Joe Emersberger interviews Edward Ellis, director of “Tierras Libres,” a documentary on the struggle for land reform in Venezuela. In this interview, Ellis discusses the murders of over 250 peasant activists and the Venezuelan government’s response to these human rights abuses.
Q: I notice your film is far from “soft” on the Chavez government. It shows Chavez meeting with the widow of a murdered peasant during his TV show (Alo Presidente) and promising action on her behalf. Then we skip ahead a few years and learn that her family has been worn out by a legal process clearly stacked against them. While the credits to your film role, you show Chavez calling on his movement to be more tolerant of dissent – and stating that he shouldn’t have to read opposition sources to find strong criticism of his government from regular citizens.
Ellis: I think the film is neither soft nor hard on the Venezuelan government but rather fair. For more than half the film, the viewer is presented with a very positive view of the government and its agrarian reform. We went to great measures to show the need for change in the countryside as well as exhibit the opportunities that such reforms have provided for the rural poor. I think we’re at a point now with respect to the situation in Venezuela where we don’t need to resort to being propagandistic but rather seek a more nuanced view of things. Constructive criticism is a good thing and needs to be accepted, especially here. It’s for this reason, I believe, that the film has been very well received by pro-Chavez campesino movements on the ground. I’m essentially making the same criticisms and arguments that they have been making for years – defend the government’s initiatives and the president in the face of right-wing attacks and push for greater justice in the countryside in the face of continued impunity.
Q: As your film reveals, about 250 peasant activists have been assassinated since 2001. In your view, what has been the reason the Chavez government has been unable to deliver justice or effective protection to the peasants?
Ellis: The legal system in Venezuela, despite the international media’s misinterpretations, is still, in many cases, very much in the hands of the middle and upper classes. Most of these people have their roots in the power structures of Punto Fijismo – that’s to say, the ancien regime. The majority of lawyers and judges share the same cultural background and class origins as the landowners and latifundistas. They went to the same schools and universities, visit the same clubs and drink the same whisky regardless of whether or not they don a red hat at a rally. So what you have is a system run and controlled by money. If you have the resources to pay private lawyers who know how to manipulate the system, you have a much greater chance of walking free. And when it comes to the Attorney’s General Office or Public Attorney’s Office, they are notoriously ineffective and bureaucratic – many times filled with the same players. In my opinion, the lack of accountability in the nation’s Public Attorney’s Office (Ministerio Publico) is the greatest obstacle to ending impunity in the countryside, if not the entire country. Specific policies need to be implemented to ensure the follow-up and investigation of cases but until we have people from the lower classes graduating as lawyers and becoming judges, I fear not much will change.
Q: Your film shows that there is clearly corruption within the National Guard in some rural areas. At one level, is the problem simply that Venezuela is a democracy – and that Chavez cannot trample independent and opposition controlled branches of government (as the international press likes to claim he does)?
Ellis: I think corruption should be stamped out wherever its found, whether it’s being carried out by pro or anti Chavez sectors. I don’t think its a question of democracy or escualido/chavista as much as a question of rule of law. Venezuela is one of the freest countries I have ever been in. In fact, I would say there is too much freedom as people pretty much do whatever they want here without fear of repression. The “Law” is not as visible here as it is in many countries and corruption is an historic problem whether it be at local level with pro-Chavez members of the national guard or at higher levels with opposition governors.
Q: Is a problem fear of creating splits within Chavez allies by really getting tough with corrupt opportunists within Chavista ranks?
Ellis: Surely political considerations have to play a role. To exactly what extent, I couldn’t say.
Q: Is land reform a high enough priority – rhetoric aside – for the Chavez government? Does the impunity the assassins have enjoyed suggest that perhaps it isn’t?
Ellis: Venezuela’s land redistribution has been one of the top priorities of the Chavez government and continues to be, alongside its wider agricultural reform policies. This is not the problem. The problem, in my view, is the judicial system and the corruption therein. Of course, one could be cynical and say that since the political support of the farmers is pretty much guaranteed due to the benefits that they have received via government programs, there doesn’t exist the pressure necessary to ensure an end to the impunity and the assassinations. I’m not prepared to make that assertion as I believe the problem lies in visibility of the issue, which is why I made the film. Hopefully it will provoke some kind of action.
Q: Do you think the relentless drumbeat of international distortions – in particular, the accusation that Chavez has the judiciary under his thumb – has significantly deterred his government from doing more to eliminate class bias in the judiciary?
Not really. I think the Chavez administration is much more concerned with public opinion within Venezuela than with what Washington and the international press have to say.
Q: In 2010, I read reports of Chavez establishing peasant militias to improve their capacity for self-defense. Have these shown any promise at all to reduce future assassinations?
Ellis: To be completely honest, I’m not sold on the idea of the militias. Firstly, because the assassinations that are occurring are targeted attacks against leaders and usually occur in circumstances where a militia would be of little help. Secondly, it doesn’t seem to me that the government has the capacity to arm and train every campesino group taking part in remote land occupations. I think the way to prevent further murders is to prosecute those responsible for past homicides.
Q Thanks to the corporate press, we all know that Venezuelan cities, especially Caracas, are plagued by very high homicide rates. However, in these rural areas where the “sicarios” have targeted peasants, I assume that murders are rare – making these assassinations stand out much more (and at least in theory making the crimes easier to solve). Is that correct?
Ellis: Not necessarily. Many rural areas of Venezuela, especially border areas with Colombia, are plagued with paramilitary activity. Although violence has found its greatest expression in the cities, it has not been limited to urban areas and given the corruption that many times derails justice at the local level, crimes are rarely solved.
Q: There are some very powerful images in your film of the vast tracts of unused land that the big land owners have hoarded. Do you have any data on the extent to which land reform under Chavez has increased production and lessened Venezuela’s dependence on food imports?
Ellis: Production has increased in important key crops including corn, black beans and rice. Milk and meat production has also shown notable increases but dependence on imports continues to be a major challenge for the government as demand continues to rise in the country.
Q: How long did it take you to make the film and when was it first shown?
Ellis: It took about three years from the very beginning to the very end. It was made with very few resources in the spirit of Latin America’s revolutionary documentary tradition. It was first screened in Buffalo, NY in March 2011 and I’m currently in the process of submitting it to a variety of festivals in Latin America and elsewhere. The Frente Nacional Campesino Ezequiel Zamora has been distributing it to farmer collectives around Venezuela.
Q: Has the response been what you expected?
Ellis:More or less. Those who are close to the issues certainly take away greater meaning while those who have no previous knowledge generally learn a good deal. The important thing for me was to make the film compelling and accessible to everyone and I think we achieved that.
The Spanish version of Tierras Libres can be seen by visiting the following website: