Impunity for Venezuela’s Big Landowners

In this piece, Joe Emersberger and Jeb Sprague discuss filmaker Edward Ellis' documentary "Tierras Libres". The documentary explores the assassinations of peasant-activists killed by hired assassins for trying to implement the government's land reform project and their families' quest for justice within a judicial system that is still controlled in large part by the national elite.

For close to a decade, Venezuela has been the focus and the target of mainstream news coverage, as the scene of a heated political struggle over control of the country’s destiny.

But the parade of pundits eager to criticise the country’s elected president and simplify the country’s political conflict as a rule ignore the deep socio-economic inequality that propelled President Chavez to power.

The Bolivarian revolution has made significant strides in improving the conditions for the country’s popular classes and promoting an alternative regional bloc, while at the same time pioneering a unique form of participatory democracy.

Still, the Bolivarian revolution is struggling both from its own contradictions and against a long history of deeply entrenched social inequality, intensified by capitalist globalisation.

This is nowhere more clear than in the rural countryside of Venezuela, where vast tracts of land remain in the hands of a tiny grouping of extremely wealthy families.

Tierras Libres, a documentary released this year, tells a story that has been virtually blacked out by the international press – the murders of hundreds of Venezuelan peasants by hired gunmen and right wing paramilitaries. The peasants have been murdered for attempting to implement the Chavez government’s land reform policy. The crimes strongly implicate wealthy landowners who vehemently oppose land reform.

In one scene from the documentary, we see a middle-aged woman, Doneila, whose husband, Hermes Escalona, was murdered in 2003 by gunmen as he was beginning to work some fallow land on a huge plantation.

Speaking directly to President Chavez on his weekly Alo Presidente television programme, she looks hopeful as Chavez promises to “heat up” efforts to bring her husband’s killers to justice.

No justice for the poor

In fact, as the documentary shows, Chavez ordered his personal lawyer to come to her aid. However, the film next provides an update on Doneila’s story years after her appearance with Chavez on national TV. While she continues to support the Venezuelan president, she says, tearfully, that she has come to conclude that, for poor people in Venezuela, there simply is no justice.

Her son explains that, after years of effort, even with the support they received, the time and resources required to pursue justice in the case of his father is too great an emotional and financial burden for them to bear.

In other words, the justice system remains rigged in favour of the Venezuelan one per cent (to use the Occupy Wall Street terminology) who constructed it. As the filmmaker, Edward Ellis, described the situation:

“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.”

The peasant killings have been so completely disregarded by the international press that in August a petition was sent to the UK Guardian newspaper – widely hailed as one of the world’s finest “left leaning” newspapers. The petition, signed by Noam Chomsky, John Pilger and others, asked the Guardian why, despite having a correspondent based in Caracas for years, the issue has been completely ignored.

For example, the Guardian, which has relentlessly reported criticism of the Chavez government, neither reported on the killings nor on demonstrations highlighting the issue, such as the June 8, 2011, march on the National Assembly of 10,000 people, which was organised by peasant collectives to demand justice.
Several weeks after the petition was sent, after receiving even more complaints, the Guardian allowed Edward Ellis to write a comment piece about the issue. Ellis wrote that the impunity enjoyed by wealthy landowners in Venezuela “challenges the contemporary human rights discourse, which portrays the country’s judiciary as captive to the whims of a power-hungry ‘strongman’ bent on stamping out political dissent”.

A good example of the “contemporary human rights discourse” that Ellis mentioned was a report issued in August by the International Crisis Group (ICG) about the problem of violent crime in Venezuela (“Violence and politics in Venezuela“). In its conclusion, the ICG stated: “Violence, or its threat, has become inherent to President Chavez’s political project”.

Assassinations by wealthy landowners

Never mind that, according to the figures provided in ICG’s own report, the vast majority of people killed in political violence since 1999 have been Chavez supporters. Hundreds of peasants such as Hermes Escalona were murdered for attempting to implement a policy that is high priority for a government eager to end Venezuela’s dependence on food imports. The fact that wealthy landowners have, with impunity, been able to assassinate hundreds of Chavistas speaks volumes about the power of the rich and their capacity for violence.

Chavez opponents are well positioned – as state governors, mayors, legislators, judges and police chiefs – to exacerbate violent crime in general. The former Caracas Metropolitan police, for example, openly collaborated with the short-lived coup that briefly deposed Chavez in 2002.

Despite these dramatically revealing facts, it is inconceivable that a prominent, well-funded NGO such as the ICG would ever write: “Violence, or its threat, has become inherent to the elite opposition’s political project in Venezuela” even though it would be far closer to the truth.

Ignoring key facts and the unequal social relations that underpin the political conflict in Venezuela, media and NGO professionals invariably reduce a diverse and broad movement from below to the alleged machinations of the country’s president.

In US embassy cables leaked by WikiLeaks, US officials have stated how important it is to them that NGOs take up their propaganda war against the Chavez government. It would appear that various NGOs and institutions – Human Rights Watch, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the ICG – require no prodding from the US government to write voluminously about Venezuela in a way that whitewashes the US-funded political opposition or the role of other local and transnational elites.

Many among the international press and prominent NGOs appear to share the assumptions of some in the often-corrupted Venezuelan legal system about whose lives matter and whose don’t.

While it has become normal to read media reports critical of Venezuela’s elected authorities, little is said of the murky world of elite networks and the violence they propel.

Less is said of inequality or of the brave efforts made to slowly eradicate it. For these stories we must go to the Venezuelan poor and hear their testimonials – as Edward Ellis did to make his vivid documentary.

Joe Emersberger is a writer based in Canada and operates the Canuckmediamonitor website. Jeb Sprague is the author of the forthcoming book Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti (published by Monthly Review Press).