Venezuelan fishermen demand that progressive legislation be carried out

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Sat Aug 17 23:14:43 MDT 2002


The following is the third article, appearing in the August 26 issue,  in
the Militant's  exceptional -- in fact, unique as far as I know -- factual
coverage of the revolutionary process that is taking place in Venezuela and
the sharpening class polarizaation that forms part of it.

This is true despite the fact that the Militant, if I read correctly the
highlighting of a quote from a disillusioned peasant activist at the
conclusion of  the second article, does not believe that there is a
revolutionary process in Venezuela and holds that Chavez is just another
"capitalist politician" dedicated (apparently through the use of nationalist
demagogy)  to preventing the independent organization  and political action
of the workers and peasants.  A  close reading of the facts presented in the
three articles is more than enough to convince an objective reader that the
Millitant's assessment of the reality does not adequately capture the facts
they present.

***

   Vol.66/No.32           August 26, 2002


Fishermen demand new laws
be carried out in Venezuela

BY ARGIRIS MALAPANIS
CUMANÁ, Venezuela--The coast of the state of Sucre, in the northwestern part
of this country, is dotted by picturesque bays and sandy beaches where
tourism thrives. Driving along the coastal highway, the uninquiring eye
could get a false picture of generalized prosperity. Among the towns and
cities by the shore, however, fishermen and other exploited producers
struggle for survival and their rights.
Here, in the capital of Sucre, about 300 miles west of Caracas, fishing is
the main industry. Large companies--most owned by European and other
capitalist monopolies--dominate the deep seas and, until recently, most of
the fishing just off shore. At the same time, thousands of independent
fishermen live in tin-roof shacks or other poor housing by the water and
struggle to repair boats and other equipment and to market their catch above
cost.
Tomás Blanca, a local leader of the National Bolivarian Command of Artisan
Fishermen, invited Militant reporters to visit the area to learn about the
struggles of fishermen after meeting them in the capital Caracas.
The organization is the largest of those representing small fishermen in
Venezuela today, Blanca said. Over the last two years, it has largely
replaced the old union of fishermen in the leadership of the some 40,000
working fishermen nationwide. The latter group is controlled by the social
democratic Democratic Action party, which alternated with a smaller
conservative party, COPEI, in the federal government for decades until Hugo
Chávez was elected president in 1998.
Blanca and a dozen other leaders of his organization from around the country
were in Caracas for a July 16 meeting at the headquarters of what is called
the "political command of the revolution." That's where the Bolivarian
Circles--loose formations in neighborhoods, workplaces, and schools that
carry out social and political tasks and organize defense guards--are
nationally coordinated from.
The fishermen had gone there to voice their demand that a recently adopted
law on fishing be carried out. The legislation was approved by the Chávez
regime last November. The Law on Fishing and Aquaculture grants independent
fishermen exclusive fishing rights up to six nautical miles offshore and
grants small fishermen exclusive rights for the fishing of sardines and some
other seafood and of all fishing in rivers and lakes inland. The measure
sets guidelines for financial assistance to these exploited producers so
they can get a living income. It also imposes higher taxes on capitalist
fishing companies and standards that could improve conditions for workers
employed on the industrial fishing boats.
Along with the Law on Land and Agricultural Development, the new law on
fishing has been one of the most contentious measures of the Chávez regime.
Democratic Action, COPEI, and other opposition parties in the country's
National Assembly have spearheaded a campaign to "reform" these measures
since the failed military coup against Chávez in April. Representatives of
capitalist fishing concerns have complained that the law is "discriminatory"
against them, reacting most strongly to the unambiguous establishment of
zones with exclusive fishing rights for independent fishermen.

Up to 50 percent unemployment
Luis Díaz Villaroel, national coordinator of the Bolivarian Command of
Artisan Fishermen, said in a July 16 interview in Caracas that unemployment
of up to 50 percent plagues small fishermen. "Nothing can be done to solve
this to the end," he stated, "as long as capitalism reigns." Some 80 percent
of these fishermen are illiterate, Villaroel added. His organization is
demanding that students be mobilized to go to the villages, towns, and
barrios in coastal cities to help teach people how to read and write. Such a
project could also help establish a culture among youth of attending school
to eliminate illiteracy. The government has not heeded this call so far, he
said.
These conditions, and the struggle to change them, became more concrete
during a July 20 visit to Cumaná. More than 1,500 fishermen and their
families live in the San Carlos neighborhood, by the shore, on the eastern
end of this city.
Most houses have tin roofs and are built a few feet away from the water,
with many fishing boats pulled up on the sand. Most of these fishermen have
been unable to work over the last year or so because they can't get loans to
repair boat motors. Without motors, net fishing is mostly ruled out. Those
whose boats are in good enough shape go line fishing.
"We are also squeezed by the middlemen," said Yorbanis Bermudez, 22, one of
a fishing family of eight living in a three-room, tin-roof house. "We sell a
10-kilogram case (about 22 pounds) of striped mullet for 2,000 bolivars to
these people on the market. That same case goes for 20,000 bolivars retail."
That was verified with a trip to the local fish market. [$1=1,300 bolivars].
"We do all the work and the middlemen profit," he said.
In the past, the larger fishing companies or the middlemen would lend the
fishermen motors in exchange for receiving virtually the entire catch until
they were paid off. "It costs 800,000 bolivars just to repair a motor," said
Tomás Blanca. "So we were slaves to these people, who would basically rob
the fish for a year or more, with the help of the Coast Guard when needed.
By the time we would pay off the motors, they would often be broken or in
serious need of maintenance and parts, and no funds exist for repairs."
Blanca's main fishing boat has been idled for the last year because of such
a broken motor.

New limits for fishing offshore
The large fishing companies--about 30 of them in the Cumaná area, mostly
owned by Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian companies, we were told--were also
allowed by law to operate as close as three nautical miles off the coast.
They often came as close as one mile offshore by paying off the Coast Guard,
Blanca said. With their high-tech equipment they would often scoop up all
the fish and leave almost nothing behind for the working fishermen.
"That's why almost all the fishermen are Chavistas," said Rommel Bermudez,
referring to those who support the president. Rommel is Yorbanis's older
brother and makes a living fishing part time and working construction jobs
as well.
"The Coast Guard is not turning as much of a blind eye to their incursions
at night closer to the coast line as they used to do," Rommel Bermudez
added, "so there is now enough fish for us."
The trouble is that nothing has been done to alleviate the squeeze on prices
and lack of credit at interest rates that are tolerable, Blanca said. Under
the new law, the government is supposed to provide 800 billion bolivars
(about $40 million) this year to allow the small fishermen to form
cooperatives. The cooperatives would help provide financing for motors,
refrigeration units, and other equipment so they can market their catch
directly rather than having to sell through intermediaries.
"We are fighting here for such a co-op to be founded in this neighborhood,"
Blanca said. He wasn't sure whether this will materialize.

Workers employed on big boats
The fishermen said their support for the new fishing law is also based on
measures it outlines to force the large fishing companies to pay the minimum
wage of 175,000 bolivars per month (about $150) and provide health coverage
and other benefits to workers on the industrial boats.
"I have a brother-in-law who worked for one of those companies and used to
make 50,000 bolivars per month," said Marco Mutonari, another fisherman in
the San Carlos barrio. "Now he makes triple that because of the new law. And
he has health insurance."
Many militant workers on these boats are still being fired indiscriminately
when they speak up, these fishermen said. There can't be great universal
progress until they can form a union, which the bosses have been successful
in preventing so far.
Blanca said bloody confrontations can be expected down the road as many of
the promises in the new laws and government decrees remain words on paper
and attempts to implement them are resisted violently by los
esqualidos--"the squalid ones," the popular designation for the bourgeois
opposition to Chávez.
"With Chávez, or without Chávez, the process that we started in 1998 must go
on," said Villaroel.
The Bermudez brothers said the illiteracy problem presents a big challenge
in organizing the fishermen and in their everyday life. Their father,
Francisco Roque, is among those who never learned how to read or write. This
is not just a problem that keeps the cultural level down, these fishermen
pointed out, but has a practical impact. "We never let Francisco go to the
market to sell the fish we catch," Rommel Bermudez said. "The sharks on the
fish market know he can't read and will rob him more when they do the
accounting."
But the problem extends to younger generations. While all four Bermudez
brothers had gone to school, many other kids in the fishing communities are
forced to skip classes. These children grow up working at sea. Their energy
is needed to row the boats, especially in the absence of working motors, so
there is no time for school.

Learning about the Cuban Revolution
Delia Bermudez, Rommel and Yorbanis's mother, said she has heard from
several Cuban physical education teachers and doctors who have been living
in the area the last two years that Cuba eliminated illiteracy quickly after
the 1959 revolution that overthrew the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio
Batista.
"I don't know exactly how they did it, but that's what we need here," she
said. These Cuban volunteers are in the country as part of an assistance
program by the Cuban government to Venezuela and many other semicolonial
countries. A strikingly high number of fishermen and other rural toilers
spoke highly of the Cuban volunteers. Tomás Blanca and many other leaders of
his organization said they have concluded that what they are fighting for
cannot be realized without a social revolution. Ana Bejarano is an economist
who works with the national leadership of Blanca's group in Caracas. She had
recently been to Cuba on the invitation of the Federation of University
Students. "I am convinced," she said in a July 16 interview, reflecting
statements made by other leaders of the fishermen's struggle, "that what we
need here is a revolution like in Cuba."




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