(OPE-L) land reform in Venezuela

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Thu Jan 08 2004 - 13:44:23 EST

from http://www.venezuelanalysis.com

       "I'm a landless peasant, I've got land, but it's in
the graveyard"

    Venezuela: the promise of land for the people

Venezuela's opposition particularly loathes the crucial
agricultural reforms of President Hugo Chávez, which have
begun to return parts of enormous, barely used
land-holdings to poor landless peasants and to encourage
them to grow their own food and build working communities.

  By: Maurice Lemoine - Le Monde Diplomatique
Published: 13/10/03

THE latifundio (large estate) spread out across a vast
plain like a sea dotted with bushy islands, begins 10
minutes' drive from San Carlos, which is the capital of
Cojedes state. It is only a few kilometres from the little
square where General Ezequiel Zamora (1) was killed in
January 1860.
Behind countless lines of barbed wire lie the 20,000
hectares of hatos (cattle-farms) belonging to the Boulton
family, one of the richest in the country. Then come the
14,000 hectares of Hato El Charcote, property of Flora
Companía Anónima. A few dozen young bulls graze this land,
lost in its immensity. Beyond that the Branger family's
estate covers a massive 120,000 hectares of El Pao
municipality. And beyond that other terratenientes
(landowners) estates, domains of 80,000 hectares here,
30,000 hectares there, often with as few as three or four
hectares actually being used.
"I'm a landless peasant. I've got land, but it's in the
graveyard," says Jesús Vasquez. For years, any campesino
(2) who trespassed on these uncultivated tracts would be
caught and imprisoned, or chased out with bullets. The
peóns (farm labourers) worked for the miserable daily rate
of 3,000 bolos (3). On tiny fractions of an acre,
campesinos grow anaemic maize and live off the Holy Spirit.
Anyone who cannot afford to buy or rent an allotment rots,
confined to the four walls of some horrible slum on the
edge of a town.
But those who are very hungry will not wait for ever. On 14
October 2000, Jesús Vásquez, along with 25 men and one
woman, occupied part of Hato El Charcote. Its owner turned
out to be the British Crown, via Flora Companía Anónima.
"The government asked them to present the deeds, but they
never did. It's effectively state land," explains Vásquez.
The enquiry by the National Land Institute (Instituto
Nacional de Tierras, INTI), created on 8 January 2002 to
enact President Hugo Chávez's land reforms, confirmed this.

Since then some 800 families, organised into 24
cooperatives, have been granted a part of the property, and
have begun to work 7,000 hectares. Fields of maize, papaya,
beans, yucca and other vegetables now surround palm-roofed
ranchos and a wooden school that the campesinos have built.
They also built the bridges needed to access the area, and
now drive across them in tractors and trucks bought with
government credits.
"Last year we harvested two tonnes of maize. This year we
reckon we'll get up to six tonnes and much more later on,"
says a jubilant Vásquez. "People are growing things and
have got enough to eat. It's a magnificent development."
With the complicity of previous governments, the
terratenientes unjustly appropriated millions of hectares,
with the result that Venezuela now imports 70% of its food
(4). The owners of Polar beer (the largest industry after
petrol) import all their hops from the United States.
Tinned sweetcorn is imported. This situation benefits big
importers and disadvantages the poorer sections of the
economy, especially smallholders: it has left hundreds of
thousands of campesinos behind.
On 13 November 2001, as part of a package of 49 laws passed
by presidential decree, Chávez announced a Land Law to
redress Venezuela's chronic social injustice and to
guarantee food supplies by boosting domestic production.
Though the law aims to end the latifundio system, it
affects only unused land, which it either taxes or
expropriates. It forbids any individual to own more than
5,000 hectares and plans to repossess many acres of
illegally occupied state land, redistributing all of it to
the campesinos, principally, but not exclusively, through
the formation of cooperatives.
On 8 December 2001 about 20,000 campesinos (4) piled into
buses or on to the backs of open trucks and left their
derelict pueblos and tangled allotments behind them. The
next day they marched through Caracas to celebrate what had
happened. "We moved of our accord, not like before, when
you'd have to offer campesinos money or food to get them to
move," insists Claudio Ditulio of Curito Mapurital (Barinas
state), where the INTI has just handed 31,700 hectares to
500 families. "We went there with few resources, but with
great hopes."
The great cry for land has finally been heard. It will
surely cause many more demonstrations of support for the
Bolivarian Revolution (5). "I've marched further for this
president than I've ever run after a woman," says one of
Ditulio's companions from under his felt hat in the intense
heat. Pushing through radical reforms, the Bolivarian
Revolution is at last getting down to work.
It is also beginning a battle with the opposition. There
were immediate reactions from groups such as the Táchira
State Cattleraisers Association (Asociacón de Ganaderos del
Estado Táchira, Agosata) and the Táchira section of
Venezuela's powerful employers' organisation, the
Fedecámaras. "The law is interventionist. It imposes state
control and ignores the right to property, which is a
fundamental human right," it said. "Taxation of
uncultivated lands is unconstitutional. This law is based
on communist ideas, as collectivist policies usually are,
rather than a political philosophy. What is emerging is a
totalitarian attitude" (6).
For José Luis Betancourt, leader of the National Federation
of Cattle raisers (Federación Nacional de Ganaderos), the
law "will bring many establishments to ruin". Pedro
Carmona, the boss of bosses supported by Carlos Ortega,
head of the highly corrupt Venezuelan Workers'
Confederation (Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela,)
used the same arguments in calling the first general strike
on 10 December 2001, a prelude to the 11 April 2002 coup
attempt. "The arbitrary nature of these laws demands
forceful and unequivocal arguments and acts of resistance,"
he said (7).
Yet on that 10 December, defying the strike, Chávez went
ahead and officially signed the land reforms into law in
front of a sea of flags and red berets in Barinas, saying:
"Landowners, prepare your papers; you are going to have to
prove your rights to these estates!" Representatives of the
landowners tore up the law in a public demonstration
broadcast live by the media.
"Our terratenientes aren't even capitalists. Capitalists
make use of their land," says Ricaurte Leonete, appointed
chairman of the INTI at the beginning of August 2003. "In
Europe capitalism got rid of this kind of parasitic
behaviour a long time ago." But the opposition accuses the
Chávez government of "Castrocommunism". There is the sound
of battle across Venezuela.
In Yaracuy State, it is as loud as thunder. Here campesinos
call their neighbours camaradas and recite poetry. The
collective struggle against "the thousand-headed
terrophagus" (land-eating monster) has gone on for decades.
Led by Braulio Alvárez, the charismatic leader of the
Ezequiel Zamora National Agrarian Board (Coordinadora
Agraria Nacional Ezequiel Zamora), the Urachiche and
Camunare Rojo land committees requested and received, on 4
May 2002, 665 hectares of fallow land from the Bolmer and
Azleca families. Both are closely tied to the family of the
state's opposition governor, Eduardo Lapi. According to the
INTI, this land belonged to the former National Agrarian
Institute (IAN).
On 12 July, acting on orders from the governor, the
pantaneros, the regional police's hard men, violently
attacked 850 people who had moved there quite legally,
pushing them back to Camunare Rojo with tear gas and
gunfire: 20 people were wounded and eight hospitalised.
"People are playing at anarchy in Yaracuy, and I won't
allow it," said Lapi, while the president of the state's
legislative council, Victor Pérez, denounced the Camunare
Rojo campesinos and their strategy of terror.
In the Santa Lucía section of the Santa Catalina estate
(which "belonged" to the Central Matilde sugar consortium),
600 people received 540 hectares on 3 May 2003. They also
got 170m bolivars ($106,300) and a Chinese tractor, and
have already managed to sow 170 hectares.
"Armed men attacked us on 20 July; they burnt a truck and a
car, beat two people up, and poured petrol over them," says
Zapata, one of the cooperative's leaders. The expressions
on the gaunt faces around him seem weary. A tribunal from
nearby Barquisimeto has now set up a degree of protection
through National Guard patrols. But "we can still see the
pantaneros from Lapi posted over there," claims Zapata,
pointing at old lodgings." They shoot into the sky, they
threaten us and try to provoke us into responding, to
justify more violent repression."
It's one thing when the enemy is an opposition governor -
as in the states of Yaracuy, Apure and Carabobo - or a
politician from the ancien régime. But in January 2002, in
El Robal (Cojedes State), it was Jhonny Yanez Rangel who
let the dogs out. He had been elected as a member of the
Movement for the Fifth Republic (MVR, the presi dent's
party). "He kicked out the campesinos and destroyed their
ranchos and their equipment. Everything was lost," says
Vásquez, still enraged at what happened. How could a
revolutionary governor act against the revolution? He might
be one of the opportunists who joined the Chávez camp when
his election victory began to look inevitable. On 12 April
2002 Yanez Rangel rallied to the anti-Chávez government
without fuss, shamelessly switching back two days later
when Chávez regained power (8).
The situation in Cojedes state is made worse by the initial
total ineffectiveness of the regional INTI. "There were
sinister forces getting in the way - the landowners and
economic powers -everything was delayed," recalls José
Pimentel, who is responsible for recruiting for the buses
whenever there is a trip to Caracas to support the
president. "At our request Adán Chávez [the president's
brother, head of the INTI at the time] ran an audit and
realised that the local leaders had achieved nothing in
nine months." Gustavo Guttierez was appointed leader of a
replacement team in July 2003, and is working seven days a
week to correct the mistakes and reform the institution.
To be fair to the INTI, the organisation was created from
scratch very quickly after it took over from the
ineffective and corrupt IAN. "These were newly-appointed
officials," explains current chairman Ricaurte Leonel.
"They had to get to grips with the new law and how to apply
it." In a country where archives and land registers are
often incomplete, and pseudo-landlords attempt to block
access, the early days were uneasy.
In September 2002, when Chávez found out that the new body
had not even redistributed 1,000 hectares, said Leonel, "he
flipped, and said 'I want 1.5m hectares redistributed by 30
August 2003, or you're all fired, from the chairman [then
his brother Adán] to the lowest-ranking official'." Since
then, redistribution has progressed quickly. By August
2003, 1,340,000 hectares had been handed over to 62,800
families. The objective remains 2m hectares per 500,000
campesinos (9).
There are still a few blackspots, though, especially in
Apure state, a dangerous region along the Colombian border.
"We're suffering here, compañero," laments a campesino. The
agrarian revolution hasn't reached us." The figures speak
for themselves: Flora Companía Anónima (property of the
British crown, as in Cojedes) holds 350,000 hectares, Hato
La Victoria, 100,000, Hato El Cedral, 150,000, La Caña
Vilena, 30,000, and Matebanco, 25,000.
In these plains (10) vast expanses of abundant tall grass
are drained by rivers that snake in meanders under forest
canopies, and in the monotony of the flood plains, the
campesino movement has always been harshly repressed, and
accused of providing guerrilleros.
One period stands out in memories: TO-1, the first Theatre
of Operations, under General Enrique Medina Gómez. This
section of the Venezuelan army was supposedly aimed at
countering infiltration by Colombian gangs. On 23 January
1997 Medina Gómez freed seven Colombian paramilitaries who
had been held, with their weapons, since 22 December. These
men were receiving some 2-3m bolivars from the
cattle-raisers along the border in exchange for security.
The general's explanation was that they were carrying out
an intelligence mission and had legitimate authoris ation
from TO-1.
Later distanced from Chávez and (imprudently) appointed
military attaché at the Venezuelan embassy in Washington,
Medina Gómez was a key player in the 11 April 2002 coup. In
1998 repre sentatives from the town of Guasdualito had
accused members of the intelligence service Disip
(Dirección de Servicios de Inteligencia y Prevención) of
collaborating with the paramilitaries operating along the
In Guasdualito today Santo Durán, technical director of the
local INTI branch, indicates his office's 1970s furniture,
and the one computer he shares with two other people.
Folders and files are piled up in front of him as he
complains about the lack of resources. "We're only just
scraping through," he admits. This situation is common.
INTI delegations everywhere appear to be ill-equipped. But
when asked about this, Durán tries to be reassuring.
Despite disagreements and the resistance of certain big
landowners, he says things have generally been sorted out
Warnings are coming from those with most to gain, the
campesinos. "There are 70 occupations here that INTI has
done nothing for. Not one carta agraria (the document that
allows campesinos to occupy the land) has yet been issued
in Alto Apure," (11) says Domingo Santana of the Simón
Bolivar Revolutionary Front. Anger is breaking out in the
poor ranchos in a 200-metre wide strip alongside the muddy
waters of the Apure.
"We can't go any further back," explains a woman, fending
off insects that buzz around her plate. "It's private
property." In this stormy landscape, where mud can get
waist-deep, local INTI bureaucrats face a hurricane. "Those
guys are not committed to the revolutionary process and are
just exploiting the land law to get their hands on a good
salary," says Santana. Noting that Durán used to be the
administrator of a property, Hato La Miel, they aim to take
over, the campesinos are making serious plans to take the
INTI establishments by force. But they welcome Caracas's
appointment of Ricaurte Leonel ("a good friend from whom we
expect great things") as head of the institution. He has
always been attached to the campesino movement, and knows
Alto Apure well.
The Bolivarian Revolution aims to be, and is, democratic.
It has never carried out executions or witch-hunts. This is
its great strength, and also its weakness. On 6 February
2003 Chávez visited the Jacoa cooperative's land in
Barinas, an estate long neglected by its two owners. A
magnificent new road had been built to open up the area. As
well as the cartas agrarias, the 500 occupants received
three tractors and 690m bolivars ($430,000) in credits.
Seven months later the project, intended as a showcase for
Chávez's policies, was a partial failure.
"Our comandante thinks everything's working great! They
hide the real figures from him; no one tells him the truth.
There haven't been 500 hectares opened up for farming here,
only 15." The Ministry of Infrastructure (Minfra) should
have deforested 400 hectares by now. It hasn't. Despite
repeated demands, officials from the Rural Development
Institute, responsible for drainage and irrigation, haven't
appeared. Those from the environ ment ministry have been
conspicuously absent too. "The state institutions won't see
me," complains Richard Vivas, a leader of the cooper ative,
"only the INTI supports me".
Gladys, who works for the INTI in Caracas, confirms these
problems. The government aims to hand out not only land,
but also machinery and credits. It wants the population to
have access to an infrastructure of housing, schools and
health centres. To achieve this, the INTI has to work with
the relevant ministries and councils - highly bureaucratic
structures, many of whose staff are members of the old
political parties and have been festering there for as much
as 15-20 years. "They do everything they can to scupper
this kind of development," she says. "Like the ministers,
we have to work conspiratorially, by infiltrating these
establishments and seeking out allies. So the results are
often slow." It is a huge waste of time and energy.
For the first time, from inside their barro (12) dwellings
- worlds of leather saddles, blades, bags, storm lamps,
skins, boots and piles of clothes - the campesinos are
emerging organised and aware of the law. They read it. They
know they have rights. They react to the delays and
difficulties in a highly politicised manner. "Don't succumb
to provocation" is the advice heard at a meeting on Hato El
Miedo, Barinas. "We must fight with our heads. Our weapon
is the law."
On the Jacoa domain there are preparations to give the
slovenly institutions a shock. One of the leaders outlines
the strategy: "We'll have to enter by force. But, listen
carefully, with a banner saying: 'We are revolutionaries,
we are with the president; the problem is with this
particular official'." Otherwise, the press will get hold
of it and use it for the opposition's benefit."
The opposition is always poised for attack. On 20 November
2002, thanks to its control of the Supreme Court of
Justice, it successfully annulled articles 89 and 90 of the
Land Law. Article 89 permitted the INTI to allow
pre-emptive occupation of land during the court proceedings
aimed at proving the supposed landlords' illegitimacy.
Estates can now only be occupied after adjudi cation by a
slow, opaque legal system that is often in collusion with
the opposition. Article 90, meanwhile, ruled out indemnity
payments to "landlords" who had built works, houses or
buildings on illegally occupied state land. "Imagine," says
an indignant Ricaurte Leonel in his office overlooking the
Parque Central in Caracas, "someone steals my car. The
thief replaces the tyres and the engine, and then when I
claim my car back, I'm expected to reimburse him for the
tyres and the engine."
Until the National Assembly rewrites the articles in
question, presidential decree 2292, of 4 February 2003,
combined with INTI resolution 177, has created the cartas
agrarias. Without constituting property deeds, these allow
for the occupation of disputed land and the granting of
credits for its exploitation.
However, resistance to this rural revolution has also
manifested itself in more violent ways. The regional INTI
co-ordinator, Richard Vivas, leaving Guanare (capital of
Portuguesa state) at the wheel of his dark-windowed car for
Zoropo, received a phone call, telling him of a problem
between a group of campesinos and three campo volantes
(guards) (13). On the scene, amid woodland and bush, the
atmosphere was confused and charged. "They won't let us
pass," protested a woman, pointing at the three men with
their guns tightly gripped. "They threaten us, they burn
our ranchos, they destroy our harvests," adds her
companion, enraged. Vivas calms his people down. Before the
campo volantes' worried eyes, he gets out his mobile phone:
"I"m going to ask Disip to search and identify these
people." Arriving back in Guanare he admits: "I've received
a lot of death threats. I take them seriously. This
opposition kills."
Twelve people have been murdered in Portuguesa state,
including Jacinto Mendoza, executed in front of the INTI
offices. He was helping organise a land committee demanding
property deeds for 50 families to occupy fallow land
belonging to the state. When the intermediary who recruited
the sicarios (contract killers) was arrested, he said he
had received 8m bolivars ($5,000) from Omar Contreras
Barboza, ex-minister of agriculture under Carlos Andrés
Pérez, the former president who was ousted on corruption
charges. Barboza claims to own the land. There has so far
been no reaction from the judiciary.
There are extermination groups, organised gangs in the
landowners' pay, especially in the states of Zulia,
Barinas, Táchira and Apure. And there are media
troublemakers. On 24 March, in a report published by the
daily El Universal, Roberto Giusti accused Jorge Nieves, a
campesino and community leader, of being one of the Apure
region comandantes of a supposed Bolivarian Liberation
Front (FBL), said to be the armed wing of the Bolivarian
Revolution, and in league with the Colombian guerrillas
(14). A month later, in a region teeming with Colombian
paramilitaries, he was shot down in the centre of
Fedenaga claims that the armed forces assist invasions of
productive land, and that the cartas agrarias are handed
out to guerrilla groups. The opposition accuses Chávez of
dictatorship. In reality, the victims come from among the
supporters of a democratically-elected president: in this
conflict forgotten by the media, 74 campesinos have been
killed in two years, and more than 120 since 1999.
Despite these crimes, despite the blood shed under these
enormous skies, the enthusiasm and unwavering support for
"our comandante, President Hugo Chávez" is incredible.
Everywhere, your hear the greeting "Epa chámo, como está la
lucha?" (Hi, friend, how's the struggle?) . Everywhere,
people are talking about maize, sorghum, vegetables,
fruits, cattle, fish-farming and land cultivation, new
schools and new houses.
Of course, no one has forgotten that the first thing the
short-lived dictatorship of 11 April 2002 did was to annul
the Land Law. People are following closely the political
crisis in Caracas, where the opposition is trying every
means to oust Chávez from power before he can carry out his
By allusion or even openly, people are warning, just in
case. "If they take all this away from us, there will be
civil war."

(1) On 10 December 1859, during the federal war, General
Ezequiel Zamora led the peasant army that broke the
anti-Bolivarian oligarchy in Venezuela.
(2) Peasants, the rural poor.
(3) 3,000 bolivars = $1.88.
(4) According to the last agricultural census (1998), 70%
of good quality arable land is owned by the 20% of
landlords who have more than 500 hectares, while 75% have
only 6% of the land. Some 60% of rural farmers do not have
the deeds to the property they occupy.
(5) Chávez refers to his reforms as the Bolivarian
Revolution, after Simón Bolivar, who led Venezuela's
independence movement in the 19th century. Under the new
constitution the Chávez government drew up, Venezuela's
full name is now the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
(6) "Frente a la ley de tierras", Ultima Hora, Centro de
Estudios Ganaderos, Maracay, 15 December 2001.
(7) See "Venezuela: a coup countered", Le Monde
diplomatique, English language edition, May 2002.
(8) After a presidential intervention, Yanez Rangel had to
pay 55m bolivars ($34,600) in compensation to the
campesinos he had expelled.
(9) Such haste has led to some errors, regarding both
rightful landowners and protected areas, such as those
under the jurisdiction of the environment ministry.
(10) The plains make up a large proportion of Venezuela's
area (and that of neighbouring Colombia).
(11) El Nacional, Caracas (http://impresodigital.
(12) A mud mixture laid on a wooden trellis.
(13) Traditional rural figures originally employed to watch
over the herds, the campos volantes have become armed
vigilantes in the pay of the terratenientes.
(14) Roberto Giusti, "El brazo armado de la revolución", El
Universal, Caracas, 24 March 2003.
Translated by Gulliver Cragg
Originally published in Le Monde Diplomatique, October 2003
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