Modern History of Venezuela and the Need for a Post-Oil Economy -  Edgardo Lander on RAI (pt 6/9)

This interview was originally released on April 17, 2014. On Reality Asserts Itself, Mr. Lander says to strengthen democracy, develop food sovereignty and help save the planet, Venezuela must develop a plan to transition away from an extractive economy.

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. And welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself.

We’re continuing our series of discussions about Venezuela. So now joining us again in the studio is Edgardo Lander. He’s a sociologist and professor at the Central University of Venezuela. He was one of the main organizers of the World Social Forum 2006 that took place in Caracas. He’s a well-known supporter and critic of the Venezuelan revolution under former president Hugo Chávez. And he did his MA and PhD at Harvard. Before that, he did a degree in sociology at the Universidad Central de Venezuela. He normally is in Caracas, but today he’s in Baltimore.

So thanks for joining us again.


JAY: Why are they having so much trouble getting agriculture going? Part of the issue, I would think, is land reform and, you know, opening up land for ownership of the peasants, and I know that was quite bitterly fought by the elites in the countryside. But how well or how serious was the undertaking for land reform?

LANDER: The thing is that if you compare, say, Venezuela to Brazil and you’ve got the Landless movement, you have a very strong Landless movement confronting a government that doesn’t want to carry out land reform and which hasn’t during all the Lula and the present period. In Venezuela, there really isn’t such a peasant movement that’s really pressing to have access to land. It’s small. It’s not–there aren’t that many people in Venezuela that are willing to work in the fields. So that’s a cultural issue. But it’s also the fact that with the relative prices of imports and agricultural production, there’s no way people can make a living out of agriculture unless it’s highly subsidized. And if it’s highly subsidized, then it’s sort of a repeat of the rentier model in which oil finances everything else.

So, on the other hand, one of the objectives of the Bolivarian Revolution is the need to have more autonomy in relation to financial capital, to sort of the global capitalist system, etc., etc. But if Venezuela concentrates all its resources into producing more and more of the basic commodity of current capitalism, it will just get more and more connected into the international networks of this capitalist model. There’s no way to break away if you sort of increase and increase and increase production–not only increase production, but to increase production in Venezuela you need huge investments and technology, which the government in Venezuela doesn’t have. So you need financing, you need foreign investment, you get into debt, and it’s sort of go deeper and deeper into the network of extractive models of the predatory modes of capitalism.

And this is an issue that’s–even though it’s obvious that it’s, like, the core issue of any possible transformation in Venezuelan society, this is an issue that’s hardly debated. There is a sort of national consensus that Venezuela has been, is, and will continue to be an oil-producing country. It’s amazing when you look at the programs presented for the elections in 2012, the last in which Chávez participated, and look at the program presented by Chávez and by Capriles, the opposition leader, and you compare the programs, and they’re completely different in every single aspect except one, which happens to be the most important one for Venezuela: how much oil are we going to produce? And they both offered exactly the same figure: 6 million barrels per day by the end of this presidential period. And that implies a lot. I mean, how are you going to produce it? You need massive foreign investment. You need massive debt. You need to cover the country with oil infrastructure and destruction.

Venezuela has the biggest sweetwater lake south of the Great Lakes in the Americas, the Lake of Maracaibo, where Maracaibo, the second-largest city in the country, got its drinking water up to the 1930s. When oil began, the American oil corporations decided that it was too expensive to get the oil and take it out to the sea and then put it on tankers. They wanted the tankers to be able to go in all the way. So a small canal that connected the sea with the lake was opened up to a huge canal so the tankers could go in. After 70 years, 80 years, this huge water deposit has been destroyed. And now the threat is that the Orinoco River and its delta, which is one of the biggest rivers in the world, is going to be collateral damage for the oil industry as well. So there’s an environmental issue that has to do with climate change on a global scale, and destruction of Venezuela as a territory as well.

In the Venezuelan Constitution, the issue of indigenous rights is a main issue. There’s a whole chapter, Chapter VIII, of the Constitution that defines in very detail what are the rights of the indigenous people. And the whole structure of the rights are constructed around the notion of the recognition of the territories of the indigenous people, because only if people are recognized as a people, they have a right to a territory. And if they have a right to a territory, then there’s forms of self-government and whatever is decided within the territory. But that’s incompatible with this extractive model, because most of the indigenous territories are where the extractive activities will be carried out. So even if the Constitution said that the recognition of the territory should be done in two years (which was absolutely non-realistic), after 15 years nothing has happened.

So unless the productive model based on–unless a transition towards a post-oil economy starts, there’s no way you can save the planet, which is one of the objectives that has been defined by the government. There’s no way you can create participatory democracy, sort of grassroots-based form of democracy, there’s no way you can possibly have food sovereignty, there’s no way you can have a democratic society with oil. And that’s not just the Venezuelan case; I mean, that’s across the board. That can’t–I mean, you can’t expect anybody to become a candidate and say, we’ll stop producing oil day after my election.

JAY: So what does an alternative plan look like?

LANDER: An alternative plan? First you need a national debate on the fact that you can’t possibly continue, because this is destroying Venezuela, it’s destroying the planet, and it’s incompatible with indigenous rights, it’s incompatible with food production, it’s incompatible with democracy. So the first thing is to realize that we have to confront this issue and have a national conversation, as you say in the States, on the need for alternatives.

JAY: I hope it’s better than the national conversation in the States, ’cause these conversations don’t go anywhere in the States.

LANDER: Yeah, I know. There is a lot of debate in Latin America today around alternatives to extractivism. There’s a lot of debate on the fact that these progressive governments–and I’m talking about Bolivia, Ecuador–assume that in the first stage of the transformation you need to accumulate resources in order to be able to carry out further steps and eventually become less extractive. But history shows that’s not possible. History shows that as you go into the extractive model, it transformed society. In a political sense, the economy got centered around the extractive model, the state became dependent on the extractive, and it goes deeper and deeper into that. Extractivism not only produces material–not only produces commodities; it produces subjects, it produces social relations, it produces agents. And once you have those agents, you can’t just sort of unwind history and turn it back.

So what are the alternatives? There’s–if you look at the current Latin American struggles, popular movements, a huge proportion–I wouldn’t know what percentage, but a huge proportion, certainly the great majority of struggles, have to do with the environment in some way or another, the struggles against fracking and /no?’kæn??/ in Argentina against big dams or hydroelectric dams in Brazil, against new–I mean, the huge exploitation process [incompr.] Brazil, etc., etc.

And people are arguing that there’s all the waste. I mean, in the case of, say, Belo Monte, the big dam in the middle of the Amazon, since it’s so flat, if you want to have a hydroelectric dam, you have to have a huge amount of water backing up because it’s so flat. And so the–I mean, the waterfall is not going to be very large. So it occupies an enormous amount of territory. And what’s the purpose of that electricity? Mining industry. For what? For China. So it’s, I mean, the whole connection. The impact of Chinese growth on Latin America over the last decade, the last two decades, say, has been tremendous.

JAY: So that’s, I think, a topic we’re going to park and we’re going to do in future interviews, the role of China.

But a little more what the alternative looks like. I mean, one way or the other, something’s going to have to fund an alternative economy if you’re going to diversify the economy. So you’re going to have to use the income from extractive industries to fund the transformation or the diversification. Is what you’re saying that there just hasn’t really been a plan to do that, or it hasn’t been executed?

LANDER: There hasn’t been a plan. In the case of Venezuela, that’s a non-issue. In the case of Ecuador, for instance, the Constitution–I mean, the National Development Plan has different stages. In the first stage, you have to go deeper into extractivism in order to accumulate the resources that will allow for the following stages. In the case of Ecuador, for instance, it’s the fact that Ecuador was never a mining country and now it’s becoming a big mining country. So the logic of an alternative’s completely absent.

And the alternatives–I’m not claiming that the alternatives are just obvious and you just sort of look at the different book or sort of carry out a different plan, but there’s many ways in which the struggles of people in all of Latin America are showing that there’s alternatives at local levels. There’s a wonderful case in a valley called Intag in Ecuador, where the Mitsubishi Company discovered that there were huge deposits of copper and they started to get the permits to exploit the copper. Eventually, the environmental impact done by the company itself was made public, and this led to an organization of the people against the mining company. The mining company was sold to a Canadian company, which now controls most of the mining, you know, all over Latin America and other part of the world, and people organized to resist the exploitation.

But then they realized that if they just said no and they didn’t have any alternatives, their struggle wouldn’t be able to survive for very long. So they started to explore, in their valley, what are their options? What type of tourism is possible? What type of cattle raising is possible? What type of fishing is possible? What type of small-scale–what type of Fair Trade coffee, etc.? So they started to work on different areas to show that it is actually possible to be more productive than just producing copper, without the environmental destruction, keeping the communities, making the communities stronger than they were before.

And, I mean, that sort of thing is happening at different levels all over the place in Latin America, in which alternatives are being constructed locally but they aren’t in the vision, in the radar screen of national governments.

JAY: But take the issue of food sovereignty. And right now, in the current crisis–Venezuela–food shortages is one of the things that’s causing the crisis. How do you develop, you know, how do you get to food sovereignty and agriculture? I mean, you can’t just say, we’re not going to produce oil so that it costs less to produce domestically than import. I mean, this gets into fairly complicated questions of exchange rates and other things, doesn’t it?

LANDER: It gets into complicated questions, but the thing is that since it’s so absolutely obvious that you need a transition to a post-oil economy, even if you don’t look at Venezuela at all, I mean, just–I mean, the role of–I mean, producing 6 million barrels a day in terms of its impact on the environment, it’s obviously not possible. So the challenge of what would be a post-oil Venezuelan economy or post-Venezuelan [sic] society has to be confronted. And it’s not being confronted. What are the possibilities? That would [be] part of the challenge.

It’s obvious that this is like a sort of a continued chain in which a lot of the enterprises in Venezuela have been nationalized in this idea that’s dominant in the government, according to which socialism is state control. A lot of companies have been renamed as socialist enterprises, and soon after that they began to produce deficits. So they are financed by oil revenue. And so the need for oil revenue sort of increases and increases and increases. And the current crisis has to do especially with that, with the fact that the state is overextended in expenditure, not only social subsidies and importing the food, but the whole economy becomes more and more dependent on subsidies to survive, as such.

I mean, it was announced this week that the government got into negotiations with the industrial big-scale rice producers, and so they fixed the price of subsidy per kilo. And they will only plant rice if they had a subsidy guarantee. But that’s way sort of–it sort of extends more and more to the whole economy. But there’s no oil income that can possibly finance that ever-expanding demand for subsidies across the board.

JAY: Okay. In the next segment of our interview, we’re going to talk about one of the other major issues facing Venezuelan society, and that’s the issue of crime.

So please join us for the continuation of Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network with Edgardo Lander.

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Edgardo Lander (born 1942) is a Venezuelan sociologist and left-wing intellectual. A professor emeritus of the Central University of Venezuela and a fellow of the Transnational Institute, he is the author of numerous books and research articles on democracy theory, the limits of industrialization and economic growth, and left-wing movements in Latin America.” theme music

written by Slim Williams for Paul Jay’s documentary film “Never-Endum-Referendum“.  

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