Is water the new drug for Mexico’s cartels?

 Tamara Pearson
A pipa, or water truck, filling up the underground well for shops in Puebla city. Credit: Tamara Pearson

It's rainy season here in Puebla, Mexico, and water is dripping through my concrete roof, taking chunks of plaster and paint from the ceiling with it. Ironically, we still don't have enough running water to shower everyday. Other people here have no running water at all, and our drainage system is in a state of utter abandonment.

Yet we all pay 10 times the rates of the rest of Mexico, because here in Puebla – unlike the rest of the country – our water is privatized. What's more, the men at the helm of the consortium that run it are a collection of corrupt millionaire and billionaire businessmen who have allegedly laundered money for some of the region's biggest drug cartels.

Throughout much of Mexico large, usually black, tinacos (water tanks) dot the roof tops of our concrete slums and towns. A lot of us have running water for just 15-30 minutes, twice a week, so we fill up the tinacos to cover the rest of the time. Many of the older tanks are made of asbestos, while the newer ones are a solid black plastic. A friend who lives around the corner has only a large container of water in his bathroom, while those in wealthier areas often have underground storage and much more regular water.

Most of us, however, have just 400 litres of water to last the household a week. In the US, a single person consumes that amount per day. In my home, we wash our clothes in a bucket, recycle that water to flush the toilet, collect the water from the shower for flushing, and only flush around once or twice a day. Showers are quick and had every three days or so.

My water bill is 630 pesos per month, while in neighboring Tlaxcala state, people pay 50 pesos per month. Everyone here has stories of being unfairly charged for water, or of going without any water for a year or two – despite constant complaints to the water company, Aguas de Puebla.

I was duly awarded a debt of 115,000 pesos when I first moved into my tiny apartment, located in the poor side of inner-city Puebla. For perspective, that's nearly four years’ worth of minimum wage. I spent four months battling the water company to get that corrected – spending 45 minutes each way on public transport to talk to them directly in their head office, and ringing them on a daily basis. Each time, they asked me to bring in more documents, placing the paperwork burden on me, instead of on themselves as the ones who made the mistake. They gave me excuses and promises that it would be resolved in three weeks’ time and to come back then, and even redirected me to other departments – ‘I'll put you through to water meters, maybe they can help with your case.’

Ultimately, some firm phone calls to the head of public relations of the company, with support from an incredible journalist friend, saw me meeting directly with PR, finally, the figure was fixed in their system in a matter of minutes. At the time, I put it down to the bureaucratic, inhumane habits of private corporations, but later I would realize just how much more sinister the problem was.

 Tamara Pearson
Water tanks on the rooftops of inner-city Puebla. Credit: Tamara Pearson

Illegal privatization

‘Baja California was the first state in Mexico to plan to privatize its water, but protests and resistance stopped that. Puebla was the second state,’ Fernando, an indigenous water activist in the Peoples Against the Privatization of Water group told me. He asked that I not include his last name, given the arrest warrants pending on a number of water activists, and the risk involved.

In 2013, the Puebla state government justified the privatization of water by arguing that the incoming company would invest the money necessary to improve the service, eliminate leaking pipes that saw 30 per cent of all water lost, and expand the reach of piped water. It passed the Water Law, that would allow the new company to set prices without oversight and to hire other private companies, and put out a call for bids in September that year. The government awarded the bid to Concessions Integrales, also known as Aguas de Puebla, three days before the consortium was actually formed and legally able to participate in a bid for tender. Though the governor had talked about a 30 year deal, that was extended to 60 years.

 

Narco business

No one imagined that one of the main companies behind Enrique Peña Nieto's presidential election campaign in 2012 would ultimately end up running Puebla's water supply system, in a consortium made up of other corrupt and scandalous companies.

Monex, Epccor, and Grupo Financiero Interacciones are the main companies involved in Aguas de Puebla, though reports of their exact shares in ownership vary. Monex itself told the press that it owned a ‘third’, but added that exactly who has how many shares was a ‘banking secret’.

Monex made news at the time for running Peña Nieto's campaign strategy of buying votes through the distribution of pre-paid cards, and funneling money to his campaigning fund. Reports suggest that this money, however, likely came from the Juarez Cartel – one of the oldest and most powerful criminal organizations in the country.

Mexico's election court ultimately ruled that there hadn't been any fraud, but many are skeptical of this ruling because Mexico's courts are known for their extremely high levels of corruption and political interference. Additionally, it wasn't the first time that Monex had allegedly been involved with major drug cartels. An investigation conducted by newspaper Reforma found a working relationship with the Arellano Feliz cartel in 2003, and with the Colombian cartel, Valle del Norte, in 2006. In 2008, Spanish authorities found that the Beltran Leyva cartel had changed some 78 million euros through Monex and a company called Intercam.

Epccor is owned by Juan Gutierrez, who is also president of Aguas de Puebla, and who also owned the company Gutsa, a key financial backer of the 1994 PRI presidential campaign (Peña Nieto's party). Gutierrez's companies have been repeatedly fined for mismanagement. Epccor, with it connections in the government, regularly receives contracts for public works like hospitals, roads, and airports; consistently spends more than it originally declared in its budget, and delays completion by years. The most recent case was a hospital which has spent nine years so far under construction, and still isn't finished.

Grupo Financiero Interacciones, run by the infamously corrupt and excessive rich Hank family, has strong links to the PRI and to the Juarez Cartel. Grandfather Hank, Carlos Hank Rhon, is a billionaire, and his family has been the subject of numerous reports of drug laundering on a massive scale, as well as assisting cartels with drug shipments, and large-scale public corruption. A World Policy Report from 1995 went so far as to describe Carlos Hank as the "primary intermediary between the multinational drug trafficking enterprises and the Mexican political system,” and Hank has been investigated for money laundering by Mexican, Swiss, and French judges.

One key strategy Hank is alleged to have used, was to buy food products with the money cartels made from selling cocaine in the US. Hank's companies had a monopoly on these food products, which they then sold back in Mexico. The Hank family has also colluded with Mexican state authorities to gain permits for their rooster fighting and horse racing, and to get significant debts pardoned. Son Jorge Hank Rhon has also been accused of using the gambling business for drug trafficking links and to launder money.

 Tamara Pearson
An Aguas de Puebla office. Credit: Tamara Pearson

A broken system

With corrupt narcos running Puebla’s water, it's no surprise that the system is beyond dysfunctional. People have accused the company of charging for non-existing debts, of water supply issues and random bill increases, and of charging up to 3,000 pesos (a good month's wage) for meters to be installed. Some areas are supplied with contaminated water, whole suburbs have gone without water for weeks, the company charges to check people's broken connections, and people report that their meters aren't working but the company refuses to repair them and keeps charging an incorrect rate. People facing errors like mine tend to wait a year for a resolution, if they get any at all.

In May this year, communities from the south of the city protested and closed roads after going weeks without water, while Aguas de Puebla still charged them for it. They said that when they did get water, it ‘smelt bad and was yellow,’ while other communities went for three months without water because the company couldn't be bothered to fix the pump.

Businesses have also complained about large bills, pointing out at least six companies in the city that have monthly bills that amount to millions in pesos, ‘without a clear explanation why,’ they told a press conference.

Internally, workers at Aguas de Puebla have also complained stating that they were threatened with being fired on a daily basis and weren't paid promised bonuses. They said they were told not to inform people how rates were calculated, leading to people paying more than they should and they also claimed that the company had cut the petrol budget for company vehicles by 60 per cent, making it difficult for workers to go out and do repairs.

Aguas de Puebla does roll out the red carpet for some of its clients, however. ‘Many years ago, governor Mario Marin signed an agreement with Nealtican and Santa Maria Acuexcomac – towns in the valley of the Popo volcano – for their water,’ Fernando said. In exchange, the towns got sports courts and roads, but their good quality water is delivered by Aguas de Puebla to the wealthy part of town – Angelopolis, while ‘the worst water goes to the poor suburbs, where there's scarcity.’

 Tamara Pearson
Jugs of water for sale. Credit: Tamara Pearson

Nothing lives without water

‘We can live without petrol, without electricity, but not without water. The government and the companies it colludes with think to themselves, if petrol is hugely profitable, how much money can you make from water?’ Fernando explained.

Indeed, even before the narco companies took over our water, it was already a big-profit industry and essentially privatized. Those facing water shortages, and those who can't drink their piped water, are forced to buy bottled water from private companies.

In 2014, Mexico was the largest consumer of bottled water in the world with almost US$8 billion in revenue that year and 234 liters consumed on average per person annually. The companies dominating the bottled water industry here are Danone (47 per cent), Coca-Cola (19.4 per cent) and Epura (7.1 per cent). Many people buy water in 20 litre jugs, or garafones, and in that case, small, local water providers account for around half of the market.

People lacking piped water will also pay pipas – large trucks that look a bit like tanker trucks – to pump water into their roof-based plastic water tanks. In Mexico City, some 40 per cent of water distributed this way is sold illegally.

The bottled water companies have also waged marketing campaigns to promote distrust in the quality of piped water.

Across Mexico, some 9 million people have no water pipes in their homes and a further 13 million people have piping, but the water is contaminated and leads to skin conditions and gastrointestinal infections. Seventy-five percent of the population live with water scarcity, but big business won't be offering a hand any time soon.

Tamara Pearson is a long time journalist based in Latin America, alternative pedagogy teacher, and author of The Butterfly Prison. She blogs at Resistance Words.

 

Civil war, mental illness, poverty, gang violence: the many roots of homelessness

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© Iris Gonzales

Philippines

Maria Precilda met her partner Marvin Bueta in 2014. It was love at first sight. Now a young mother, she lives with her family in one room in a Manila slum.

I was working as a cook for a middle-class family in a city to the east of Manila.

I had left my hometown in the southern province of Leyte to find a job. We didn’t have a lot of money so I had to stop school to support my parents and two siblings.

And then I met Marvin. He was a construction worker across the street from where I worked. He took my breath away. I got pregnant and had to stop my job as a cook. Marvin brought me to his parents in Bicol, a province in the south. I couldn’t go home because I was afraid to tell my parents I was pregnant. I was only 21.

He had to go back to Manila to earn a living while I stayed with his family in their village. There were more than 10 of us who shared a cramped space. I slept in the living room; all the time my belly was growing.

After I had the baby Marvin and I needed to find our own place. We did not know where to start. We stayed with Marvin’s brother and his family in a slum area in Manila for two months. It was another cramped space. And again we slept in the living room. Sometimes our baby cried and woke up the whole household. It was difficult, not good for anyone.

Finally, we had to move. We found a room for rent in the nearby block. It cost $50 a month. It’s expensive and eats a huge chunk of Marvin’s monthly income of $119. I can’t work yet because I have to take care of our baby, Mark. So this is our home for now.

Interview by Iris Gonzales.

Britain

Amanda Dunn lives in Luton just outside London. The 47-year-old mother of three lost her job at a local airport and was evicted when she couldn’t pay the rent. She’s been in a B&B for the past 6 months with her 13-year-old twin daughters.

Shelter

I lived in a two-bed flat. One of the bedrooms I had to shut off because of the damp. Central heating wasn’t working or the cooker. Eventually I called the council. They served the landlord notice to repair it. At this point I refused to pay the rent – I told him ‘You’ve got to come and fix the heating’ – he refused. So it ended up in court. I got evicted and then we were put here.

I had to apply for housing benefit which took forever. When the woman from the council came she said, ‘There’s an eight to nine year waiting list for council properties here in Luton... Your best option is to start looking further north.’

My daughter Katie is just like a stick. She gets stuffed with takeaways every night but the dietician said it’s not the sort of food she should be having. And there have been a couple of instances at school where Rachel has shouted at teachers. They understand though – it’s not like Rachel at all to lose it.

My own mental and emotional health has got worse. I just cry. All the time. I can’t sleep without sleeping tablets.

We looked at a place by the airport. The man was happy with me being on benefits, the woman called me scum.

I want nothing more than to get a job. I’ve always worked – but you go to these interviews and they look at your address and ask: ‘Why are you in a hotel?’

Original interview provided by Shelter. Edited by Amy Hall.

US

Derek Chartrand Wallace lives in Berkeley, California. He is a 37-year-old, full-time college student surviving on financial aid.

A few semesters ago I experienced serious mental trauma including crippling social anxiety, depression and insomnia. I’d never been through anything like that before and was totally unprepared for the effects on my home life, friendships and studies. I couldn’t afford a therapist which meant I had to struggle on my own. I’ve only recently started to get my life back together.

Nithin Coca

In the interim my marks suffered which meant that the financial aid I rely on was put on hold. I couldn’t afford the room I was renting so I had to put my stuff in storage and start staying with friends and co-workers. That gets old fast so this year I’ve often been on the street, sleeping in abandoned buildings, construction sites, even in empty trucks.

Lately I have been using my storage space as a safe house at night. But it is against the rules so who knows how long I can keep that up? Dodging police is always a thrill a minute and being ‘homeless under cover’ has felt a lot like being a superhero with a secret identity.

Homeless shelters here are on a needs basis so the elderly, disabled, women and children have first priority over able-bodied males like me. I applied for Food Stamps [Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program] but was rejected for being a full-time student on financial aid (even though it is on hold). But there is a lottery for low/no-income dwellings through the County Housing Authority and I’m going to apply for that.

Interview by Nithin Coca.

Mexico

Threatened by gang violence, Osman Rivera, fled his home in Honduras. The 48-year-old father narrowly escaped kidnapping as he travelled north to Mexico.

Tamara Pearson

I’ve been working for 30 years painting cars. But the pandillas (gangs) charge what’s called a ‘war tax’. If you don’t pay, they kill you or your family. I was making only enough to cover costs and pay the tax.

I left on 13 December 2016. I crossed the Guatemala border, then travelled to Mexico. After that I took a combi (van-bus) with six other migrants and two Mexicans. After one of the Mexicans got off, a black combi without number plates began to follow us. It was late and the black combi kept trailing us. I was suspicious.

When our bus stopped to allow the other Mexican to leave, I jumped out too. The road was on the edge of a steep hill and I rolled down. The others were kidnapped [migrants are robbed and held to extort money from their families]. Armed men used lights to look for me. I stayed in a ditch filled with water. I waited six hours, then at midnight made my way to the road. A man on a bike told me the immigration police were near so I went into the forest and kept walking. Eventually I got a lift. I arrived in Mexico City on 30 December.

At the moment I’m staying in the Tochan migrant refuge. I’m sleeping on a mattress on the floor in the common room, because all the rooms are full. My plan is to legalize my stay here and eventually go to Baja California to start a car painting shop. I want to help my family. I have a seven-year-old boy and I want to give him a future.

Interview by Tamara Pearson.

Erasing women in Mexico

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A protest against violence against women in Puebla, April 2016. by Tamara Pearson

Nayeli Sosa and Dafne – young Mexican women – were both dealt horrific tragedies. But what they had in common went well beyond that.

Sosa was beaten to death by her husband with a mallet. Her mother, Argelia Romero reported that he then cut her into pieces, put those in bags, and distributed them in an empty area of Atlixco. Even though the husband, Moises Torres, confessed to the crime, he hasn't been sentenced. Local media reports that he has family in the courts and will likely avoid any punishment.

Dafne (full name omitted to protect her privacy) suffered a miscarriage while at work. She hadn't realized she was pregnant because of a thyroid problem, and the miscarriage sent her into shock and she was paralyzed and fainted. Building security sent her to hospital and the fetus was sent to a public prosecutor's office where an autopsy was carried out. Dafne was subjected to psychiatric treatment with medication, then arrested in June 2015. A few months later, a judge in Queretaro state sentenced her to 16 years prison for aggravated homicide. She hasn't been able to see her 6-year-old child since.

While women are locked up for abortions and miscarriages, the violent murderers of women are not. There are currently more than 700 women in prison in Mexico for abortions and miscarriages. And between 2013 and 2015, 6,488 women were murdered because of their gender – usually by partners. Impunity in these cases is at 80 per cent in much of the country.

A woman's life is worth less here – and in much of the world – and that devaluing often manifests itself in verbally and physically violent ways, as well as in mistreatment in schools, hospitals, and everyday life.

A protest against violence against women in Puebla, April 2016. The pink crosses represent individual women murdered.

Tamara Pearson

A 90 per cent medical malpractice rate

I talked to Patrocinia Carreon – a surgeon who monitors obstetric abuses, about the hypocrisies in the way women are treated.

'The most common issue is that they remove the uterus – the woman goes in for an abortion, or to give birth, (the doctors) don't do what they should do, and there's a hemorrhage. So in order to save her, they take out her uterus,' she said.

Carreon provided women with abortions for decades, until they became legal in Mexico City in 2007. Now, she still works 14-hour days, 6 days a week as a medicine teacher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, as a specialist in forensic medicine revising post-operation obstetric medical reports, and as a consultation doctor focused on cancer detection and supporting women as they try to get abortions. She's also a member of Global Doctors for Choice and has spoken at numerous international forums.

She told me that her work in analyzing medical reports has uncovered widespread, systematic malpractice against women. 'I would say it happens 90 per cent of the time,' she said.

Abortion is still illegal in all of the country except the capital – with some exceptions made for cases of rape, or danger to a mother's life. In some states, a woman has to prove to legal authorities that she was raped, or she has to denounce the rape before seeking the abortion, in order to qualify.

So women often travel to Mexico City, if they can afford it. However, there, 'after a woman gets an abortion, (doctors) usually refuse to give her proper attention. They oblige, or forcibly put an IUD in her. Or if she refuses, they won't help her. Putting conditions on care is a type of violence,' Carreon said.

In fact, there were so many types of medical abuses, that it took Carreon a while to run through them all. There was the fact that doctors are legally obliged to refer women to a non-objecting doctor – a doctor who isn't against abortion – but rarely do. They also frequently yell at women and use aggressive language, telling them them to reconsider the abortion. Doctors deliberately delay medical attention, to prevent an abortion, as it is only legal in Mexico City for up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. 'The doctor will tell women to bring this document, and get this study done, and so on,' she explained.

Then, there are all the unnecessary cesareans, performed without the consent of the women. These are extremely common, because trainee doctors in public hospitals have to perform a certain number of cesareans in order to graduate, while in private hospitals there are even more unnecessary cesareans due to the monetary benefits involved.

'Women are being prevented from deciding over their life,' Carreon added. 'Doctors always ask, “Have you asked your husband if he wants this (abortion)” while at the same time not fulfilling the right to information, not providing the patient with the pros and cons so she can decide.'

And it just gets worse for women who are poor or indigenous. According to Carreon, staff will often give such women less information, or yell at them if they don't speak Spanish. Sometimes they refuse to treat indigenous women, and women who have access to certain medical services because they have a paid job are treated better than those who have social security through their husband.

Patrocinia Carreon

Tamara Pearson

A system that conspires against women

Carreon and I are sitting in a small Mexican eatery, managing to make the juices we ordered last a really long time. She ordered a salad too, but hasn't touched it. There is too much to talk about – and we spend a lot of time even after the interview talking about discrimination against female professionals, about the regularity with which patients, families of patients, and fellow doctors have assumed she was the nurse.

But now, we're talking about how having legalized abortion in the capital made things worse for women across the country – because there was a right-wing backlash against it, that is still going. Women are being persecuted rather than defended by politicians, doctors and attorneys.

A case, in 2015, of a young woman with a mental disability who was raped, and then didn't realize she was pregnant – was an all-too-common example of this. Carreon worked on the case. 'When she started to give birth, she didn't understand what was happening, and she told her boss at work that she had stomach pains. They took her to hospital … and while she was in the hallway in a wheelchair, she said she needed to go to the toilet. That was how she understood the feelings of the expulsion of the fetus. It was a miscarriage. The people pushing the chair accused her of killing it, and she went to prison.'

Carreon found many issues with the case. Doctors had testified that the youth pushed the toilet door so they couldn't get in, but she pointed out that photos showed that it wasn't possible for her to reach the door while on the toilet. 'The doctors, the prosecutor, they all conspired to persecute her,' she said.

Protest against violence against women in Puebla, April 2016.

Tamara Pearson

Ultimately, violence aims to get rid of people

Abusive verbal and physical violence, and the violence of denying information or denying protagonism (decision making) has one key goal: to destroy a being's humanity because they are perceived as a threat. To destroy (be it destroying the person's physical body, or destroying their mental strength or their activity in society) is to defeat. And that's why even something 'mild' like street harassment hurts.

The other day when I left home early and alone, I counted five incidents of street harassment in the time it took me to walk two blocks. Men jeered and yelled out things after I had passed them, or made noises from their cars. They grinned boldly, unashamed.

'A climate of violence' against women, is how Mariana Carbaja, a Mexican academic feminist, described it.

From murders, to prison for abortion, to non-consensual cesareans and forced use of IUDs, to street harassment, and trafficking of women for sex work, she argues that women are undervalued in Mexico, and that violence is normalized and permissible.

'Women are being murdered for disobeying the machista mandate'

While authorities often go after women who have tried to make decisions over having children, they rarely act when women are murdered, almost always by their partners, and often for being pregnant, or for refusing to get pregnant.

'I've had patients who were beaten by their husband, for example, for not wanting to have kids. Two women I knew in Xochimilco (on the edge of Mexico City) were murdered by their husbands, and both of them were pregnant,' Carreon continues.

'I had another patient who was 80 and had been beaten for the 53 years of her marriage. Another patient was 76 and she had stomach cancer. Her husband made her have sex and she said it hurt a lot. She had a hemorrhage because of the painful penetration. There's so much violence,' she says matter-of-factly.

Gizeh Castelan was murdered by her ex-boyfriend just after she ended the relationship. Castelan's own mother, Amada Barrancco bumped into the ex right as he came out of the house after stabbing Castelan in the bath. Still, the police haven't made an arrest.

The cases of unpunished, extremely violent murders of women go on and on. A list of these murders for Puebla state in 2016 illustrates that the methods used to murder are not efficient. They are intense, and show a lot of hatred for women: men often chop their female partners or acquaintances to pieces, rape them first, beat them to death, or strangle them. Another woman was run over by a car, another hit with a large rock, her face totally destroyed, another sexually abused, then her head cut off.

'Women are being murdered for disobeying the machista mandate,' journalist Carmen Aristegui wrote.

The murders, obstetric malpractice,and punished abortions are just the tip of the iceberg of the way society regards and treats women.

Tamara Pearson is a Latin American-based journalist, author of the Butterfly Prison, and can be found at Resistance Words.

Country Profile: Venezuela

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Clockwise from top left: A queue at a food market in Caracas where prices are subsidized and regulated by the government; an armed guard in front of storage tanks at the world’s largest oil refinery in Punto Fijo; a fishing boat steers through the Anacystis algal blooms on Lake Maracaibo; a Cuban doctor measuring blood pressure in Caracas – one of thousands of Cubans employed out of oil revenues to improve healthcare for the poor; a family reads while awaiting relocation from a house in Ciudad Ojeda damaged by subsidence following oil exploration. © Piet den Blanken / Panos Pictures

It was the day before the violence started – the violence that would later be known as guarimbas, where rightwing street blockades saw 43 people killed and hundreds injured over a period of three months. It was 13 February 2014, and I was down the road from my home in Merida, taking photos of young men in balaclavas stopping buses at gunpoint. Three of them came up to me, and each put a gun to my head and said they would kill me if I didn’t give them my camera. The next day, two other journalists in Merida received gunshot injuries at that intersection.

The violence was part of the chapter that followed the death of President Hugo Chávez in March 2013. Chávez had been in power since 1999 and had utterly transformed the country, using oil revenues to pursue what he called the Bolivarian Revolution (after Latin America’s 19th-century liberator, Simón Bolívar) – taking state control of the oil, electricity and telecommunications industries and pursuing pro-poor policies, including key healthcare and literacy initiatives. Despite a rightwing coup attempt in 2002, Chávez maintained his electoral dominance right through to his death from cancer.

Having seen Chávez as unbeatable, the rightwingers saw their chance at last, but were surprised when former foreign minister and vice-president Nicolas Maduro won the presidential election in April 2013. Then, in December regional elections, the Chavista alliance won most municipalities.

The violence, food scarcity and inflation that have followed Chávez’s death over the past three years have in part been caused by a rightwing offensive against 14 years of avowedly socialist policies – policies which have seen increasing participation of excluded sectors of society in political and economic decision-making.

But the problems have also been spurred on by a massive drop in the price of oil, which is Venezuela’s main export, and many people blame the government for not having succeeded in diversifying the country’s production away from oil. The government’s reluctance to tackle exchange rate, import and price speculation issues has also played an important role.

Now, people’s wages are barely enough to cover groceries. Queues for regulated food start in the dark hours of the morning, there are periodic cuts in the supply of water and the internet, and some hospitals aren’t working as well as they used to. As a result, some of the millions of people involved in community councils and in Bolivarian movements may, finally, be starting to get a bit tired and fed up. The previously close relationship between these people and the national government is weakening. The government, attacked on economic and political fronts, is resorting too much to rhetoric rather than action, and forgetting how politically intelligent the Venezuelan poor have become. This decline in support was reflected in Venezuela’s most recent election in December 2015, when the right wing won a majority in parliament.

Meanwhile, in order to deal with food scarcity and prices, communities are turning to urban agriculture and to direct relationships with rural producers. They are coming to understand the importance of who controls the distribution of products, including food.

The Right is currently focusing its efforts on a recall referendum aimed at bringing down President Maduro. The constitution stipulates that, at the end of October, they must collect signatures from 20 per cent of registered voters, in order for the recall vote to go ahead. But many believe the Right, and the elites that support it, is profiting from the current crisis, and wouldn’t actually want to form a government.

In Venezuela's difficult times the grassroots are stronger

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Community members working in the La Columna community garden, Merida, Venezuela. by Tamara Pearson

It's been three years now of food shortages, inflation, and queues in Venezuela, and the millions of people involved in community and movement organizing have been the most affected. But they've also defied right-wing and general expectations, and even perhaps the expectations of the Maduro government, and have become stronger and better organized as a result of the hardships.

‘We can feel the difference between the quality of life we had four years ago – when things had improved so much. Everything is extremely expensive. You go out to buy a kilo of rice, and four days later the price has gone up, and it's hard to deal with because our salaries don't go up every four days,’ Jose Loaiza told me. A worker in charge of sustainable development for the mountain town of Los Nevados for Merida's Teleferico (cable car) and a member of an urban agriculture organization, La Minga, Loaiza was one of four people I interviewed to get a sense of how the grassroots have been affected by these difficult times – times that have been utterly sensationalised and lied about by the mainstream media.

‘When Chavez came to power, 80 per cent of people were poor. We drank milk once a fortnight and ate meat once a week. Most people didn't have access to proteins,’ Joel Linares, a Caracas based community organizer who also works with rural workers' councils, explained.

He described the current crisis as a result of politics, and ‘consumerism that isn't working’ in an oil based, urban-centric economy where people don't produce what they consume. Vegetables and fish are available, but they are expensive, and the basic goods that people are used to like rice, beans, and milk can only be obtained on the black market, or by queueing outside a supermarket from 4 am. But businesses seem to have no problem getting hold of those products, and it’s easy to get a pizza, coffee, or bread if you can afford it.

‘It's not that these things don't exist, but the mechanism of distribution is still controlled by the private sector,’ Rachael Boothroyd Rojas, a Caracas community council representative and journalist with Venezuelanalysis.com said. And that is a private sector which has profited greatly from the crisis, and which has an interest is bringing down Chavismo.

Community members working in the La Columna community garden, Merida, Venezuela.

Tamara Pearson

A boom in urban agriculture

But the food situation has led to changes in how people get food, and in the types of food they consume. More people are growing their own food, and the traditional Venezuelan diet heavy on deep fried carbs is being challenged, with oil and cornflour hard to come by.

Loaiza described a community meeting he attended recently where people growing food on their windowsills and patios and in public parks came together to collectivize their experiences. ‘People have realised that they have to take advantage of what space they have. Before, no one used the green spaces in housing complexes, and now they are growing food there. Colonial culture forced habits of buying everything on us, and now we're breaking with that,’ he said.

‘Five years ago I knew perhaps eight people doing urban agriculture, but now I know about 500 people,’ he said.

‘Our community garden is still active, even though it was affected by the drought,’ Eliodina Villareal, a communal council spokesperson in an opposition-dominated part of Merida, explained.

Further, food exchange, with neighbours swapping goods like pasta for margarine, has become common.

‘People are starting to understand how food works. There is no way to move forward until communities become involved in food and production. And that means that the communal councils and communes are less abstract now,’ Boothroyd Rojas said.

Where community organizations were previously focused on holding cultural events and fixing a road hole, for example, now many urban communes are trying to produce at least half their vegetables in urban gardens, and are buying the rest directly from rural producers.

Members of the Merida communal council distributing food.

Tamara Pearson

The complexities of community organized food distribution

My own communal council, La Columna, covering four blocks of central Merida, has gone from meetings of five to 12 people in 2012, to around 90. Others testify that their community organization has been strengthened, that they are holding more and bigger meetings, and working more with other councils.

‘People are coming on their own accord, seeking support and organization to solve the situation. Through the government initiative, the CLAP (Local Committee of Supply and Production), we've sold bags of basic foods at very cheap prices. So people want to be included, but now the issue is how to meet the needs of all the families, and guaranteeing that they get the food, and not the bachaqueros (food speculators),’ Villareal said.

The CLAP are facing a range of obstacles. Organizers are leaving meetings to be in food queues, and they are exhausted with the work involved in obtaining basic resources like ink or paper for their communal work, or the days spent in organizing a truck for food. Food arrives to communities through the CLAP once a month, but Linares said that wasn't often enough. Also, he said sometimes the CLAP face stigmatisation for not completely solving the food problems people are facing.

‘The people's hunger is a battle weapon,’ Linares said, as he talked about the right-wing generated violence, combined with the politics of shortages, aimed at bringing about a sense of desperation. At the same time, people are having to combat corruption at various levels and are pushing for more control over production and distribution in order to guarantee efficiency of government. ‘A social and solidarity economy’ is the solution to such problems, and an alternative to wasteful consumerism, Linares argued.

When the communities get their food directly from farmers, they are attacking the insane speculation that happens through middlemen. ‘In our communal council we organized a vegetable market. We paid for the transport to bring the vegetables from the countryside. And it makes you wonder, if they sold us tomatoes at 450 bolivars ($.45) a kilo, and the people in the markets are selling them for thousands of bolivars, they must be making so much profit,’ Boothroyd Rojas said.

She described a further difficulty that some communities have faced, with the army sometimes stopping these food shipments. It has meant that some councils have had to use militia to protect their food from the army. The government appears to be losing complete control over its security forces, as they sense that the political forces have changed, with a right-wing parliament. ‘The right wing wants to revoke communal land rights, and some security forces are carrying out a dirty war in response to this dynamic,’ she explained.

Rural communities face some big hurdles too, but also have some advantages. Far from urban centres, it is even harder for them to access basic products, or to request funding. Loaiza said that with a return trip from Los Nevados to Merida costing 3,000 bolivars ($30.00), amounting to 20 per cent of a monthly wage, any paper work is difficult.

On the other hand, rural communities have been producing food for their own consumption for a long time. For those rural movements and groups who have also been organizing, their time to play an important role in Venezuela has come.

Eliodina Villareal (on the right) speaking at a communal council meeting.

Tamara Pearson

Better and worse human beings

‘To grow hurts, and Venezuelans are growing,’ Linares said. ‘The crisis has made us stronger,’ Loaiza argued. And even in Villareal's opposition dominated area, there is empathy among neighbours ‘without political stripes being important’.

‘People are learning to be more solidarious, to be mindful of the elderly adults who live alone and need our support. We're very motivated to keep fighting,’ she said.

But Loaiza also identified ‘two Venezuelas’. He described a ‘revolution that tries to get positive things out of everything and is dedicated to building’ and on the other hand, people who are gravely affected by the problems, but aren't doing much about them and are affected by ‘anti-values’ such as individualism and selfishness. The first group, he explained, have spent years in collectives and ‘feel the solidarity’, so they don't easily fall for the anti-values.

On the other hand, Boothroyd Rojas described the ruthlessness of people trying to make money out of the shortages. ‘There are a lot of scams. You feel under attack because every time you go to buy something, you are up against this battle. It makes people aggressive, and it’s exhausting. In 2012, for example, the empanadas were great, full to the brim with meat. And now people are charging for basically an empty empanada. You're being scammed and people are making money – there's no solidarity between the market sellers and the people.’

She also noted how tense it is, not just because of the food, but an overwhelmed health system. ‘The two hospitals I've been to aren't like how the media portrays, with floors covered in blood, it's not that bad, but going to crowded hospitals is stressful.’

Community members working in the La Columna community garden, Merida, Venezuela.

Tamara Pearson

Grassroots and the national government

The people I talked to differed in their analysis of the effectiveness of government initiatives in light of the food problems. Most people are frustrated with the national government's response, but they have different ways of framing it. For some, the ‘economic war’ waged by the right-wing has made it difficult for the government to do much, while for others, the government has less connection now with the social movements and organizations and is too dependent on a stalling strategy.

‘The only solutions that are being developed at the moment is from the grassroots, but they are slow to have fruition as well,’ Boothroyd Rojas said. ‘I don't think we can rely on the CLAP and the state for food, we need to change the structures that mean people are being charged too much, in a way that we would be protected if the opposition were to get into government, because they wouldn't maintain any state involvement in food distribution.’

‘The government is responding to problem after problem, but the long term plans are coming from the communities. The CLAP are great, but the government isn't organized enough to bring food to the whole country, and it's very top down,’ she said. For example, the government stipulated that the CLAP must have a member from the Francisco de Miranda Front and from Inamujer, but those organizations aren't present in all communities.

She said the grassroots don't feel like they have much influence over the government or over the ‘course of things coming in the next few months’. Meanwhile, grassroots initiatives are also somewhat fragmented, with a lack of ‘national expression of people's politics’, but there's still a lot of room to make that happen.

'Less consumerism, more consciousness' reads the placard of a young protestor outside a supermarket queue.

Tamara Pearson

Looking to the future

The current situation in Venezuela is unsustainable. ‘The future doesn't look good,’ Villareal said. Communities are worried about what the right-wing could do in the national assembly, that it might eliminate the communal council and commune laws. However, even with a majority in the assembly, the right-wing is still acting like an opposition: more focused on delegitimising the ideas of Chavismo than on policy making.

‘It's questionable if the right-wing even want a recall referendum to remove the sitting president, Nicolas Maduro, and if they really want to take power, as power means responsibility for sorting out this situation, and it would be clear they don't really have any solutions,’ Boothroyd Rojas said.

‘But we are changing the way we consume, we're learning to value what we have and to think and create, so we know that we'll overcome this,’ Villareal concluded.

Tamara Pearson is a long time Latin America based journalist and the author of The Butterfly Prison.

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