Venezuelans Cultivating Chavez’s Revolution With Garden Ministry

  • Self-sufficiency becomes necessity in nation of empty shelves
  • Critics say programs will do little to solve food shortages

Francisco Salazar has long taken Hugo Chavez’s harangues against capitalism to heart. Heeding the late socialist leader’s call for self-sufficiency, he grows everything from garlic to green peppers from his modest home in southern Caracas.

“A revolution is not made simply sitting in an office,” Salazar said one recent morning while he and his neighbors weeded beds of onions and lettuce on the roof of their public housing block.

Francisco Salazar

Photographer: Manaure Quintero/Bloomberg

Garden plots in slums and state ministries are not an uncommon sight in Venezuela, where the ruling socialists have pushed urban-agriculture programs on city dwellers for years in their efforts to achieve food sovereignty. Yet, these days, the call for self-sufficiency has taken on a new importance.

The nation at large suffers from barren store shelves following almost two decades of Soviet-style controls that have stymied domestic production and left little money for imports. In response, President Nicolas Maduro has doubled down on his predecessor’s dreams of sowing gardens in the cities, even creating the Ministry of Urban Agriculture in January.

As part of government-led efforts to keep food on Venezuelans’ tables, the ministry offers city dwellers training and funding to grow their own crops. Gardens like Salazar’s have since sprouted up throughout urban centers, but the president’s opponents lambaste the efforts, saying they’ll do little to salve Venezuela’s woes.

Rooftop garden in Caracas.

Photographer: Manaure Quintero/Bloomberg

“Planters on Caracas balconies are not going to solve the growing problem of hunger in Venezuela,” said opposition lawmaker Maria Martinez, who sits on the National Assembly’s agricultural commission. Despite huge swaths of arable land available, Venezuela’s National Grower’s association, or FEDEAGRO, estimates the country is producing only about 30 percent of the food it consumes.

Still, Maduro himself has tried to set the example -- boasting that he and the first lady raise everything from pumpkins to chickens -- and brushes off naysayers, saying his opponents simply refuse to get their hands dirty. “All they can sow is discord, hatred, division and evil and meanness and selfishness,” he said while kicking off a planting drive earlier this year.

Critics are quick to point to more than a decade’s worth of expropriations that left fields to fallow while a flood of cheap imports during Venezuela’s oil bonanza discouraged farming entirely. According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Land, almost 1.2 million hectares (3 million acres) were nationalized from 2010 to 2015 alone.

Residents attend a course about urban agriculture.

Photographer: Manaure Quintero/Bloomberg

Further complicating Maduro’s hopes of turning Venezuela’s cities green is that the country’s tight price and currency controls have made many critical inputs -- like fertilizers, pesticides and replacement parts -- either too expensive or simply unavailable.

“They’re going to face exactly the same problems we do,”said Pedro Vicente Perez, director of FEDEAGRO. “It’s quaint idea, but it’s certainly not going to feed the country.”

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