Sugar cane growers have occupied the Santa Elena mill in Majaguas, Portuguesa state.
In a video broadcast on social media on September 16, local campesinos announced the move as a first step to rescue the plant.
“The sugar cane producers are here, taking over this sugar mill that has been destroyed. We have a harvest upon us and we need answers!” said Blondy Sangronis, spokeswoman for the local campesino association which in turn is part of the National Confederation of Bolivarian Sugar Cane Growers (Concaboven).
The Santa Elena Mill was one of several assets moved to private sector management in 2019 under the “strategic alliance” figure. At the time, the Venezuelan government transferred a series of state enterprises to governorships which then signed concessions to private businesses. The Majaguas plant was surrendered to the Agrologística del Llano corporation, owned by powerful local businessman and landowner Generoso Mazzocca.
Speaking to Tatuy Tv and Venezuelanalysis, Sangronis explained that the new administration has led the mill to ruin. According to the local activist, only 13 thousand tonnes of sugar cane were processed in 2020, a little over 10 percent of the 168 thousand the previous year under the management of the state-owned Venezuelan Sugar Corporation (CVA). According to the company’s website, the plant has a 5,600-tonne daily processing capacity (roughly 2 million yearly).
The factory was nationalized by the Hugo Chávez government in 2010 after the former ownership allegedly engaged in hoarding and other irregularities. The Chávez administration brought several enterprises under state control, including several sugar refineries.
Sangronis stated that this year’s harvest will not be ground. In some cases, campesinos will take their production to another plant 30 kilometers away, but diesel shortages are an additional obstacle.
The spokeswoman argued that the current scenario is “critical and urgent” given that 800 families split in three municipalities (Agua Blanca, Páez and San Rafael de Onoto) and the local economy depend on sugar cane production. Ever since the plant’s transfer into private hands, she explained, many have been forced to turn to other foodstuffs or leave the country altogether.
Nevertheless, the situation could change in the near future. According to the campesino leader, the Nicolás Maduro government is looking to rescind the mill’s concession to the Agrologística del Llano corporation, but the Portuguesa governorship has refused to sign off on it.
“We don’t understand how a magnate who didn’t even pay off last year’s debts continues to be protected,” she complained. Sangronis likewise lamented that there was no public inventory of the sugar mill’s assets before the transfer of management.
In Santa Elena, cane producers were not the only ones affected, as Mazzocca’s group fired over 450 workers from Agrícola Yaracuy upon taking over. Agrícola Yaracuy is a 4000-hectare landstead attached to the mill with the purpose of supplying it. However, the workers have remained in the lands and are growing food.
“The comrades are fighting and they also need answers,” Sangronis stated, referring to the regularization of land titles.
The strategic alliance model has been mired in controversy in recent months. The Pedro Camejo company, also in Portuguesa state, was another asset transferred to a local business, affecting small-scale producers. In the sugar sector there are at least two other plants where campesino organizations and trade unions have opposed the new management.
In the Pío Tamayo mill (Lara state), workers have staged protests to demand that the Veinca consortium honor its agreements. In Cumanacoa (Sucre state), local popular power organizations joined cane growers to demand answers from the government after the TecnoAgro corporation failed to fulfill its commitments.
Sangronis added that the sugar producers’ confederation is joining efforts to demand that the government take action. She recalled a statement from Maduro in August in which he urged the recovery of sugar production. “We’ll do whatever needs to be done,” the president affirmed in a televised address.
“We remain fully committed to Chávez’s socialist project and trust the government to make things right,” Sangronis said. Producer associations have reportedly held meetings with commissions from the National Assembly and the vice presidency. “Even if a private investor is required, the people who produce need to play their part. We want to rescue this mill.”
The spokeswoman called on authorities to boost small and midsize cane production, claiming that the sector receives very little support and is forced to compete against imported sugar.
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