The Militant (logo)  
   Vol. 69/No. 3           January 25, 2005  
Venezuela gov’t starts
seizing idle farm land
Peasant struggles propel land reform
lead article
Reuters/Howard Yanes
Venezuelan girl washes dishes January 8 in front of her family’s wooden shack built on land on a cattle ranch owned by Sam Vestey, a British food magnate. That day, the government sent troops to the ranch near San Carlos, Cojedes state, Venezuela, to determine how much of the land the Vestey Group may hold and how much will be turned over to the peasants occupying it.

“El Charcote is only the beginning. There are tens of thousands of hectares of land in Cojedes alone, beyond the holdings of the English company, that big landowners stole from the state or from us. They need to be taken over by the government and given to the peasants who don’t have any land.” This is what Angel Sarmiento, a peasant who lives in San Carlos, the capital of Cojedes state in northwestern Venezuela, told the Militant in a January 11 telephone interview. “What Yańez did, sending the troops to the ranch, is a good thing for us.”

Three days earlier, Cojedes governor Johnny Yańez sent about 200 National Guard troops to El Charcote, about five miles south of San Carlos, Sarmiento and other peasants told the Militant. The ranch is the property of the Vestey Group, owned by Sam Vestey, a British food magnate. The troops accompanied government inspectors, who will determine how much, if any, of the 13,000-hectare (32,000-acre) cattle ranch may be held by its owners and how much of it will be turned over to hundreds of peasants who have occupied part of the land for four years and have been using it to grow vegetables and other crops.

The move, and other land seizures by municipal or state authorities, came as the federal government in Caracas, the country’s capital, issued a decree January 10 aimed at accelerating land distribution in the country. According to the BBC, more than 10,000 peasants went to Caracas to hear the announcement by President Hugo Chávez. Land occupations, like that at El Charcote, and other struggles by peasants are propelling the land reform forward.

About a week earlier, Eliezer Otaiza, director of Venezuela’s National Land Institute (INTi), told the press the government will inspect more than 40,000 privately held land titles—some dating back to 1847—to determine if they were obtained illegally. Those who can’t provide adequate documentation may lose their land. Idle farms or large estates that are deemed unproductive will also be taken over by the state and distributed to landless families who want to cultivate the land.

“We hope to issue 100,000 land grants within the next six months,” Otaiza said.

That would be a significant acceleration of land redistribution. According to figures provided by INTi, about 115,000 landless peasant families obtained titles to more than 9 million acres of land between the enactment of land reform legislation in the fall of 2001 and the end of 2004. Otaiza said that last year the government granted to landless peasants titles to 40,000 plots of land—some 4.2 million acres total—all of which was state owned. INTi was set up by the Chávez government to monitor land claims by peasants.

Another peasant in San Carlos, Eduardo Marcano, told the Militant that to meet the hunger for land many of the large estates held by big farmers or agribusiness will have to be nationalized and turned over to those who want to work the land. This was echoed by Sarmiento and others interviewed by the Militant. “The terracogientes took most of this land by force in the past,” Marcano said. He was using a derisive term he coined—which is a play on the Spanish word terratenientes (land owners)—to describe the big capitalist farmers. Marcano’s term means “land grabbers.”  
Fight for land, means to till it
Hundreds of thousands of peasants have been pushing for land and the means to till it the last three years, since the government adopted the Law on Land and Agricultural Development. One of dozens of measures passed in 2001, this legislation has been among the most controversial.

According to the census from 1998, when Chávez was first elected president, about 1,000 big farmers—5 percent of all farmers and ranchers—owned 75 percent of the country’s arable land. That survey said that 90 percent of the land distributed to landless families under a 1960 agrarian reform had since returned to the hands of large landholders.

Braulio Alvarez, an officer of INTi, told the Militant in 2002 that some 350,000 peasant families, who owned between 3 and 50 acres each, produced about 70 percent of vegetables and other major crops. Hundreds of thousands of other rural producers do not own any land. Peasants comprise about 13 percent of the country’s population of more than 24 million, according to a 1997 estimate.

The 2001 agricultural law allowed the state to confiscate private farms of more than 5,000 hectares (12,350 acres) that were idle or unproductive, and distribute the land to those who would produce to survive and supply the domestic market. It also created legal means for peasants and indigenous people to place claims for stolen land.

Government officials said that one aim of the legislation was to boost Venezuela’s agricultural production. The country currently imports more than 60 percent of its food, while a good portion of its arable land remains idle.

Although the government has kept the official exchange rate of the country’s currency at about 2,000 bolivars to U.S. $1, the dollar was being exchanged for 2,700 bolivars on the black market last spring. Every devaluation of the bolivar, official or de-facto, means higher prices for many foodstuffs.

As peasants and other working people fought to implement the 2001 measures, they angered many capitalists and landlords and their U.S. allies. Many in the capitalist class rebelled and tried to unseat the elected government with support from Washington. Their attempts included an April 2002 military coup, an employers’ lockout at the end of that year, and a presidential recall referendum last August. All have failed because of mass mobilizations by workers and peasants. Through their actions, working people divided the military in April 2002, leading to the quick restoration of the Chávez government. They also restored production during the bosses’ “strike” and thwarted the electoral coup last summer.  
January 10 decree
Despite these setbacks to the pro-imperialist opposition to the Chávez administration, big farmers and agribusinesses have succeeded to a large degree in blocking or slowing down implementation of most of the far-reaching provisions of the 2001 land reform.

“Mission Zamora is an effort to meet the demands of the peasants,” said Wikénferd Oliver in a January 9 interview. A leader of the Youth of the Fifth Republic Movement (JVR), which is affiliated to the governing party, Oliver comes from a peasant family and worked for INTi until last year. “With this announcement by the president, we will begin to see more social justice in the countryside,” he said.

Oliver was referring to the decree Chávez was set to announce the next day. Its proclamation coincided with the anniversary of the death of Ezequiel Zamora, after whom the government measure was named. Zamora was a leader of the Venezuelan independence struggle against colonial rule by Spain who fought to expropriate land and give it to the peasants. He was killed in battle Jan. 10, 1860, in San Carlos.

“The president said that current land ownership was an outrageous situation,” said the BBC News on January 11, referring to Chávez. “But the decree itself is more modest than many expected.”

Its main measure is the establishment of a commission, nationally and in each state, that will review titles of thousands of private farms this year and determine whether they were obtained legally. The commissions will also rule on whether many of the country’s rural estates are idle or productive and provide a legal framework for the rapid settlement of land claims by peasants.

Its objective, the decree says, is “the reorganization of the ownership and use of agricultural land to gradually eliminate latifundia [big landholdings] in the country’s rural areas, through the involvement of groups of people and organized communities, in order to guarantee rational use of natural resources and improve agricultural production.”  
Dispute at El Charcote
Rafael Alemán, head of the new agricultural commission in Cojedes, told reporters at El Charcote ranch January 10 that it would take his commission about 90 days to determine which areas of the estate were productive. “Landowners have nothing to fear if it’s their property and it’s productive,” he said.

“We are not here to expropriate, we are here to do justice,” said Yańez, the governor of Cojedes, who arrived along with the National Guard troops. “Those with land that is not idle and who have farms in production will enjoy our support.”

Sam Vestey, whose family is among the wealthiest in the United Kingdom, told the Financial Times, “We’ve been in Venezuela for just over 100 years and we hope to be there for some time yet.” His great grandfather had bought the land in 1903, Vestey claimed. Agropecuaria Flora C.A., which operates the ranch, is a subsidiary of the Vestey Group Ltd.

The Vestey Group has extensive land holdings and cattle ranches in Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela. The capitalist family invested heavily in beef production in South America over the last century and then set up a shipping company, Blue Star Line, to send meat to Britain, according to the Telegraph, a UK daily. It also built the Dewhurst chain of butcher shops in Britain, which shut down in 1995. The Financial Times said Vestey’s wealth is estimated at $1.4 billion.

“We try our best to coexist with the squatters while authorities decide what they are going to do with the ranch,” said Miguel Espana, a ranch manager at El Charcote, according to the Associated Press. “Uncertainty reigns here,” he added. “I know one thing for sure: this ranch will never be what it once was.”

According to AP, El Charcote, 125 miles southwest of Caracas, had 11,000 cattle four years ago. It now has less than 5,000 and managers have cut the workforce from about 50 to 30.

Government officials say Vestey’s business obtained titles illegally and much of the property actually belongs to the state.

It is clear, however, that the actions by some 600 peasants who are occupying the land have prompted the government to act. “We have to recognize that we have not given a fast and timely answer to these poor farmers,” said Luis Silva, regional director of Venezuela’s Agriculture and Land Ministry, according to AP. “We have a social debt with them.”

Zinc-roofed shacks made of dried mud, timber, and bamboo stalks now overlook meadows where cattle graze. Peasants have put up their own barbed wire to keep herds from trampling corn, eggplant, plantains, squash, melon, and other crops.

“I trust Chávez and believe he wants the best for us, but we are struggling, working land that may not belong to us in the end,” Santiago Arzola told AP. Arzola, 40, reportedly farms watermelon, beans, and sweet peppers to sustain a family of five.  
‘Only shovels and machetes’
In a visit to El Charcote in July 2002, peasants told the Militant how the occupation unfolded. “The thugs of the English company started shooting at us,” said Angel Sarmiento, who was part of the initial takeover of part of the ranch by 400 farm families in early 2001. “We took the land peacefully,” he added. “We had only shovels and machetes to defend ourselves. They killed several peasants and left many wounded.”

After the peasants threatened to make the deaths a national scandal, the federal government heeded their calls for protection, Sarmiento and others explained. National Guard troops were sent to the area and stayed for a few weeks until things calmed down. The peasants moved the cattle off the area they occupied, about half the ranch, formed cooperatives, and began cultivating the land. “None of them have ever been tried, however,” Sarmiento said, referring to those involved in the shootings.

Pedro Roja, another peasant who was also part of the initial occupation, described in 2002 how getting legal title to the land would be crucial for survival. “We use our hands and some oxen,” he said. “We don’t have tractors or other equipment. Without title to the land, there is no credit from the banks and we can’t claim insurance in the case of disaster. When rainstorms destroyed my melons and yucca earlier this year, I couldn’t ask the government for compensation.”

A year later, Roja had left El Charcote and moved to another area of the country.

Sarmiento could not survive at El Charcote either. He went on making a living through contract farming and construction work.

In 2003, a local commander of the National Guard heeded calls by the ranch management and sent troops to El Charcote. They temporarily evicted most peasants occupying land there. The farmers then took over the regional offices of INTi and demanded a hearing from the president. After a delegation met with Chávez, the peasants were allowed back on the land they had been using.

“It’s been tough, but perseverance counts, and since 1998 we’ve been able to count on the government too, for the most part,” said Sarmiento. “We’ve also had to overcome problems among ourselves.”

According to an article in the January 10 Financial Times, in Cojedes, “two rival peasant-group factions, some aligned with the local governor and others opposing him, are at odds in their hunger for land.”

Asked about this, Sarmiento acknowledged that divisions did exist among those occupying El Charcote. “The whole problem was created by the factionalism of José Pimenter, who was in Chávez’s party, but decided to run against governor Yańez in last year’s elections and tried to use us to pump up his campaign. I gave him a donation early on, but then saw the danger.” Sarmiento said he and other peasants are now trying to put these differences behind them and unite in their quest for land.

Sarmiento noted that “the English” hold a lot more land in Cojedes beyond El Charcote. “There’s much to be done,” he said.  
Class dynamics in the countryside
Even though peasants fighting for land face many challenges, capitalist farmers see the dynamic unfolding in the countryside as dangerous to their interests.

On January 7, Venezuela’s cattle ranchers’ association, Fedenaga, condemned the new decree on land redistribution the government was about to announce. “This is not the right path,” said José Luis Betancourt, Fedenaga’s president, according to MercoPress. “If the purpose is to do away with property and institutions, it will mean the loss of peace.”

Salomon Centeno is a congressman with the opposition Democratic Action party, which alternated in the government with another capitalist party for decades before Chávez’s election. According to the Bloomberg news service, he complained bitterly that his 3,500-acre ranch “has been rendered useless,” by peasants occupying the land, “which gives the governor a convenient excuse to take my land.” This farm is among 16 currently under inspection by the Cojedes state government.

Such attitudes are prevalent among most big farmers, including those who have backed the government. “My father is the only cattle rancher in Barinas who agreed to turn his ranch into a cooperative, where all the 20 workers now share in the profits,” Mariano Cadenas, a postal worker in Obispos, Barinas, told the Militant in an interview last year. “There are hundreds of cattle farmers in Barinas,” he said, “some of them with large capitalist holdings. Most of them support Chávez. But they hate the Law on Land and Agricultural Development. Especially the provision that says cattle ranches above a certain size are supposed to be turned into cooperatives. And they have refused adamantly to implement it.”

At the same time, many of the peasants who have won land titles, credit at low interest, and government assistance for new housing and other needs, have a hard time making a living. They are squeezed by the laws of the capitalist market. They get low prices for their produce while they often have to pay dearly for seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, and equipment.

“It’s an uphill battle,” Sarmiento said with a laugh. “But we are confident, even more so now, that time is on our side.”  
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