SAN CARLOS, Venezuela—“On December 23 we took possession of this land,” said Jubir Yauca at a new agricultural camp here. “By the next day, about 250 peasants and their families had moved in. We are now undisputed owners of 39,000 hectares [1 hectare = 2.47 acres] of arable land. We have fenced it in. And we are on our way toward reclaiming the rest of the land that the big landowners stole from us by force.”
Jubir Yauca, who spoke to Militant reporters March 16, is one of six brothers from the indigenous Yauca family—the last remaining members of the Yauca nation. With the help of many other peasants, the family recently succeeded, after two and a half decades of struggle, in gaining official recognition of the Yauca nation’s ownership of 150,000 hectares of fertile land outside San Carlos, the capital of Cojedes state in northwestern Venezuela.
The Yaucas had announced they didn’t want the land for themselves. They said they would distribute it to landless peasants who have formed cooperatives and are ready to till it. And that’s what they are doing.
Tens of thousands of peasants across Venezuela have made similar gains over the last year, overwhelmingly through hard-fought battles, taking advantage of provisions of the Law on Land and Agricultural Development passed in November 2001.
This law has been one of the most controversial measures enacted by the government headed by President Hugo Chávez. Battles by peasants to implement it have stoked the fury of most big capitalists and landlords and of their allies in Washington.
Between the fall of 2001 and the end of 2003, nearly 75,000 landless peasant families had obtained titles to 5 million acres of land, according to figures issued by Venezuela’s National Land Institute (INTi). More than 15,000 peasants got titles in the last quarter of 2003, which indicates an acceleration of land distribution. Many have also received credit from government agencies at low interest rates.
These peasants, however, are confronting major obstacles in their efforts to solidify their gains by expanding and diversifying production. Low prices for their produce on the market as well as the campaign by large cattle ranchers, other capitalist farmers, and agribusiness to slow down or prevent implementation of the 2001 law are in many cases frustrating the peasants’ efforts and resulting in setbacks.
How Yaucas won their claim
About 400 farm families have been fighting for land in the San Carlos area, after being promised titles and credits by the government two years ago. Militant reporters first found out about this struggle during a farm conference here in July 2002. Many of the peasants who have now moved onto the Yaucas’ land took part in that meeting.
In a follow-up visit there last October it became evident that the struggle had stalled. The land claims of these peasants were linked to settling the claim of the indigenous Yauca family, which said it had proof that 150,000 hectares of land, including several large cattle ranches, belonged to the Yauca nation and had been stolen from them through violence by capitalist landlords backed by the national government. The Yaucas’ petitions to INTi had fallen on deaf ears, we were told then.
This time, Angel Sarmiento, one of the peasant leaders who gave Militant reporters their first tour of the area in the summer of 2002, took us directly to the new Juan Yauca Agricultural Camp, established on land the peasants have occupied since December. More than 200 peasant families moved onto the land at the end of the year and fenced in the portion that is not currently cultivated or used for grazing by the capitalist cattle ranchers. About 50 of these families were there on the night of March 16. They eagerly talked about their initial victory.
Eduardo Marcano, president of the Asociación Cooperativa Ayudantes de Zamora (Helpers of Zamora Cooperative Association), said that he had been involved in the Yaucas’ land fight for nearly 25 years. His group is named after Ezequiel Zamora, a leader of the Venezuelan independence struggle against Spain who fought to expropriate land and give it to the peasants. Zamora was killed in battle in San Carlos.
“Thanks to the change we had in Venezuela with the new president, Hugo Rafael Chávez Frias,” Marcano said, “we were able to bring to light the documents the big landlords had hidden.” Last year the peasants convinced some friendly lawyers to represent them. The lawyers argued that since no state-owned lands were involved, the Yaucas’ petition was a private claim that could be settled by the courts outside INTi’s structure. The peasants’ direct action won widespread support in the area.
A court recognized the Yaucas’ claim to the 150,000 hectares and has already given them ownership papers for the 39,000 hectares they took possession of three months ago.
There are 17 capitalist farmers who use the rest of the land, mostly for cattle grazing, Marcano said. “Only two of them are very large terracogientes,” he said, using a derisive term he coined meaning “land grabbers.” One comes from the family of former Gen. José Rafael Luque, who was governor of Cojedes under the Juan Vicente Gómez dictatorship in the early 1900s, and who forcibly expropriated nearly half the land of the Yauca nation, Marcano said.
“We are preparing to go to court and get an order for them to either buy a portion of the land at going market prices from the Yaucas or pack up and leave,” he added.
The peasants also won the support of some officials in the National Guard. Roseana Yani Lugo, a sergeant in the National Guard who comes from a farm family, volunteered to be their chief of security. This step, along with around-the-clock vigilance by the peasants, has so far kept the police and hired thugs of the capitalist landlords away, Marcano said.
Tulio Delgado, president of the Juan Yauca Agricultural Land Committee, said the peasants have received donations of food, water, and medicine from many people in the area. “This is critical,” he added, “because we don’t have electricity and water yet on the farm land.”
‘Land or death’
Ester Agudo organizes an all-women committee in charge of dividing up the land among the peasants, and other projects. Most of the peasants have been taking part in literacy classes and will soon start courses at the nearby National Institute for Cooperative Education to improve their skills in planting and harvesting a variety of crops, she said. Two years ago, about 75 percent of the peasants among the 200 families involved in the new land acquisition were illiterate, Agudo said. “Now everyone is in classes, and our goal is for all of us to get at least the equivalent of a high school diploma,” she added. They plan to grow corn, rice, yucca, vegetables, and other crops, as well as raise cattle and other animals.
“We are very happy with what we’ve accomplished so far,” Agudo said. “We’ll continue the fight. Our motto is land or death. But we have bigger plans.”
The plans include building an air-conditioned warehouse on the land the peasants won so they can store their produce and be able to sell to the new network of government supermarkets called Mercal. Reynaldo Arvelo, a local engineer the peasants recruited to their side, said he was close to securing financing to start the project this spring. “We also plan to build a processing plant to make animal feed,” he said.
Militant reporters visited a number of Mercal stores that have now sprung up across the country. Prices of all basic food items in these stores—from rice to cooking oil and powdered milk—are 20 to 50 percent lower than in the regular market. Chicken, for example, which is available two or three times per week at most Mercals, costs 2,000 bolivars per kilo ($0.47 per pound) compared to 3,600 ($0.85 per pound) at privately owned supermarkets. The Mercal stores have in many workers districts replaced food distribution at subsidized prices run by the National Guard until recently. The only problem, a number of workers said, is that the government has imposed rationing, so everyone has a limit on the quantities of each item they can purchase per month at these stores. The Mercal network, however, is a big help to millions of working people, we were told, as inflation has continued to climb, partly due to the devaluation of the bolivar, the local currency. The bolivar is now exchanged at 2,700 to the U.S. dollar on the black market as opposed to 1,920, the official exchange rate.
About 65 percent of all food consumed in the country is imported from Canada, the United States, Brazil, and other countries. So every devaluation of the bolivar has had devastating consequences for working people.
Peasant leaders in San Carlos, as well as elsewhere, said they have demanded the government make large-scale investments to develop a domestic food processing industry, which would accompany a more radical land reform and diversification of agricultural production, to minimize dependency on food imports. Marcano said that as a result of these demands the government asked the Central Bank last fall to release $1 billion from its foreign currency reserves to initiate such investments. It doesn’t seem that anything substantial has yet begun on this front.
Challenges at Los Cañizos
The contradictory character of the gains peasants have made through stiff battles for land became a little clearer during a visit to Los Cañizos farm cooperative in the Veroes municipality of Yaracuy, a largely agricultural state north of Cojedes.
Some 400 farm families live in Los Cañizos. In a visit there last October, Militant reporters learned that most of these families obtained titles to their land after a 16-year-long struggle, which included pitched battles with the National Guard before Chávez’s election to the presidency in 1998. Thirty-five of these farm families were also organized into the Los Cañizos co-op, which received credit last year and was able to buy their first tractor from FONDAFA, the government institution providing such loans.
Napoleón Tortolero, the co-op’s president and a central leader of the struggle there, said March 16 that membership in the cooperative has dropped by nearly half, to 18 farm families.
Victor Torrelles, another of the peasant leaders at Los Cañizos, said that this is largely due to the slow progress in getting promised government aid. The initial credit of 77 million bolivars ($40,000), half of which was used to buy the tractor, was not enough to complete the well drilling and buy pumps for irrigation, even though peasants have found plenty of water underneath their land, Torrelles said. This has meant smaller crops and mounting frustration at the ongoing inability to make a living income. Another factor in the squeeze they face from the workings of the capitalist market is that they have to buy all their seeds and fertilizers from companies in San Felipe, Yaracuy’s capital, “controlled by the escuálidos,” as Torrelles put it, which charge them exorbitant prices. Escuálidos, “the squalid ones,” is a term commonly used here to refer to supporters of the pro-imperialist opposition. It will take time to get funding to start their own greenhouses where they can grow their own seeds, Torrelles and Tortolero said.
“Construction for new housing units has also slowed down,” Tortolero said, “because local contractors siphon off government funds allocated for such projects to enrich themselves.” Forty new houses were completed as of last year in Los Cañizos, only 10 percent of what’s needed, and no new ones are on the horizon now. To confront the problem, the cooperative has undertaken an initiative to demand that the national government provide peasants with the necessary materials and leave it up to them to build the houses with local labor, “or brigades like those in Cuba,” Tortolero said. Torrelles said he worked in construction for 15 years and there are many more like him in the area with the necessary skills to do the job.
Despite the problems, these militant peasants did not seem discouraged and continued to point to some gains. Gregorio Gómez is one of the newest members of Los Cañizos co-op, growing sugarcane on his 10 acres of land. He proudly showed his tractor, which he received this year with credit from FONDAFA, the second tractor in the cooperative. “I never would have had the resources to do this myself,” he said. At the same time, he pointed out, electricity has yet to reach his farm shack, about two miles from the rest of Los Cañizos community, which was electrified last year. “It’s a struggle,” Gómez said.
Tortolero said the goal of the Ezequiel Zamora National Agrarian Coordinating Committee—the national farm group the militants at Los Cañizos belong to—is to distribute land to 300,000 landless peasant families across the country. Until the year 2000, about 1,000 big landowners controlled 85 percent of land under cultivation—a total of 75 million acres. Some 350,000 hard-pressed peasant families, who owned between 3 and 50 acres each, produced some 70 percent of vegetables and other major crops. In 2001 the national government announced the nationalization of another 75 million acres of idle but arable land and promised to distribute it to peasants.
The struggle for land is only part of the class confrontation in the countryside, however.
Need to organize farm workers
During a lunch break in a nearby town, Tortolero showed Militant reporters a truck passing by full of sugarcane cutters, all covered with soot from cutting cane in the fields where the weeds had been burned. These workers work mostly for capitalist farmers—overwhelmingly “batistianos” in this area, Tortolero said. These are Cuban capitalists who fled the Caribbean island and came to Venezuela after workers and peasants in Cuba overthrew the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959 through a popular revolution.
The cane cutters are paid less than the minimum wage of 200,000 bolivars a month ($100), and face some of the worst working conditions, Tortolero said. “We are trying to figure out how we can help them get organized and work with them,” he stated. “That’s one of the ways we can confront the power of the capitalists.”
The need to organize farm workers and treat them as principal allies in the struggle to end class exploitation was also evident during a March 15 visit to the Bovares municipality of Lara state, west of Yaracuy.
Damacio Arrieche, who farms a small plot of land in Bovares, told Militant reporters that some 200 peasants like him had gained land titles in that area in the last two years, as a result of struggles to implement provisions of the new agrarian reform law. “But none of us have been able to get credits yet,” he said. “Our conditions are similar to those of farm workers. We are trying to figure out ways to organize and work together.”
The principal product of Bovares is pineapple, grown largely on hill slopes. Many of the pineapple producers are middle farmers, like Edicxon Izarra, whose father owns nearly 200 acres of prime pineapple-growing land and employs about 20 workers. This is a very labor intensive crop, where workers have to bend a good part of the day to tend to the low pineapple bushels or harvest the fruit. “We try to treat our workers well,” Izarra said, who explained that his family members are strong supporters of the Chávez government. “Those who want can get a plot of the land and be responsible for the production and harvest, so they can get the income from the sale at the end, in addition to their wages.” Izarra said his father pays these workers about 6,000 bolivars ($3) per day, about half the minimum wage.
“This is part of what we are fighting against,” Arrieche said.
Despite these challenges, most peasants interviewed said they would take up arms, if needed, to prevent the opposition from toppling the Chávez administration.
“These people were in the government for 40 years before Chávez,” Tortolero said. “If they return, all the land titles, tractors, and every other little thing we’ve gained the last few years will be gone. These people sent the army and the police against us, and even poisoned the streams around here when we took over land and refused to leave. We won’t let them come back.”
Part of this struggle, Tortolero, Arrieche, and Marcano said, is organizing to counter the economic power of big farmers and agribusinessmen, a number of whom are part of the governing party or support the Chávez government and have their interests protected in return.
At the new Juan Yauca Agricultural Camp outside San Carlos, the peasants there were upbeat about their initial victory, and ready for the next stage of the battle—taking on the big cattle ranchers by forcing them either to buy the land and pay the Yaucas for it, which would enable the peasant cooperatives to quickly develop their land, or pack up and leave the area. This will be a higher mountain to climb.
Olivia Nelson and Natalie Doucet contributed to this article.