Adamant: Hardest metal

Venezuela is close to collapse and chaos ... could pasties be the answer?

The Sunday Herald
Having survived one coup attempt, President Hugo Chavez is gripping on to power. Elizabeth Mistry in Caracas explains how a humble snack fits into his grand plan

First he ploughed up the city's Central Park to plant lettuces. Then Venezuela's charismatic and impulsive president, Hugo Chavez, announced plans for 'vertical chicken-houses' -- community-run coops on roofs and windowsills of the homes of some of the poorest of inhabitants of the capital, Caracas.

Now Chavez, who earlier this year saw off an opposition-led strike which virtually shut down the country by halting oil production for two months, and who survived a botched coup attempt in April 2002, has put his weight behind a bid to entice visitors to sample the culinary delights of the country the conquistadors named Little Venice.

La ruta de la empanada -- 'the route of the pasty' -- is the government's latest bid to encourage tourism. Along with the smaller bun-like arepas and flat, thicker circles of fried maize dough called cachapas, empanadas form the staple of much of Venezuela's impoverished 20 million population . The department of tourism is spearheading the promotion of the 'pasty tour' saying that the scheme will generate revenue for micro businesses -- often headed by women -- in areas where special pasties will be made. Government is investing millions of Bolivars.

That such a humble, everyday food item should have been chosen to be the focus of a new campaign is not such a surprise as almost all of the president's supporters are from the poorer sectors of society. Since coming to power, Chavez has abolished the school fees that all families had to pay to the state education sector. This, coupled with the introduction -- in some areas -- of a scheme providing children with up to three meals a day, has seen a huge increase in classroom attendance.

It is these policies, along with many others including a plan based on a Cuban programme to combat illiteracy, which are at the heart of the gulf in Venezuelan society today. The country is polarised between those who support the government's Bolivarian Revolution -- simply, a new social contract named after Simon Bolivar, the hero of Venezuelan independence -- and those in opposition, mostly from the middle or upper classes, who have seen standards of living plummet under Chavez.

Some of the loudest criticisms come from 20,000 former senior management staff from the government-run petroleum company, PDVSA. After they supported the strike, they were barred from returning to work although the only notification of this came in a newspaper.

Since February, many of them are to be found at protest sites outside the doors of PDVSA's headquarters, a well-organised group determined to get their jobs and frozen pensions back in spite of the fact that Chavez has called them traitors.

Many of the initiatives of the Chavez project are genuine moves to deal with years of blatant neglect and underinvestment. Others, such as the president's open anti- business stance -- he believes, rightly in many cases, that much of the business community was behind the coup and the strike -- are acts which have only served to deepen the gulf between the two sides.

The political chaos is just one of Venezuela's headaches. Chavez uses daily broadcasts to explain how the gross domestic product will rise. This can be achieved by increasing petrol and gas production, which accounts for 80% of income, but it is not a sign of real growth -- and Finance Minister Tobias Nobrega admitted yesterday that he expected the economy to contract by 10.7% this year.

Until last year tourism was a good source of currency. More than 15% of South America's sixth-largest country is designated as national park . But tourists are put off by the high crime rate in Caracas. While most violent crime is predominantly gang-related, the rising tide of lawlessness threatens other areas of the country and visitor numbers have plummeted. One of the main areas of concern is that the vicious but mainly vocal battles between the two political sides will become violent.

'The parties must reach a solution constitutionally. They have to see this, somehow,' says Antonio Gonzalez Plessman, head of research at the Provea human rights centre in Caracas. 'If there is a referendum on the Chavez administration, as there could be anytime after August 19, when the government will have completed half its term, we will have to have international observers to help.'

Few are prepared to speculate on what will happen, but say the route to recovery will be long and difficult.

22 June 2003

Government is farming in downtown Caracas but food production collapses

Venezuela's Electronic News
Posted: Thursday, June 05, 2003
By: Gustavo Coronel

VHeadline.com commentarist Gustavo Coronel writes: As I receive a report from the Associated Press titled "Cultivating Caracas," which deals with the attempts made by the government to "farm in Caracas," I see on TV that the Deputy Minister of Agriculture has been fired ... he is being fired because he criticized food price controls imposed by the government ... he said that price controls had produced a sharp decline in agricultural and animal production and should be revised.

  • Of course, the President fired him and rightly so ... a dissenting public officer has no place in this government. However, the bureaucrat was right.

The decline in food production in Venezuela can not be reversed by means of the isolated patches of land being farmed in Caracas behind wire fences, to prevent the access of the ordinary people. As a result, what could be a welcome manner to beautify the ugly city, has become a new symbol of discrimination.

I met briefly with former Minister of Agriculture Hiram Gaviria ... a former Chavez Ambassador to France ... and he had this to say about the situation of food production in the country at this point in time:

The value of total agricultural production, which includes vegetable, animal, fisheries and forestry products, has been systematically declining. FEDEAGRO, the national association of rural producers, claims that the decline was in the order of 5.1% in 2001 and 4.8% in 2002 ... practically 10% in the last two years.

  • In 2002, rice production came down 12.3%; corn a disastrous 30.2%; sorghum 29%; coffee 9.8%; milk 4.1% and beef 5.8% ... there were increases in sugar cane 7%, chickens 0.3% and pork 4%.

The area under cultivation has gone from 2 million hectares in 1998 to less than 1.6 million hectares in 2002. During the 1999-2002 period 240,000 jobs have been lost in rural areas and in the food industry at large, going from 1.2 million to 960,000.

This year, 2003, the agricultural sector is expected to shrink another 6%. We are already in the wet season and there is no action from the government to promote production, beyond speeches and vague promises. The growers, who used to plant during the winter cycle, lack seeds, fertilizers and agrochemical products which are essential to their work. Financing is very scarce and expensive, and contracts to buy the crops are practically non-existent.

Animal population is also declining ... beef cattle has gone from 13 million head in 1994 to 11.4 million in 2003. Dairy cows have declined 3% due to increasing cost of feed, medicines, machinery and electricity. These two sectors are particularly hard hit by the dangerous living conditions in rural areas, where cattle rustling, kidnappings and land invasions have reached record high proportions. According to FENAVI, the federation of chicken producers, production has gone down 14% between Q1 2002 and the Q1 this year.

Food consumption, on the other hand, has also declined significantly, due to decreasing local production, food price controls and the impossibility to acquire foreign currency to import raw materials. Chicken consumption, for example, has gone down from 27.5 kilograms per capita in 2002 to a projected 18.5 kilograms per capita this year. Egg consumption has decreased from 117 units per capita in 2002 to some 110 units per capita this year. Beef cattle producers in FEDENAGA say that beef consumption has declined from 18.2 kilograms per capita in 2002 to 17.2 kilograms this year ... there is evident scarcity of basic items such as pasta, bread, chicken, eggs, corn flour, vegetable oils, rice and other grains.

To face this disastrous situation the government has chosen to directly import large amounts of food, rather than promoting local production. Chicken is coming from Brazil and also from China. Wheat flour is coming from Italy. Milk from eastern Europe. Beans from China. Worse still, most of these imports are routed through Cuba and handled by Cuba ... which makes the acquisition costs unnecessarily expensive while transactions lack transparency. Some of the products are wrapped in paper printed with political slogans and are considered by the consumers to be of very low quality. Behaving in this manner, the government violates Constitution Article 299 which protects free competition, Article 301 which prohibits the State from allowing foreign companies or governments better terms than those allowed to nationals and Article 305 which reads that food security will be guaranteed through the promotion of local production.

Venezuela should not be in an agricultural crisis ... it has about 10 million hectares good for farming, rather better than the backyard of the Caracas Hilton. There are tractors, producers and rural roads. What we do not have is a reasonable agricultural policy ... a policy which could be based in no more than 5 points:

  1. To determine what are our comparative advantages and concentrate on them instead of trying to produce everything, which often amounts to nothing;
  2. Provide the necessary financial resources to increase production and productivity;
  3. Coordinate price policies with the participation of both government and producers, not set prices unilaterally;
  4. Stop invasions of private and producing land and protect private property, and,
  5. Establish a true alliance between producers and government to really provide food security.

Mr. Gaviria is not optimistic about the possibility that these policy can be put together under this regime. He probably knows what he is talking about since he was a member of Chavez' close political environment up to a year or so ago, when he decided to break away on matters of principle.

The farming of Caracas is no more than a publicity stunt designed to make the ordinary citizen believe that things are being done, while very little is really being done.

No matter what sector we look at, agriculture, mining, petroleum, tourism, education, health, we see the same abysmal incompetence all across the board.

This is the reason why we can not wait patiently to change this government ... each day we wait the country dies a little ... instead of becoming more prosperous.

Governments which promote poverty and unhappiness among the people should be sent to the trash bin of history...

Gustavo Coronel is the founder and president of Agrupacion Pro Calidad de Vida (The Pro-Quality of Life Alliance), a Caracas-based organization devoted to fighting corruption and the promotion of civic education in Latin America, primarily Venezuela. A member of the first board of directors (1975-1979) of Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), following nationalization of Venezuela's oil industry, Coronel has worked in the oil industry for 28 years in the United States, Holland, Indonesia, Algiers and in Venezuela. He is a Distinguished alumnus of the University of Tulsa (USA) where he was a Trustee from 1987 to 1999. Coronel led the Hydrocarbons Division of the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) in Washington DC for 5 years. The author of three books and many articles on Venezuela ("Curbing Corruption in Venezuela." Journal of Democracy, Vol. 7, No. 3, July, 1996, pp. 157-163), he is a fellow of Harvard University and a member of the Harvard faculty from 1981 to 1983. In 1998, he was presidential election campaign manager for Henrique Salas Romer and now lives in retirement on the Caribbean island of Margarita where he runs a leading Hotel-Resort. You may contact Gustavo Coronel at email gustavo@vheadline.com

Cultivating Caracas

By Christopher Toothaker
SunSentinel.com-The Associated Press
Posted June 5 2003

CARACAS· President Hugo Chávez couldn't persuade city folks to move to the sparsely populated interior to help Venezuela feed itself. So he's bringing farming to the city.

With help from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the populist ex-paratrooper who sold mangoes as a child hopes to give Caracas residents a green thumb -- as a way to fight poverty and malnutrition.

Despite the country's oil riches, more than half of its 24 million people live in poverty. According to the latest statistics available from the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, at least 5 percent of Venezuelan children under 5 years old were undernourished in 2000.

Most Venezuelans make the minimum wage of $120 a month. Even if two parents work, it's not enough for the $585 the average family of five needs for just a basic living.

Chávez is urging shantytown residents to plant rooftop gardens. He has the army helping in a campaign to turn abandoned land into community gardens.

At one lot in downtown Caracas recently, soldiers hauled wheelbarrows of dark soil while Cuban agriculture experts from the FAO reviewed plans, and volunteers -- many of whom had never seen a farm -- planted vegetables.

"We are using intensive farming with high rotation [of crops] all year long," said a Cuban adviser, Mirium Carrion.

Flowers, green peppers, beets and even medicinal plants such as aloe have been planted on a 1.3-acre plot next to a Hilton hotel.

"Everything that is planted and harvested here will be sold to the public," said Amado Perdigon, an agronomic engineer. "Volunteers will share in the profits and a portion will be put back into the program to keep it going."

Chávez says his government aims to get vegetables planted on more than 2,470 acres in Caracas and surrounding areas, including city slums, this year. The city farm project comes as Venezuela suffers one of its worst recessions in decades.

Besides encouraging city farming, the government plans to sell 112,000 tons of food each month to the poor at bargain prices. The Special Food Security Plan, with soldiers distributing and selling the food, will cost the government $70 million a month, Chávez said.

Michael Shifter, an analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, said the project is well-intentioned but based on failed models in Cuba and other communist countries.

A Revolution of conucos, chicken coops and empanadas...

Venezuela's Electronic News
Posted: Thursday, May 29, 2003
By: Gustavo Coronel

VHeadline.com commentarist Gustavo Coronel writes: The 'conuco' is a small patch of land traditionally cultivated in some Latin American countries by very poor farmers ... not for commercial purposes but for the subsistence of the family. It usually consists of 2-5 acres of land on which the farmer, assisted by wife and/or children, cultivate basic crops such as corn, plantains, cassava and the like. In addition, there are a few chickens running around, a couple of pigs and a few mango trees.

The conuco is one of the most primitive forms of farming, and is related to the Arawak tribes found by the Spaniards when arriving to the new world. Later on, the conuco also became the patch of land given by large plantation owners to their slaves for personal usufruct (Merriam-Webster: the right to use or enjoy something).

The conuco is a backward form of farming because it often entails burning and clearing hillside slopes, which promotes soil erosion. As such it is an enemy of sustainable agriculture and of environmental protection, which are basic concepts of the new Law of Lands and Agrarian Development (Articles 1 and 2).

However, Article 19 of this law recognizes the conuco as the historical source of biodiversity (really?) and as the object of government protection and promotion. The "ancestral" technique, reads the Article, will be made known and disseminated by the government, as well as its techniques of "soil preservation."

In Article 20, the 'conuquero' is said to be guaranteed his/her patch of land ... in parallel, however, the current 1999 Constitution (Article 307) makes guaranteed food security a fundamental right for Venezuelans.

How to reconcile this Constitutional mandate with the objectives of conuco promotion contained in the lesser law is beyond my understanding.

The chicken coop is the second vertebra of the revolutionary spinal column. It aims at replacing commercial egg and chicken production with domestic chicken coops located on flat terrain or ... if need be ... flat rooftops, a variation which has been baptized as the "vertical chicken coop."

Many Venezuelan families have had chicken coops in their backyards for decades or even centuries. When I was 15, I took a course in aviculture in my spare time, learning about the different types of chickens and hens, those good for eating and those good for eggs. I even learned how to kill a chicken efficiently, by snapping its head backwards, although I never got to do it.

When we moved to Sabana del Medio (where we have almost 4 acres) we decided to install a chicken coop, much before the Presidential directive ... I felt that my theoretical knowledge of aviculture would allow us to produce the best eggs in the neighborhood.

We came to have about 20 hens and 2 roosters, but the hens were moody and stopped laying eggs without notice ... either due to sentimental problems or to the type of feed they got. After my calculations indicated that the eggs had a cost three times more than the ones we could buy in the market, we dissolved the coop ... to my great relief. The hens were greedy and wanton creatures... If this experience of ours is a common one, I'm afraid that the Presidential plan is going to diminish the national GDP even further ... his initiative might well become what, in colloquial English, is known as "to lay an egg."

And now we come to the third component of the revolutionary economic program ... the so called "Ruta de las Empanadas" ... the Empanada highway, an almost military plan to establish a national grid of 'empanada' stations. The empanada is almost as popular as 'arepas' in Venezuela ... especially along the coastal towns, less so in the hinterland. The empanada is made of corn flour, not wheat flour as in Chile and Argentina. The dough is filled with shredded meat or black beans or cheese or 'cazon' ... a marine fish of the family of squalids ... the non-political variety ... in short, a small shark.

The empanada is a big favorite in the early mornings, and is eaten mostly standing up at a street corner or in popular markets such as Conejeros in Porlamar, Guaicaipuro in Caracas or La Marina in Maracaibo. It is also common at the small town fairs, where they compete with arepas and diverse meats, served from cauldrons, grills and spits by a swarm of women, all chanting the excellences of their offerings, while mumbling depreciatively about their neighbor's.

Traditionally, empanada stands crop up here and there, without discipline. As of now, however, the revolution will impose an impressive grid of some 4,000 empanada stations all over the country ... or so the government says ... in order to generate some 400,000 new jobs.

Although details are yet somewhat sketchy, the impression I get is that the country will be divided by imaginary lines intersecting at right angles, with an empanada station at every intersection ... something like an enormous bingo card. This would facilitate comparing the quality of, say, the empanadas at O-5 with those at M-9...

This bold and visionary initiative could generate some new jobs ... but it might destroy, among many others, the quaint, personalized, empanada stand of Misia Luisa in Puerto La Cruz ... the individual empanada site will be sacrificed to a large scale, impersonal, revolutionary empanada blitz.

I get the impression that the rather melancholy Chavez revolution is falling short of the answers required by the mounting social, economic and political problems of the country. In the manner of T. S. Elliot, one could say that:

This is the way the revolution ends
This is the way the revolution ends...
not with a bang, but a whimper...

History will talk about a failed experiment which tried to base Venezuelan society on pride in poverty and backwardness, in going back to Zamora and to being half naked...

People would not go for it...

Gustavo Coronel is the founder and president of Agrupacion Pro Calidad de Vida (The Pro-Quality of Life Alliance), a Caracas-based organization devoted to fighting corruption and the promotion of civic education in Latin America, primarily Venezuela. A member of the first board of directors (1975-1979) of Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), following nationalization of Venezuela's oil industry, Coronel has worked in the oil industry for 28 years in the United States, Holland, Indonesia, Algiers and in Venezuela. He is a Distinguished alumnus of the University of Tulsa (USA) where he was a Trustee from 1987 to 1999. Coronel led the Hydrocarbons Division of the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) in Washington DC for 5 years. The author of three books and many articles on Venezuela ("Curbing Corruption in Venezuela." Journal of Democracy, Vol. 7, No. 3, July, 1996, pp. 157-163), he is a fellow of Harvard University and a member of the Harvard faculty from 1981 to 1983. In 1998, he was presidential election campaign manager for Henrique Salas Romer and now lives in retirement on the Caribbean island of Margarita where he runs a leading Hotel-Resort. You may contact Gustavo Coronel at email gustavo@vheadline.com

Chavez starts city farming for Venezuelans in poverty

Posted on Wed, Apr. 30, 2003
By Christopher Toothaker
ContraCostaTimes.com-ASSOCIATED PRESS

CARACAS, Venezuela -President Hugo Chavez could not persuade city folks to move to the sparsely populated interior to help Venezuela feed itself. So he is bringing farming to the city.

With help from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the populist ex-paratrooper who sold mangoes as a child hopes to give Caracas residents a green thumb as a way to fight poverty and malnutrition.

Despite the country's oil riches, more than half of its 24 million people live in poverty. According to the latest statistics from the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, at least 5 percent of Venezuelan children under age 5 were undernourished in 2000.

Most Venezuelans make the minimum wage of $120 a month. Even if two parents work, it is not enough for the $585 the average family of five needs for just a basic living.

Chavez is urging shantytown residents to plant rooftop gardens. And he has the army helping in a campaign to turn abandoned land into community gardens.

At one lot in downtown Caracas recently, soldiers hauled wheelbarrows of dark soil while Cuban agriculture experts from the FAO reviewed plans, and volunteers -- many of whom had never seen a farm -- planted vegetables.

"We are using intensive farming with high rotation (of crops) all year long," said Mirium Carrion, a Cuban adviser. "If we don't get at least five or six harvests a year, it really isn't feasible."

Flowers, green peppers, beets and even medicinal plants such as aloe have been planted on a 1.3-acre plot next to a Hilton hotel.

"Everything that is planted and harvested here will be sold to the public," said Amado Perdigon, an agronomic engineer. "Volunteers will share in the profits and a portion will be put back into the program to keep it going."

Critics say the campaign means well, but they argue that it is based on projects that have failed in communist countries and say the government would do more to alleviate food shortages if it helped the private business sector.

Chavez says his government aims to get vegetables planted on more than 2,470 acres in Caracas and surrounding areas, including city slums, this year. "We are planting a new life for Venezuela," he proclaimed recently.

The government will spend $2 million for the projects in Caracas, said Ricaurte Leonett, the deputy agriculture minister.

Chavez first tried to persuade city people to become farmers after mudslides and flash floods killed 15,000 Venezuelans and left tens of thousands homeless near the capital. Most of the homeless refused to budge, preferring to stay with relatives or rebuild precarious shanties.

Recession continues

The city farm project comes as Venezuela suffers one of its worst recessions in decades.

A two-month general strike that ended in February and a government freeze on spending U.S. dollars have worsened food shortages. Called by labor and business groups to demand Chavez's resignation, the strike failed while costing Venezuela an estimated $6 billion in lost production.

The stoppage also led the government to impose currency exchange controls to stem a slide in foreign currency reserves. Since January, not one dollar has been granted to food importers in a country that imports 60 percent of its food.

Besides encouraging city farming, the government plans to sell 112,000 tons of food each month to the poor at bargain prices. The Special Food Security Plan, with soldiers distributing and selling the food, will cost the government $70 million a month, Chavez said.

Critics argue that the cost will outweigh the effort's benefits while further hurting the struggling private sector.

Michael Shifter, an analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, said the project is well-intentioned but based on failed models in Cuba and other communist countries.

"There aren't many success stories regarding similar efforts," he said. "This goes against what many see as the proper role for the military. It helps him (Chavez) consolidate power while leaving private enterprise out."

The army also is providing urban farmers with old wooden shipping pallets and trash bags to build growing containers.

In Caracas' Tamarindo slum, the crates are sprouting with lettuce, eggplant, tomatoes and broccoli. They are on balconies and rooftops in the labyrinth of red-brick shanties clinging to hillsides.

"This is eggplant and that one is broccoli, all planted a few weeks ago," said Eloy Guerrero, a 53-year-old carpenter who supports a family of six. "I don't know how much food it will provide, but it's something for my family during hard times."

You are not logged in