Tuesday, September 13, 2005

SAN CARLOS, Venezuela — State governors and the rural poor are moving quickly to implement President Hugo Chavez’s vision of a social revolution, carving up and redistributing large landholdings and threatening to take over the premises of internationally owned companies.

There has been none of the violence and mayhem that accompanied land seizures in Zimbabwe in recent years, but economists and angry land owners fear that — as in Zimbabwe — the takeovers will destroy a productive agriculture sector and undermine the economy.

In the cowboy country state of Cojedes, however, triumphant farmworkers are hailing Mr. Chavez as a hero for pushing through legislation in 2002 that has enabled them to take over pieces of the region’s sprawling family-owned ranches.

“He is the man of the poor, the only one who has fought for the poor,” said Carlos Julia Roja, 48, his sunburned face peering from his pickup truck across an expanse of privately owned fields. “How many peasants would be able to eat off this land?” he asked.

Mr. Roja is one of the hundreds of rural poor who have been awarded 15-hectare (37-acre) lots from the El Charcote cattle ranch — a British-owned, 32,000-acre tract that was recently expropriated by the government.

“I am preparing to plant sorghum, then I will sell it as cattle feed, pay off my costs, then reinvest the rest,” he said.

Others like him are building rickety, wood-slat, one-room homes on their 37 acres and quickly planting food staples such as cassava and bananas while they wait for government credits to buy seeds.

At least two large landholdings have been taken over in the Cojedes, and government authorities, backed by armed and uniformed military, on Friday were moving in on four other ranches in the Barinas and Apure states. Another 317 ranches are being studied for takeover by the government National Land Institute (INTI), says the national daily El Universal.

Foreign Minister Ali Rodriguez Araque told The Washington Times that all resources would be used to help the poor of Venezuela, who make up about 80 percent of the population and are the base of Mr. Chavez’s political support.

“For us, democracy is not linked [just] to political rights, it is also linked to all economic, social and cultural rights. Political rights without the guarantee of these other rights is a denial of the whole system of rights,” he said.

But ranchers who have worked their land here for decades, raising and breeding cattle, and even attracting eco-tourists to their wildlife-filled hills and plains, say the claim to their land is simply government expropriation.

“On the surface it seems very legal, but there has not been a court pronouncement on this,” said Jaime Branger, whose extended family owns one of the largest cattle ranches in the country — the 185,330-acre Hato Pinero ranch and nature conservation zone.

Rancher feels exploited

“Nobody is going to go against the concept of social justice, nobody is going against feeding the people, but you have to do it properly; you cannot just tread on people,” said Mr. Branger, a tall man with deep worry lines who is fighting to keep his land.

“You can’t just grab people by the hair and say ‘get out.’ What about my social justice? Am I not people?” asked Mr. Branger, whose family obtained Hato Pinero in 1862.

Hato Pinero is one of the better-cared-for ranches in the state. There are acres of carefully planted pasture and about 9,000 sleek cattle, including a breed developed on the ranch called Pinero Red. Thousands of acres have been set aside as a nature conservation area filled with jaguar, puma, hundreds of bird species and a variety of orchids. Paying tourists stay in a Spanish-style adobe guesthouse built to cater to nature safaris.

With shouts of “Harh, harh,” Luis Calderon, one of the ranch’s young cowboys, or “llaneros,” gallops across the fields, guiding a group of horses into a corral before slowing down to talk in the shade of some trees.

“If they take away the ranch, everything we have worked for during the past 60 years will disappear in six months,” said the 24-year-old cowboy, who was born on the ranch. His is one of 120 families who have lived and worked on the ranch most of their lives.

His dirty white hat shading his dark eyes, Mr. Calderon — who is in charge of calving cows — described what the campesinos did when they took over one of Mr. Branger’s seed and cattle farms down the road.

“They sold all the wild horses and ate all the cattle,” he said. “For every one person who would really grow stuff, there are 100 who just won’t. There are some people who just hear that the land is good, there is plenty of water, and they want to take a piece.”

Poor not given deed

The land expropriations, which began early this year and quickly are gathering pace, came after a new law giving the government the right to take over properties where the ownership documents are deemed unsatisfactory. The poor are given the use of the land — but not ownership titles, which remain in the hands on the government.

The law also imposes new taxes on any land found to be idle or underproductive. Mr. Branger, who studied at the London School for Economics, said the criteria for either condition are not clear and are being abused by governors seeking to curry favor with the president.

The government is studying the takeover of 1,149 factories — roughly 10 percent of the private manufacturing sector, according to El Universal — which are either closed or partially functioning, all part of Mr. Chavez’s push to get greater control over the country’s economy and boost production.

Economic analyst Alejandro Grisanti Capriles explained that plants were standing idle or underproducing because of a sharp drop in investment due to the uncertain political environment, and because industries have tried to consolidate production in order to stay economically viable.

Government expropriations, coupled with a weak judicial system to counter them, “will have an adverse effect on the whole economy. The threat to private property is driving down investment in all the sectors,” said Mr. Grisanti, of EcoAnalitica.

No ‘social justice’

But Jose Pimentel, a burly, bearded man who leads the campesino (peasant) movement in Cojedes, said the poor had waited too long for a chance to work their own land.

“I am the son of a campesino, and I have seen that all the previous governments did not have any social justice in the rural areas,” he said, riding in the cab of a rattle-bone pickup truck filled with workers.

Mr. Pimentel, who is charged with doling out the confiscated land parcels in his territory, is greeted everywhere by men in beat-up cowboy hats and worn clothes, all seeking pieces of land.

He argued that the huge land holdings do not legally belong to the families that work them, but were taken illegally in the 1930s — in one case as far back as the 19th century. The land, he says, belongs to the nation, and thus to the people.

“There is a lot of poverty, and we have to fight poverty. We need to help all the people, so all can eat, buy clothes. We want to set up [cooperative] tractor factories, sausage factories, meat processing plants,” he said. “This agriculture will generate industry.”

Help all the people

Ideology and corporate concerns do not enter the conversation of the campesinos sitting on overturned buckets shucking fresh corn to be ground in a hand-cranked mill and made into corn pancakes called “cachapas.”

For these families, ignored for generations by previous governments and pushed to the edge of survival, Mr. Chavez’s revolutionary plans appear as their ticket to a new life. They reject the idea that they are squatters or that they have invaded someone else’s land.

“We are Venezuelans; we have the right to the soil. This is our earth, so we are not invaders,” said Lisa Gramos, 55, before cooking the pancakes on a hot griddle in the one-room hut that serves as kitchen and bedroom for four adults and a number of small children.

Much of the rancor comes from Venezuela’s history of the wealthy few owning most of the land, and the failure of successive governments to bring the poor into national development.

It is a situation that Mr. Branger, speaking over a long dinner in Caracas, recognizes.

“We deserved it. We became a very complacent society, and we forgot our social responsibility, and we forgot the communities. We were not giving back to the communities. We deserved a bit of what is going on — but unfortunately, we got a lot,” he said.

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