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Saturday, May 19, 2007

Venezuela: Land Redistribution

There is not much information about what other help the government might be providing. Unless these people have experience farming and access to capital for equipment and seed and other inputs production could be limited. In contrast socialised agriculture in Cuba has a long history and successfully adjusted to a more ecologically friendly less based upon fossil fuels. David Suzuki had a good documentary on this. Cuba was faced with loss of subsidised fuel and favorable pricing for sugar cane after the fall of the USSR. Venezuela may be able to correct mistakes because it has the cushion of high oil prices.

NY Times, May 17, 2007
Clash of Hope and Fear as Venezuela Seizes Land
By SIMON ROMERO

URACHICHE, Venezuela — The squatters arrive before dawn with machetes
and rifles, surround the well-ordered rows of sugar cane and threaten
to kill anyone who interferes. Then they light a match to the crops
and declare the land their own.

For centuries, much of Venezuela's rich farmland has been in the
hands of a small elite. After coming to power in 1998, and especially
after his re-election in December, President Hugo Chávez vowed to end
that inequality, and has been keeping his promise in a process that
is both brutal and legal.

Mr. Chávez is carrying out what may become the largest forced land
redistribution in Venezuela's history, building utopian farming
villages for squatters, lavishing money on new cooperatives and
sending army commando units to supervise seized estates in six states.

The violence has gone both ways in the struggle, with more than 160
peasants killed by hired gunmen in Venezuela, including several here
in northwestern Yaracuy State, an epicenter of the land reform
project, in recent years. Eight landowners have also been killed here.

"The oligarchy is always on the attack and trying to say you are no
good," Mr. Chávez said to squatters in a televised visit here. "They
think they're the owners of the world."

Mr. Chávez's supporters have formed thousands of state-financed
cooperatives to wrest farms and cattle ranches from private owners.
Landowners say compensation is hard to obtain. Local officials
describe the land seizures as paving stones on "the road to socialism."

"This is agrarian terrorism encouraged by the state," said Fhandor
Quiroga, a landowner and head of Yaracuy's chamber of commerce,
pointing to dozens of kidnappings of landowners by armed gangs in the
last two years.

The government says the goal of the nationwide resettlement is to
make better use of idle land and to make Venezuela less dependent on
food imports. New laws allow squatters to manage and farm land that
has now been placed in government hands.

Before the land reform started in 2002, an estimated 5 percent of the
population owned 80 percent of the country's private land. The
government says it has now taken over about 3.4 million acres and
resettled more than 15,000 families.

Poor farmhands and unemployed town dwellers who squatted on land here
are as filled with optimism as wealthy land owners are with dread. On
the outskirts of the town of Urachiche, for instance, is Fundo Bella
Vista, a farming community inaugurated by Mr. Chávez during an
episode of his television program broadcast here in April.

Bella Vista is one of 12 "communal towns" that Mr. Chávez plans to
build this year. It has neat rows of identical three-bedroom homes
for 83 families, a reading room, a radio station, a building with
free high-speed Internet service, a school and a plaza with a bust of
Simón Bolívar, Venezuela's national hero.

With financing from state banks, the cooperative plants crops like
manioc, corn and beans, which officials in Caracas say are better
suited to soils here than sugar cane. By burning the cane during land
seizures, the squatters prepare the land for other crops and give
owners less incentive to fight for control. The state and federal
government holds Bella Vista as an example of the ideological fervor
Mr. Chávez is trying to instill in the countryside.

Lisbeth Colmenares, 22, was radiant as she showed a visitor her new
home here, where she and her family live rent-free.

"Before Chávez, the government would have been happy to let us
starve," said Ms. Colmenares, holding her 6-month-old daughter,
Luzelis. "We'll never let what we have now be taken from us."

But while some of the newly settled communities are euphoric,
landowners are jittery. Economists say the land reform may have the
opposite effect of what Mr. Chavez intends, and make the country more
dependent on imported food.

The uncertainties and disruptions of the land seizures have led to
lower investment by some farmers. Production of some foods has been
relatively flat, adding to shortages of items like sugar, economists
say.

John R. Hines Freyre, who owns Yaracuy's largest sugar-cane farm, is
now trying desperately to sell the property and others in neighboring
states. "No one wants this property, of course, because they know
we're about to be invaded," said Mr. Hines, 69, in English polished
decades ago at Georgetown University.

Yaracuy's sugar growers' association says sugar cane production here
has fallen 40 percent since Mr. Chávez set the land reform in motion.

Senior officials blame "hoarders" for the shortages. But agricultural
economists say the government bureaucracy, which runs a chain of food
stores, is also rife with inefficiencies and Venezuela is at a
disadvantage in competing on international markets with larger
economies, like China.

Carlos Machado Allison, an agricultural economist at the Institute
for Higher Administrative Studies in Caracas, said demand for food
had climbed more than 30 percent in the last two years with the oil
boom, while Venezuela's capacity to produce food grew only 5 percent.

He points to inconsistencies in the government's approach, like
having one ministry charged with redistributing land to reduce food
imports while another is tasked with importing large amounts of food.

"The double talk from the highest levels is absurd," Mr. Machado
said. "By enhancing the state's power, the reforms we're witnessing
now are a mechanism to perpetuate poverty in the countryside."

Top-down land redistribution projects have a troubled history in
Latin America, including Venezuela itself, which last tried it in the
1960s. Even neighboring countries like Brazil, with a flourishing
agribusiness industry, struggle with militant demands for land from
the rural poor.

But Venezuela, unlike many of its neighbors, has long imported most
of its food, and uses less than 30 percent of its arable land to its
full potential, according to the United Nations.

A good part of the reason is the havoc that its oil wealth plays on
the economy, with a strong currency during times of high oil prices
making it cheaper to import food than to produce it at home.
Meanwhile, vast cattle ranches take up large areas of arable land.

But no country in the region has currently hit the land distribution
issue as aggressively as Mr. Chávez.

"By 2008, I predict, no big landowners will be left in the state of
Yaracuy," said Franklin Ochoa, 23, a member of the cooperative
committee that manages Bella Vista.

In fact, Yaracuy, one of Venezuela's smallest states, is not filled
with especially large holdings. With some of the country's most
fertile soil, the state has been home to immigrants from Cuba,
Portugal and Spain who arrived after World War II and assembled
relatively small sugar cane farms and cattle ranches.

Some of these immigrants or their children are now doing everything
they can to leave. Fátima Vieira, the daughter of a Portuguese truck
driver who moved to Venezuela 50 years ago, said she was struggling
to receive compensation for a 170-acre sugar cane farm controlled by
squatters. She said squatters had burned much of her sugar cane in an
attempt to intimidate her.

Ms. Vieira, 43, said she also feared for her life after a gunman shot
her brother, Antonio, in the neck one balmy night in August in 2003,
on the edge of his sugar cane farm. He died in the cab of his Ford
pickup truck. After that incident squatters took over his property, she
said.

"His killer remains free," Ms. Vieira said in an interview at her
home in San Felipe, the state capital.

So far only a small group of landowners in Yaracuy, most of whom were
Spanish immigrants and maintained citizenship in their homeland, has
received compensation for seized land, after Spain's government
pressed Mr. Chávez's administration.

More than 30 ranches and farms have been seized since Carlos Giménez,
a staunch ally of Mr. Chávez, was elected governor in 2004.

Activists here say landowners have struck back. Braulio Álvarez, a
land activist and pro-Chávez deputy in the National Assembly, was
shot in the face last July after leaving a late-night meeting in San
Felipe. Mr. Álvarez, who survived the attack, blamed landowners.

In an interview at the governor's palace, where the halls are
decorated with images of Che Guevara and Mr. Chávez, Governor Giménez
said some friction should be expected on "the road to socialism."

"The reaction of the oligarchy is perhaps logical," said Mr. Giménez,
a lawyer by training who is fending off charges of corruption related
to state purchases of food and transportation equipment. He said the
charges were politically motivated.

"The upper class had more than 400 years of benefits from the
system," Mr. Giménez said. "They need to understand we're committed
to the construction of a socialist fatherland."

Landowners like Mr. Hines get the message. His aristocratic family,
from Cuba, began investing in Venezuelan land in the 1950s before the
Cuban revolution. Showing a visitor the plantation house where his
family once lived, Mr. Hines said he had begun distributing furniture
to the servants before the squatters arrive.

"I see Chávez in power for quite a while," said Mr. Hines, who takes
measure to ensure his safety, like sleeping in a different home each
night, never telling employees when he is driving to Yaracuy from
Caracas and dispensing with a flashy vehicle in favor of a
nondescript used sedan. "It will definitely get worse for us in this
country."

Adam B. Ellick contributed reporting.

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