CASERIO EL PEON, Venezuela — Surveying a vast, lush farm he hopes to make his own, Pedro Artiaga said social justice is finally being served in Venezuela.
The privately owned, 3,000-acre Santa Isabel farm has grown sugar cane for decades. Mr. Artiaga said the government will help him use the land to grow pumpkins, beans and squash.
Under a land redistribution campaign led by President Hugo Chavez, thousands of rural poor such as Mr. Artiaga are being granted rights to farm arable land that had been concentrated in the hands of the wealthy.
But Mr. Artiaga isn’t waiting for the government to take the lead — he and other farmers are slashing the Santa Isabel cane with machetes to lay claim to land they say is rightfully theirs.
State or private land?
“We’re obligated to take this land because it is state land,” Mr. Artiaga said, clad in a torn shirt dirtied by the rich soil. “Commander Chavez is with our movement.” Venezuela’s land reform campaign has won support from these rural poor, but criticism sparked that it could infringe on private-property rights.
“In Yaracuy [state], there is no rule of law,” said Santa Isabel owner Vicente Lecuna, who accuses state officials of encouraging peasants to settle on his property by declaring his and dozens of other farms state land. He said farming cooperatives such as Mr. Artiaga’s have destroyed 40 percent of his sugar cane.
After founding the farm in the 1950s, Mr. Lecuna’s father started the 2,000-acre Santa Elena cattle ranch in Madisonville, Texas. The family said he decided to invest his assets overseas when the land expropriations during the 1959 revolution in Cuba led him to fear that similar takeovers could occur in his country.
His daughter Josefina Lecuna, who now owns the Texas ranch and whose cattle have won Grand Champion Bull medals at the Houston Livestock Show, said the basic private-property rights guaranteed in the United States are at risk in Venezuela.
In the United States, “you pay your taxes … you’ve got rights over here,” she said in a telephone interview from her ranch. “I feel really bad about what’s happened to my father … that was my grandfather’s place, and for sure we would like to keep it because we have a lot of memories.”
Chavez defends reform
Mr. Chavez insists that his government respects private-property rights and says land expropriations are being carried out only for public use or out of public necessity in a country where most non-state land is owned by a small elite.
The Venezuelan leader, who is engaged in a war of words with the Bush administration, said last month on national television that the U.S. practice of eminent domain is a greater threat to private-property rights than his government’s expropriations.
He faulted the June decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Kelo v. New London for allowing New London, Conn., to condemn privately owned homes for the private development of a resort and offices — a departure from expropriations for public uses such as constructing roads or public buildings.
‘Idle’ land up for grabs
In what he deems the “new socialism of the 21st century,” Mr. Chavez has called on state officials to confiscate private land deemed “idle” or lacking property transfer titles dating to 1848. Troops have enforced some of the takeovers, at times denying owners and workers access to their land.
In recent months, the government has extended the campaign to corporate-owned land. One state government expropriated an idle tomato processing plant from U.S.-based H.J. Heinz Co., and another has seized a silo installation from Empresas Polar, Venezuela’s largest food company.
The state government paid Heinz $256,000 for the seized plant, distinguishing Venezuela’s reform from Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s massive land redistribution effort, which has not reimbursed thousands of white landowners for seized farms.
With agriculture a small player in Venezuela’s oil-dependent economy, it is unlikely that a fall in food production might cause food shortages or other crises like in Zimbabwe, said Orlando Ochoa, an economics professor at Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas.
New owners can’t sell
Critics say the expropriations concentrate power in the government by giving peasants only farming licenses, not ownership of the land.
“In Venezuela, we still have the king,” said Carlos Machado, an agribusiness professor at Caracas’ Institute for Higher Administration Studies business school.
But Carlos Escarra, a constitutional lawyer and professor at the Central University of Venezuela, rejects this common criticism, saying peasants do become property owners, but without the right to sell their land.
Mr. Chavez said letting farming co-ops such as Mr. Artiaga’s produce on expropriated land will lessen Venezuela’s dependence on food imports. His government also has begun a campaign to plant a half-million more acres of sugar cane and cassava to produce sugar-based ethanol gasoline.
Sugar cane targeted
Yet farm owner Vladimir Rodriguez in Yaracuy said the government has not prevented cooperatives and extortionists from destroying more than $15 million worth of sugar cane on 33 farms in his state, according to his count.
The government-run agrarian fund known as Fondafa also grants loans for farm machinery to co-ops that have seized private property without state permission and uprooted sugar cane crops.
In one case of extortion, local delinquents — who farm owners said posed as landless peasants — killed farm owner Antonio Vieira after he refused to pay them not to destroy his sugar cane crop.
Col. Angel Yarza, secretary-general of Yaracuy, who called on the government to take over 48 ranches, denied seeing large amounts of sugar cane destroyed. He insisted the state does not encourage land invasions, but said it will not intervene to protect private farms.
Mr. Artiaga said Col. Yarza and other state officials are helping his group take land away from the Lecunas, who he said represent a system of traditional landownership that prevents the rural poor from acquiring land or sustainable jobs.
“We’re human beings, too, and we have to eat,” he said.
But as big farm owners see it, seizing private property and issuing loans to poor farmers is no solution to poverty and unemployment.
The co-operatives “just want credits that they won’t pay back,” Mr. Lecuna said. “They’re not going to produce.”