Friday, November 14, 2008

A few musings on Coffee and Endogenous Development…

Last I was here, there were periodic shortages of basic foodstuffs: cooking oil, black beans, beef, milk – items considered integral to the Venezuelan diet. The reasons for these shortages were more often than not a convergence of two factors. First, the government had essentially followed policies increasing the purchasing power of the majority of Venezuelans. As a result, folks were buying more of the ‘cesta básica’ than before: supply didn’t rise apace with increased demand.

The opposition, of course, tried to blame this on government mismanagement, corruption, and the inherent evils associated with centralized or planned economies. They argued that the government simply could not provide for the citizenry better than the ‘invisible hand’ of the market.

Secondly, there was an active campaign on the part of importers and producer cartels to ‘prove’ this criticism of the opposition by holding back their distribution of basic items (so much for the invisible hand!). This is why, of course, one could find ostensibly ‘scarce’ items in restaurants and cafés. The government responded to this tactic with denunciations and attempts to procure the items through alternative means – their effective position being the second strategy disproved the opposition’s criticisms and put in stark relief the need NOT to ‘trust’ the market to provide.

This time around, the absentee necessity is coffee. I have been to three markets in the past 2 days, no coffee to be found. Well…that is an exaggeration. There was coffee, but it was decafinated and/or instant. (And any seasoned gringo wanderer knows these are NOT viable alternatives. More importantly, these items are much more expensive than regular, good old fashioned coffee for Venezuelans). Yet, my local café has plenty to be consumed in the ubiquitous little plastic Dixie cups of the average Venezuelan coffee connoisseur – but again this is option is more expensive than making your wakey-uppy at home.

The numbers I was able to dig up show that coffee production (in terms of export production) for the period 2001-2005 spiked in 2002-3, and has since declined by nearly US$ 13 million. According to the US state department in their 2008 backgrounder on Venezuela, agricultural production only makes up 4% of GDP (the petroleum industry, in contrast, makes up 28%). The irony, perhaps, is that prior to the discovery and industrialization of oil after 1914, Venezuela was a largely agricultural economy, exporting cacao and coffee to Europe and the United States. In fiscal year 1897-1898, coffee made up 83% of Venezuela’s exports. This figure declined by 1908-1909 to 48.4% due to a general decline in prices felt throughout the region. This decline in coffee’s dominance in the Venezuelan economy intensified with the country’s increased dependence on oil. As oil came to dominate, so too did the ‘Dutch Disease’ (the tendency of governments in petrol-exporting countries to neglect all but completely all other sectors of the economy, resulting in the dominance of the import economy in the provision of basic products, foodstuffs and etc). As a result, Venezuela regularly imports on average 2/3 of its food (more on bad weeks).

This has of course been a concern of the government, who has tried to balance the needs of increasing the quality of life for the majority of Venezuelans (through what I describe as a democratization of consumption) while pursuing food sovereignty. The project, described here in slogans and banners as ‘endogenous development’ comes in fits and starts, as the government has privileged to this point communal and social entrepreneurship – an uncertain proposition without a real map or model to follow. As recently as two days ago, Chávez acknowledged that a reduction in global oil prices could negatively impact Venezuela. However, in a speech broadcast nationally last night in ‘cadena nacional’ (meaning it was carried by all television networks) which took place in a recently finished fishing and processing cooperative, he argued that the socialized economy under construction here will allow Venezuela to weather the ever deepening crisis of the global economy.

This position will likely become an increasing necessity in the time to come, as increasing numbers of experts are diagnosing a global recession and the shift away from capitalism’s neoliberal phase. While speculation continues in the US as to the likelihood of a new (or green?) new deal, Venezuela persists in its pursuit of new modes of production, though it must be admitted that these have by and large been facilitated by its status as a major oil producer. If the Bolivarian Revolution is to be successful – and its protagonists are quite aware of this – it must deepen the development of non-capitalist modes of production and its pursuit of food sovereignty and continue the forging of regional and global trade coalitions based on solidarity and justice rather than trickle-down ‘development.’

In other words, the moderating strategy of the ‘endogenous right’ is precisely the wrong medicine for the present. In their calls to forge partnerships with the ‘progressive bourgeoisie’ and to slow the pace of nationalization in order to make Venezuela less of a ‘risk’ for investors, they are effectively asking the country to reattach itself to the very Titanic from which the Bolivarians have fought so hard to escape. De-linking has never been more important.

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