Bloody clashes feared in Venezuela over land redistribution
The president's plan to expropriate idle private lands for peasants is a perilous path since similar efforts in other Latin nations have led to turmoil.
Knight Ridder Newspapers
EL CHARCOTE, Venezuela — There's a very simple explanation of the land dispute swirling in Venezuela these days, according to one of the hundreds of peasants who have squatted on this 32,000-acre cattle farm.
"If they're not using the land, they should let us have it," said 54-year-old Carmen Guzman. "They should use whatever they need and give the rest to us."
President Hugh Chávez says he is trying to revive agrarian production through an ambitious plan to expropriate idle private lands and give them to landless peasants; Chávez's enemies say he is instituting a socialist regime under which private land ownership could be the first casualty.
Since his election in 1999, Chávez's opponents, accusing him of authoritarian rule, have organized marches, a nationwide strike, a failed coup in 2002 and a recall vote last year. Chávez survived it all, and now, with more power than ever, he has made land reform his next target.
The result, some fear, may be increasingly bloody clashes between disgruntled peasants and their land-rich neighbors. At least 75 peasants were killed in land disputes from early 2002 to early 2004.
Land ownership in Venezuela, as in much of Latin America, is concentrated in the hands of a few powerful families with friends in high places.
"There's no going backward. We're going to apply this decree no matter what happens," said Jhonny Yanez, the governor of the central plateau state of Cojedes, where El Charcote is located, referring to his controversial first decree regarding land use.
"We either triumph or we go down," he added.
Chávez has regularly attacked large landowners who, for his constituents, represent a ready target. Although 88 percent of the 25 million Venezuelans live in cities, many of the urban poor who most strongly support Chávez still remember rural life with a bit of nostalgia.
"We have to give these lands to the poor who don't have an acre," Chávez said earlier this month before warning landowners to "prepare yourselves, get lawyers, because a committee from the army could arrive to inspect your lands, to check your land titles."
Chávez and his allies claim that many large landowners have expanded their holdings over the years through corruption.
But land reform is dangerous territory, and history has not been kind to Latin leaders who have walked Chávez's path: Both Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954, and Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973 were ousted by U.S.-backed coups after confiscating idle lands.
And the Bush administration has not concealed its disapproval of the Chávez government lately. During her Senate confirmation hearings last week, Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice said Chávez was "a negative force in the region."
In El Charcote — "the puddle" — a sprawling farm about one-third larger than the city of Miami, the struggle between land owners and squatters is not new.
Since 1999, nearly 1,000 peasants from the region have squeezed their way onto the property owned by Agropecuaria Flora, a subsidiary of a firm owned by British tycoon Lord Vestey. His many properties in Venezuela form the country's biggest meat producer.
The squatters have built small mud or wooden huts and rudimentary wooden fences to keep the cattle away from their meager crops.
Most say they came with the encouragement of a neighbor, a friend or a fellow peasant. All say they were inspired by Chávez, who signed an agrarian-reform law in 2001 that initially sparked few official government seizures but filled many landless peasants with hope.
"I don't have any politics," said Victor Quinones, a 54-year-old peasant living in a mud shelter along the side of the road that slashes through El Charcote. "But Chávez helps us with the land. ... This is the best it's been for me in 54 years."
Quinones has 37 acres and says the peasant committee that organized the squatters also gave equal plots to the rest of the arrivals as well as copies of the section of the constitution outlining the agrarian laws.
Most of the plots appeared to be producing very little. Quinones, for instance, planted some squash, yucca and black beans. Only the beans made it to market for sale.
"This isn't easy," he explained. "You're hungry. There are hardly any tools."
But Quinones isn't the only one struggling. The invasion has left Agropecuaria Flora barely solvent. El Charcote, which before the arrival of the first peasants had some 11,000 head of cattle, is now managing only 6,500 because of the reduction in grazing area. The cattle sold to market in that period have simply not been replaced.
"We're 100 percent invaded," said Anthony Richards, El Charcote's English-born administrator, who arrived in Venezuela in 1987 and has spent the last 18 months on this cattle ranch. "Soon we'll have a ranch without any cattle."
The British Embassy has contacted the Venezuelan government over the situation, but the Venezuelans have done little besides pass paper between the ministries to share their "concerns."
Invaders remain. And fiery words from the presidential palace continue unabated, stirring concern that more land invasions will follow on other private farms.
The government has already declared 500 private plots of land idle. But it has yet to inspect any of the 30,900 square miles of government-owned lands — a bit less than half the size of Florida.
Cojedes' Gov. Yanez says that although he appointed the members of the "technical commission" that assesses land use to see if the property should be declared idle, he insists that they are impartial. He also says his state government is working on a plan to maximize the use of the land and limit the number of illegal invasions.
"The right of private landowners is not absolute, because we have to understand the good of the collective sometimes needs to supersede that of the individual," Yanez said.