no, we’re continuing to develop products. We’ve come out with new lines of teas and gelatins in Venezuela. So there’s a lot of things that just aren’t adding up.

We also refer to the work of an excellent economist in Venezuela named Pasqualina Curcio, who has really followed all of this very carefully, very well documented. She’s written a book called The Visible Hand Of The Free Market that’s available online [PDF] in English, and we encourage people who really want to get into some of the intricacies behind what’s happening to check out her book because she talks [inaudible] both the role of corporations and also of course there are the retailers who are also complicit in this.

The reason we know is there’s a lot of wheelings and dealings going on is because these products are still there in the country. So you can still go to a restaurant and get an arepa made with pre-cooked corn flour. You can go out to the street to the parallel market, and you can buy pre-cooked corn flour for many times the price. You go across the border from Venezuela into Colombia and there in Cucuta there’s a whole bunch of pre-cooked corn flour that’s been smuggled across the border into Colombia.

These products are definitely there, but they’re not on supermarket shelves. And that’s part of what has caused tremendous insecurity in the population, and something that’s really not talked about. Are any of the products missing from supermarket shelves? It’s not that you go into the supermarket, and there’s nothing. The kind of eerie and surreal thing is that there are products, but there’s an abundance of soft drinks and then there’s not cooking oil. Or you can get cheese but you can’t get powdered milk. So that’s one thing that’s not talked about is the selectivity of the products missing from themselves, and the fact that these products are still in circulation outside of supermarkets.

GOSZTOLA: One question I have in connection to that is whether there are foods that there’s an abundance of because local growers have been able to work around the fact that there are these monopolies on food. So are there certain kinds of food that Venezuelans don’t have to worry about getting?

SCHIAVONI: Thanks for asking that because that’s definitely the case. One of the policy and grassroots initiatives over the course of the Bolivarian revolution was strengthening local agriculture. So in terms of local traditional foods, fresh corn is available, and in fact, one of the things that people have done is to dust off their grandmothers’ corn grinders and put them back into use and make arepas using fresh corn. There’s lots of cassava, sweet potatoes, potatoes, plantains, and other locally available produce.

Something kind of exciting in terms of food sovereignty is in the face of the crisis, a lot of these local foods systems are being strengthened and there’s a lot of creativity and a lot of linkages happenings between movements in the city and movements in the countryside to try to form alternative channels. I have some examples that I’ve researched of very effective efforts that are very much being led at the grassroots level made possible through prior organization under the Bolivarian revolution.

I can start with one example, an initiative called Pueblo a Pueblo, that works with farmers in the countryside, some of whom had been involved in the earlier agrarian reform process in Venezuela under the Bolivarian revolution. So working with small-scale farmers and working with urban comunas—And comunas, or communes, is a form of popular organization that has also been very much a focus of the Bolivarian revolution, where communities come together, organize, select their own representatives, and link together horizontally. They first form community councils, and then they form comunas.

Because there was this existing organization of the comunas, this effort, Pueblo a Pueblo, which means people to people, was able to link these farmers in the countryside to these forms of popular organization in the city, and just a few years they’re reaching 60,000 families in the cities with regular distributions of fresh food. And not 60,000 people, it’s 60,000 families. So it’s multiplied several times. That’s just in the course of a few years, and there are also many examples like that.

One of my pet peeves, of course, since this is something that I’ve been looking at is how little any of these sorts of efforts are talked about or really how little any perspectives at the grassroots level are talked about.

For the rest of the interview, listen to the above player or go here.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."