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Opinion and Analysis: Land Reform

Look out Florida, here they come! Land and food in Venezuela

Last week, the Los Angeles Times gleefully reported that a crowd in Sabaneta, Venezuela, had looted a food warehouse belonging to the state-owned Mercal grocery-store chain. Mercal sells its food to the poor at reduced prices The LAT found it amusing that Sabaneta is President Hugo Chávez's hometown. The newspaper claimed that recent food shortages are the result of governmental price controls. The government claims the shortages are the result of illegal hoarding by distributors and the increased buying power of the nation's poorest citizens.

This event quickly lost its comedic value at the LAT when Indecu, Venezuela's consumer protection agency, discovered half a ton of powdered milk and an equal amount of chicken that a private health clinic in Caracas had diverted from delivery to Mercal. Jesus Benavides, an administrator for Indecu, didn't find this example of illegal hoarding all that funny. He hopes to collect steep fines from the "upscale Caracas Policlinica Metropolitana" health clinic. (Reuters, Feb. 18, 2008)

Although food shortages in Venezuela sometimes occur at Mercal stores, they don't necessarily occur in other grocery stores at the same time. In an article that appeared in the Guardian Unlimited on February 17, Calvin Tucker said that he recently arrived in Caracas, where he shopped at a "typical Caracas supermarket in an upmarket part of town. The only product we could not find was milk, which is being hoarded and illegally exported to Colombia by producers and distributors in an attempt to bust government price controls on basic foodstuffs." The food in that store would sell at prices higher than one would find in a Mercal store.

When Hugo Chávez took office after his election in 1998, his government inherited two fundamental problems related to food production and distribution. Fifty-five percent of the people lived in poverty, and the country imported 70 percent of its food.

Since those early days, Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution has reduced the number of impoverished citizens from 55 to 34 percent, thereby increasing the demand for food. The national government has also dealt aggressively with the problem of food shortages.

Because previous governments had relied on food imports, President Chávez had to continue that policy while also setting out to achieve food self-sufficiency. Anyone who lives in the United States will find it almost impossible to learn anything about these efforts in the mainstream press. After reporting the latest heartbreak in Hollywood, our newspapers and television news programs have no space or time to report on a new irrigation system in one part of Venezuela or an improved milk-processing plant in another.

To learn about events like these, you have to find a news source such as Venezuelanalysis.com, a website operated by five individuals who hope to make their site "the primary resource for information and analysis on Venezuela in the English language." It may be safe to say that this group does not have a budget anything like that of the Los Angeles Times.

On January 14 of this year, Venezuelanalysis.com reported that President Chávez had inaugurated the first stage of a new irrigation system in the state of Guarico. "The day will come when Venezuela reaches total agricultural independence," Chávez said. The new system now irrigates 9,900 acres. Once it has been fully constructed, the total number of acres irrigated will rise to 79,000. Local farmers will produce food crops for their own consumption and for sale to city dwellers. The reservoir will also benefit "local fishermen who fish in the reservoir that supplies the irrigation system." This type of small-scale commercial fishing will provide another way in which Venezuela can achieve food independence.

On January 21, President Chávez inaugurated a milk-processing plant and an agro-industrial plant. Together, these will help Venezuela attain self-sufficiency in milk and meat production. By themselves, these projects will not relieve the country of its need to import food. But these are not the only projects. Dozens of others are going into production all over Venezuela.

One of the many problems that now limits food soverignty in Venezuela is the unused farmland on the country's large plantations. Many of these feudal remnants of Spanish colonialism have been handed down from generation to generation for 400 years. Other large estates were purchased more recently by wealthy immigrant families from Cuba, Spain, and Portugal. These plantations create at least two problems related to food shortages. They encourage one-crop agriculture, and they let good farmland lie fallow for decades. For estates that match these characteristics, the government supports land reform that benefits a landless peasantry living in poverty throughout rural Venezuela.

The twin goals of land reform are to reduce poverty and increase food production. Simon Romero of the New York Times gave this account of how land reform occurs in the state of Yaracuy: "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."

The reader quickly sees that the old plantation is nothing like it used to be. In the vocabulary of Simon Romero, the rural poor are not farmers or even peasants. They're "squatters," a term that reduces them to the level of human society that justifies any evil you want to inflict. The worst evil recently inflicted is murder. Romero says the number of "squatters" recently murdered throughout Venezuela totals 160. Eight wealthy landowners, he says, have been killed in Yaracuy.

For those who have survived the violence of the feudal barons, the Chávez government has built farm villages for peasants who have never before enjoyed the luxury of decent housing. The people of the villages have schools, libraries, radio stations, free Internet service, and other amenities. (New York Times, May 17, 2007) Although Romero doesn't mention it, everyone has free healthcare, often provided by Cuban-trained doctors.

The peasants who manage to acquire land without getting killed are free to produce corn, manioe, beans, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, livestock, or whatever else is appropriate to their soil and climate. They can put aside what they need for their families and sell the surplus to fill the grocery stores of the cities.

The government avoids land reform for those owners who farm the land in ways that benefit society. One-crop agriculture is not one of those ways. In Yaracuy State, most of the plantation owners instruct their farmhands to plant and harvest only sugar cane. Sugar is a cash crop. The object of this kind of agriculture is to make money, lots of it. The idea of planting vegetables strikes these land barons as useless. They want cash, not tomatoes. If they don't like the the amount they get for their sugar, they can simply take some or all of their land out of production for as long as they wish. Unused farmland will never reduce food shortages.

This type of agriculture depletes the soil of nutrients and requires the yearly application of expensive fertilizer. In the past, the sugar was sold on the open market, which meant that it might go to Caracas, or it might go to a foreign country. Single-crop agriculture is one of the reasons why countries like Venezuela have food shortages. Clever newspaper reporters for the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times are unlikely to ever understand or report this.

Once the peasants have obtained land, they require credit in order to buy seed, machinery, and other items needed to plant their crops. Venezuelan banks have traditionally resisted the idea of granting loans to people with small-farm operations. To solve this problem, the Venezuelan government pressured local banks until they agreed to make loans available to peasant farmers.

And what happens to the old land barons who lose their feudal estates? What about those who left Cuba and bought sugar plantations in Venezuela? Don't worry. They all managed to put enough money in bank accounts somewhere. Where will they go? Where do they always go? Almost 200,000 rich Venezuelans have already moved there.

Watch out, Florida.

Patrick Irelan is a retired high-school teacher. He is the author of A Firefly in the Night (Ice Cube Press) and Central Standard: A Time, a Place, a Family (University of Iowa Press). You can contact him at pwirelan43@yahoo.com.

Source: CounterPunch