- The Washington Times - Monday, October 27, 2003

BARINAS, Venezuela — It was not President Hugo Chavez’s inflammatory rhetoric alone that incited opposition against him in Venezuela.

The all-consuming campaign to oust Mr. Chavez was triggered in November 2001, when he approved a series of laws meant to reshape the economy and reduce poverty.

Perhaps none of the laws has been as disputed as an agrarian-reform bill, with which the government plans to hand 5 million acres of idle, state-owned land to as many as 100,000 families.

Land reform historically has been an explosive issue in Latin America.

Mr. Chavez’s program drew fierce resistance from landowners and business groups, and was a major factor behind the sudden emergence in late 2001 of a powerful movement seeking his ouster. The opposition has since engaged in an all-consuming drive to topple the president, including a coup, a two-month lockout by business owners and a strike by oil workers, and, most recently, a campaign to hold a recall election.

Mr. Chavez, however, has hung on to power. In rural states such as Barinas, known for its extensive, lush estates and chronic poverty, the government has proceeded with its agrarian-reform program, propelling an emboldened campesino movement that has clashed with wealthy cattle ranchers who lay claim to the open range.

In this oil-rich and largely urban nation, gaping inequalities in landownership have long been overlooked by the ruling elite. The National Land Institute (INTI), which oversees the distribution of land, says 60 percent of the country’s arable land belongs to 2 percent of the owners, while hundreds of thousands of farmers remain landless or scrape by on small subsistence plots.

“Venezuela right now has the only serious government-administered land reform in Latin America,” said Peter Rosset, co-director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, a San Francisco-based think tank.

“In the U.S., Chavez is often painted as a villain or crazy,” Mr. Rosset said, “but this land reform — small and incipient as it is — shows he is much more on the side of the poor than other presidents in the region.”

The cattle ranchers accuse the government of illegally expropriating privately owned estates in full production without compensating their owners, instead of giving the peasants state-owned land.

“They’re going after the best ranches — not idle land,” said Rogelio Pena, former mayor of Barinas city, who was dining at an upscale steakhouse in Caracas. “Just like Fidel Castro in Cuba, the government wants to take control of the productive sector.”

Mr. Pena said he was running a $1.5 million ranch stocked with 1,700 head of humpbacked Brahma cattle when soldiers forced him off the land in February. Dozens of campesinos moved in and began farming with authorization from the INTI.

Leonardo Patino, the INTI’s legal counsel in Barinas, said the land was given to the campesinos because it was considered public and idle. Mr. Pena’s title to the land was a forgery, he said, adding that Mr. Pena had brought in cattle only recently to give the appearance that the ranch was being used productively.

At the entrance of the ranch is a large iron-barred corral where hundreds of cattle are confined, watched over by a few caretakers who have been allowed to stay. Mr. Pena has sued the government, and the case is before the courts.

Ranchers also accuse government officials and pro-Chavez politicians of encouraging campesinos to occupy private ranches without official sanction.

Giovanni Scelza, president of the Barinas Ranchers’ Association, says 95 illegal occupations have taken place in the state since December and authorities have responded to only one request for eviction.

“The government is breaking its own law,” said Juan Pedro Manrique, a lawyer in Barinas who represents several ranchers.

“Anyone has the right to invade — this is the message that Chavez has given people. The government knows if they back the invasions, they’ll get votes.” Mr. Manrique also accuses the INTI of granting land to political adherents and military officials in exchange for continued support.

INTI officials say they have condemned illegal occupations, attributing them to groups of campesinos acting independently.

Campesino leaders say dozens of peasants have been murdered by hired assassins, called “sicarios,” whom they link to the ranchers. Campesinos as well as ranchers are armed, and threats of violence continue.

“If they take away my ranch, I’ll kill them all, one by one,” declared Felipe Corelli, 66, a burly rancher who said campesinos squatting on his property have stolen eight of his bulls. “Believe me, there are ways of doing it.”

Increasingly organized and combative campesinos nonetheless are pushing the government to move faster. In Barinas early last month, impatient farmers awaiting land grants took over the INTI offices.

Marino Alvarado, who is writing a report on the progress of the land law’s implementation for Provea, a leading Caracas-based human rights group, contends that the government is moving too slowly.

“The illegal invasions are the exception, not the rule,” Mr. Alvarado said. “The one criticism that could be made is that the government is not touching the big latifundia.”

INTI officials say they are distributing only state-owned land and have no immediate plans to expropriate private latifundia, or large agricultural estates, created in the colonial era.

Mr. Alvarado said the land law itself is bland, as it limits the definition of a latifundio to a large estate that is idle. Even then, the owner has a two-year grace period to start making it productive and avoid expropriation.

Beyond the furor surrounding illegal squatting and expropriations lies a deeper ideological dispute about landownership and farming.

Under the law, the land distributed to the peasants is still owned by the state, and the government must encourage the formation of peasant cooperatives and collective farms, where the state is to provide housing, health care and education. The law also gives the government power to dictate how private land can be used, based on soil conditions and the country’s food-security needs.

Critics argue that the law violates the right to private property and is a throwback to state-planned communist economies.

“The model of the collective farm doesn’t respond to our reality,” said Roque Carmona, founder of Campesino Alliance, a nonprofit organization that helps small-scale farmers. “It looks good on paper, nothing more.”

Government officials maintain that the ban on giving up ownership of state property is an attempt to avoid the failures of past land reforms in Venezuela and elsewhere, in which small farmers who lacked credit or government support eventually had to sell their plots to large landowners.

They also argue that forming peasant cooperatives is the only way campesinos can compete with large agribusinesses.

Mr. Chavez has defended the law in terms of social justice and by appealing to the need for “food security,” mandated by the constitution passed in 1999 during his first year as president.

“We have excellent conditions to supply ourselves with a major part of what we consume, so how is it that we’re importing black beans?” Mr. Chavez asked in a recent presidential address, referring to a Venezuelan food staple.

“Venezuela will keep being an oil country for a long time, but not just oil. We must go back to being an agro-producer,” he said.

Amable Soto seems preoccupied with a more immediate question: What price will his co-op get for this year’s red-pepper harvest? The mud-caked campesino is overseeing a 3,500-acre collective farm called Jacoa that he works with 32 campesinos and their families.

“Chavez has given us what no government has,” said Mr. Soto, 31.

Other campesinos at Jacoa are more guarded in their praise. The families, which sleep in leaky shelters with palm-frond roofs, say they still are waiting for the president to keep his promise of building houses and improving the rutted dirt roads that turn to mud when it rains.

“There are signs that the distribution of land in Venezuela is finally being democratized,” Mr. Alvarado said of the human-rights group in Caracas. “But we have yet to see if the government will continue to follow through with credits, tractors and the technical support necessary to make this land reform work.”

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