Throughout 2007 and 2008, scarcity of basic food products has been part of everyday life for millions of Venezuelans. Sometimes it has been coffee, other times sugar, milk, rice, cooking oil or beans that were unavailable on the shelves of super-markets and shops. This has created a potentially dangerous situation which could undermine support for the Bolivarian government.
The inability of the Venezuelan government to solve this problem played a key role in the defeat in the referendum on Constitutional reform in December 2007, where three million Chavez supporters abstained from voting. That explains why, at the beginning of 2008, a campaign was launched on the direct initiative of Chavez to solve the problem. This involved the use of the National Guard to confiscate hidden reserves of food and stop the smuggling of food into Colombia, where speculators can sell the food products at much more favorable prices.
The campaign demonstrated that food scarcity was the result of hoarding, speculation and smuggling on a massive scale. However, no effective measures were taken to deal with the root of the problem at that time. Private property of the food-producing sector was left untouched. As we warned at the time: “The seizure of food stocks by the National Guard and other bodies can temporarily ease the problem, but cannot solve it in the long term. Relying on the institutions of a state apparatus which is still a capitalist state to solve the problems of working people is like putting a fox in charge of guarding hens.”
In February, the government conducted a number of investigations of private companies in the food sector. In a rice processing plant in Guarico state, owned by the country’s largest food producer, Polar, it was revealed that the plant was only working at half capacity. Furthermore, the plant was adding artificial flavoring to 90 percent of its rice in order to get around the price controls decreed by he government, which only apply to essential, unenhanced food items.
On Saturday, February 28, Chavez decreed state intervention at the rice processing plant in Guárico, which is to run for 90 days. The workers at the plant have supported this measure with great enthusiasm and have begun to produce 100 percent unmodified rice. This shows that it is entirely possible to mass produce cheap rice as long as it is done under the control of the working class.
Having discovered this deliberate sabotage, Chavez emphasized that this was only the tip of the iceberg. On his TV program, Aló Presidente, on March 1, he threatened the capitalists in the food sector. If the sabotage continues, he said, “we will expropriate all of their plants, and convert them from private property into social property.”
Then on Wednesday, March 3, Chavez announced the expropriation of the rice plants of Cargill, a U.S.owned multinational food company. It was revealed that this rice-processing plant in Portuguesa was adding artificial flavoring to all of its rice to get round the price controls. Apart from that, INDEPABIS found approximately 18,000 tons of non-modified rice stored in the plant’s warehouse.
Chavez signed the official decree of expropriation of Cargill’s rice plants on March 6. In the same speech he stated that in the past, the oligarchy had been making the laws but that this era had now ended and “Now Venezuela has a government that only abides by the constitution and the people”. On Sunday, March 7, during his weekly Alo Presidente programme, Chavez replied to the criticisms on the part of Polar group owner Lorenzo Mendoza, and warned, “my hand will not shake when it comes to expropriating the whole of the Polar group if they are found to be breaking the law. Let this be a warning to the bourgeoisie as a whole: my hand will not shake,” adding, “And I would have the full support of the people.”
In what was a very radical speech, president Chavez also dismissed those who advocate the need to conciliate with the ruling class. “Some are trying to tell a tale that we have a technical draw, that we are neck and neck [with the opposition], this is completely false” and added, “with this story they want the revolution to surrender and that I should put my foot the brake and say: we cannot go forward, we need to reach agreements.” To these ideas he replied: “The revolution must charge ahead. There cannot be any agreement with the oligarchy or agreements at the top with anybody; I will make sure that we put our foot down on the accelerator of the Revolution.”
He continued: “We have an absolute majority” in the National Assembly, he said. It is now time to “dismantle the old bourgeois state, before it dismantles us.” This is completely correct, but it is also the responsibility of the workers’ movement and its leadership to take the initiative. Many opportunities have been wasted in the past. It is time to take decisive action.
The most striking feature of the recent developments in the struggle against food scarcity is the movement of the workers. Once the ice was broken with the state intervention in the rice-plant in Guárico, workers from the food industry all over Venezuela began to organize and call for action against the sabotage of the capitalists.
More than ever before, the Venezuelan revolution is clashing head-on with private property of the means of production. Private property is an obstacle to national sovereignty in the field of food production. In order to accomplish the basic tasks of the national-democratic revolution, the working class – leading the peasantry behind it – must put itself at the head of the revolution and smash the remnants of private property and the old bourgeois state apparatus. Only in this way can an effective agrarian reform and industrialization of agriculture be introduced, which would give a huge impetus to domestic food production. And in so doing, the national-democratic revolution will grow over into the Socialist revolution. In that sense the Venezuelan revolution will become “permanent”. This is the real lesson of the present dispute over the rice fields.