Venezuela: the politicians need to listen

As Venezuela’s economic crisis deepens, Grace Livingstone has been out to the Venezuelan countryside, gauging the effects of the crisis there.
Grace Livinstone

With triple digit inflation, the prospect of debt default, understocked shops, shopping mall closures, plummeting oil revenues which have taken the nation into deep recession, power cuts and drought, Venezuela’s crisis shows no sign of ending. When the price of oil was high, during the government of former President Hugo Chavez, millions were spent on the poor. Today’s President Nicolás Maduro, who has professed a commitment to protecting the social programmes established by his predecessor, is now hard pressed to fulfil them. With the crisis worsening and popularity for Nicolás Maduro sinking, some are nostalgic for the Chavez days.

Food queues in Barquisimeto, January 2016

“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 BBC Radio 4 (listen to full broadcast here).

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.

“I defend the legacy of Chavez. I defend the El Maizal commune.”

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.

Radio Negro Primero

Grace Livingstone’s second broadcast (18th February. Listen here) 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.”

Grace Livingstone is a correspondent for the BBC and the Latin America Bureau (LAB) and author of America's Backyard.

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