Venezuela: the Struggle is over Territories

Autor: Emiliano Terán Mantovani*

This article first appeared in Spanish in January 14, 2019, on the website of Venezuelan Observatory of Political Ecology, an organization focused on amplifying the voices and struggles of various communities affected by socio-ecological impacts and inequalities.

One could see storms brewing long before the 2017 installation of the National Constituent Assembly and the inauguration of Nicolás Maduro’s to a now uncertain new presidential term for 2019-2025. Once anew, we are witnessing a series of political and geopolitical power plays, movements, alliances and determinations that stoke the already-existing tensions and seek to generate new pressure points and stage changes. The dramatic advance of economic devastation and the institutional and political breakdown of the country, along with the hostile international panorama, have taken us to times of much higher volatility when compared with the already quite conflictive 2017.

However, this all goes well beyond the rearrangements of institutional power and the potential changes in rulers. Before the collapse of rentierism, the Petro-State, and its entire institutionality, the struggle over the oil ground rents has progressively lost centrality, and is being displaced with more force towards the direct appropriation of resources and control over territories.

While almost all attention is focused on the arrival of a ‘denouement’ in the heights of power, what we have been witnessing from below for several years is the development of an intense process of de-territorialization and re-colonization throughout the Venezuelan geography, having an extraordinary impact not just on social matrixes, ecosystems and the reproduction of socio-ecological life, but also in the very forms of political sovereignty in the country.

It is clear that the State/Government of Nicolas Maduro is playing a key role in this complex process of recolonization. It has intensified the logic of extractivism, applying a brutal economic adjustment over the peripheral territories, created Special Economic Zones, and promoted mega-projects such as the the Mining Arc of the Orinoco among other measures. It is carrying this out as at the same time it becomes politically much more aggressive and authoritarian, de facto suppressing the rule of law there, laying out a permanent state of exception governed from special military zones.

Nevertheless, as much as some analyses would want to omit so, the Government is not the only player in the game. In fact, it does not even represent a homogenous and solid subject. The crisis of hegemony playing out since the death of Chavez in 2013, and the metastasis of corruption, join themselves to the extraordinary economic crisis that has wreaked collapse and chaos on the country, making the Venezuelan Petro-State no more than a collection of groups of power, with conflicts and tensions amidst themselves, and an assortment of precarious and discontinuous institutions.

The impact of this Great Crisis (2013-2019) has cut so deep that it has removed and reshaped the multiple territorial contradictions and tensions that already existed, as territories are laid open for the savage flows of our current stage of decomposing late globalization. We stand before a fragmented political cartography, shifting and volatile: part of the Venezuelan population, precarized, moves from the empty shell of the formal economy towards dynamics of direct appropriation of resources and control over territories. Paramilitarism festers in diverse forms: criminal gangs and mining syndicates, corrupted military sectors exercising feudal powers, fronts for Colombian guerrillas, powerful cattle-ranchers and landlords, and the growing influence and presence, directly or through intermediaries, of transnational corporations. This is Global Capitalism 2.0 in the raw.

These processes cannot be understood in a polarized binary or linear code, or simply as the interests of the Nation against the Empire. The contending groups can be seen acting based on their particular or local interests, or articulating in regional, national and international networks, that link up to global legal and black markets of natural resources. In these multiple inter-linking scales we can speak of diverse geopolitics for the Guyana region, for the Llanos (great plains), for the Amazonia, and so on.

In any case, these above-mentioned actors are agents of accumulation by dispossession, operating in different ways under logics of warfare. They constitute diverse structures of power promoting a re-territorialization of plunder and pillage, and seem to be rooting for the re-configuration of Venezuela as a set of enclave economies

Cartographies of plunder, wars and resistances: some coordinates

It is impossible to take note of the multiple tones and facets of these territorial disputes from a national level. Even now, we can only mention some of them in a very summary manner.

Beyond the collapse of rentier capitalism, the oil enclave zones have fallen in decadence, as have the very cities. This has propitiated a hike in prominence of informal extractive economies. The logics of appropriation and power are redirecting with greater strength towards the direct control of lands, territories and the possibilities of extraction of minerals (gold, diamonds, coltan, wood, protected species, etc.), and even water, and moving to establish dominance over territorial mobilities of peoples and commodities in strategic corridors and trans-border commerce.

The Guyana and Amazonia regions, which we consider the new commodity frontiers in Venezuela, are where we are witnessing these dynamics with greater crudity. The main area for gold extraction, around the Forest Reserve of Imataca to the East of the Bolivar state, is being traversed by logics of warfare, with the creation of mining feuds dominated by criminal bands, corrupt military officers and factions of Colombian guerrillas, without excluding armed confrontations with components of the Armed Forces in security operations. The new commodity frontiers are key in the reformulation of the Venezuelan extractivist project, but they are also so for the enrichment and consolidation of particular interests, and the positioning of territories in the national political conflict. All of this makes the denouement of the processes in these regions of extreme importance.

These processes have metastasized, expanding with great force for over a decade, and especially in this current period of crisis. They have intensified in the Caroni river basin, in the Canaima National Park, in the basin of the river Paragua, in the southeast of Bolivar towards the border with Brazil, along the Caura river, and in the northeast districts of the Amazonas state and the Yanomami lands. In the same way, they have developed over coltan from the northeast of Bolivar to the main road axes, and over gold in Amazonas along the border region with Colombia.

The struggles between armed factions and the installation of the Orinoco Mining Arc project have generated violence, deaths and displacements. Several indigenous peoples have posed resistance, among them the Pemon, Yekwana, Yabarana, Wótjüja, and Yanomami nations, among others, although members of these communities have also increasingly involved themselves in informal mining activities. The Pemon in particular have been struggling for years against displacement and plunder, constituting one of the main bastions of resistance in these territories.

These extractive operations are expanding with speed across the country, under a drive of pillage. Not only in the South: mining of metals (such as those of gold in Carabobo and Yaracuy states), and of sands and limestone among others, are proliferating in the national geography. They are also being pushed in great part by corrupt military officers enjoying and grant personal usufruct of lands, generating deforestation, the diversion of rivers, and conflicts with local populations. A similar situation is also being undergone over wood.

In the vast expanse of the Llanos, land disputes have become increasingly violent from 2001, leaving since then a balance of over 350 murdered peasants. In these times of crisis, there has been an escalation in situations of arbitrary evictions of peasant communities from lands they had recovered, for their re-appropriation by landowners. Peasants report that they have been abandoned by government instances, persecuted and besieged, criminalized and prosecuted, threatened, and in many cases, murdered by paramilitaries and hitmen hired by landowners and ranchers. These attacks have been registered so far in the states of Barinas, Portuguesa, Monagas, Anzoátegui, Apure, Cojedes, Trujillo, Guárico, Mérida, and along the southern coast of Lake Maracaibo. In the past few months, the murder of peasants has also reappeared, evidenced by those of two workers in the Hato Quemao estate in Barinas, and in the southern coast of the Lake, those of peasant leader and Communist Party figure Luis Fajardo and his brother in law, and that of José “Caballo” de La Cruz Márquez on January 10th of this year.

On July 12th of 2018, a group of 200 peasants part of the Platform of Peasant Struggle began a march from Guanare, Portuguesa, trekking by foot 270 miles to reach Caracas in an unseen mobilization for Venezuela and of great political weight for the social movements. The peasants demanded justice for the murdered, and denounced that security bodies such as the National Guard and the National Bolivarian Police had participated in attacks against them. At the same time, they presented the need to redirect the agrarian model, recognizing the peasantry as the central axis of food sovereignty for the country. These mobilizations reveal the necessity of reorganization and relaunching of the peasant movement, before the growing threats to which rural peoples are being exposed.

States such as Zulia and Tachira are well known as areas overloaded by conflictive economic interests, and as key crossroads in the billion dollar illegal commerce of contraband and extracted commodities across the borders between Venezuela and Colombia. But they are also in the middle of the dynamic of relations of conflict between the two countries. Many armed actors, coming in great part from the Colombian conflict, have forayed and positioned themselves in diverse territories, taking part in intense struggles over their control, as well as in the lucrative business of trafficking oil, food, and other commodities. We would like to highlight, in the case of Zulia, the siege suffered over the past decade by the Yukpa people of the Perijá highlands, and the Wayuu in La Guajira. The threats on the Yukpa have been intensified with continued attacks on the family of the murdered cacique (chieftain) Sabino Romero, and those on that of the cacica Carmen Fernández, evidenced by the kidnapping and torture suffered by her daughter, school teacher Mary Fernandez, and the forced displacement of the community of Kuse she leads.

Lastly, urban areas, traversed by precariousness, are the site of intense disputes over the control of barrios, commerce and strategic corridors. Criminal bands have managed to increase their organizational capacity and fire-power, and have even managed to articulate themselves with corrupt sectors of the State’s security forces. State bodies, in their turn, are with increasing frequency carrying out in popular neighborhoods shock operations, such as the Operation for the Liberation of the People, and deploying special forces empowered to act without regulation throughout the cities.

The game is quite open, and the Venezuelan geography tears, pulled apart by many agents of dispossession and re-colonization. While in the scene of party politics things may appear static, these processes advance furiously in the materiality of localities, evincing that to a large degree, in Venezuela the struggle is over territories.

Epilogue: Re-thinking an emancipatory project in highly conflictive times

It is hard to analyze these scenarios and not make comparisons with other experiences, such as those of Colombia, Central America and that of the DR of Congo. In this case, the question is whether we are witnessing the territorial installation of structures and logics of power mediated by warfare. And if this is true, the following question would be how to revert it. It is essential not to falter in the attempts of building an alternative politics for the country that goes beyond the great authoritarian/neoliberal projects in struggle, and that makes space for the resurgence of popular potentialities and the birth of new political cultures that better respect the socio-ecological life. If the scenario turns out to be irreversible in its next stages, it is evident that peoples have a right to self-defense.

*Emiliano Teran-Mantovani is a Central University sociologist, a member of the Observatory of Political Ecology and an associate researcher at the Center for Development Studies (CENDES), all in Venezuela.

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