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Opinion and Analysis: Land Reform

Venezuela Announces War Against "Latifundios"

At a mass rally of 10,000 people on Monday January 10, Venezuela's president Hugo Chavez announced a new decree aimed at speeding up land reform. He was speaking in front of a massive banner with the slogan of 19th century peasant war leader Ezequiel Zamora "Free land and men - War against the latifundia". This comes after the Christmas period, during which a number of regional governors, elected in the October 31st elections, passed regional decrees along the same lines.

Chavez speaking to supporters as he announces the new land reform decree.

Since the Land Act was passed in December 2001, the National Land Institute has already distributed 5.5 million acres of land (2.2 million hectares) to peasant cooperatives. But up until now all the land distributed has been state-owned land and there have been no expropriations. The new decree, called Decreto Zamorano, and passed on the anniversary of the death of Ezequiel Zamora, is aimed at the large landed estates (latifundio) that have been left idle or are poorly used. But even so, the Decree is not based on expropriation of private land. A special land commission has been appointed to look into the issue of land ownership and usage. This commission will then issue reports on the following two aspects. The first is whether large landed estates which are privately used actually have proper land titles. In Venezuela, over the years, there have been many cases of private landowners occupying land that belongs to the state and de facto appropriating it. The other issue will be whether the land is being used or is being left idle. If landed estates are found not to be productive, then they can be seized (with compensation) and distributed to peasant cooperatives. Chavez has made it clear, both now and during the October 31st regional election campaign, that his preferred option is to solve this through negotiation with the land owners (in which they can give up land they do not use), but also that if no agreement is reached, the full strength of the law and of the army will be used to implement land reform.

On the face of it, this is in fact quite a moderate decree and in its wording is far from a wide-ranging threat to private property, as has been presented by the Western media. The Financial Times for instance has talked of "what is likely to be a number of Zimbabwe-style expropriations of big estates", when referring to the intervention at the El Charcote estate. The FT chose to describe this move, which took place on Saturday January 8th, as "seizure", when in reality what happened is something else completely. The El Charcote estate is owned by AgroFlora, a subsidiary of the British Vestey Group. The Vestey group, belonging to the family of Lord Vestey is a major meat and food multinational which has been operating in South America for decades.

Peasants protesting at the El Carcote ranch, during its "intervention".

The El Charcote estate has 13,000 hectares (32,000 acres) of land and produces some 450,000 kilos of beef every year. The Venezuelan government argues that a large part of this land is not actually owned by the Vestey group and that they are illegally using property belonging to the Venezuelan state. Local peasant leaders argue that the land was bought by dictator Juan Vicente Gomez in the 1930s and that subsequently, all land owned by the dictator was passed over to the Venezuelan state. Vestey Group administrators complain that parts of the ranch have been occupied by peasants since 2001 when the Land Act was passed. The intervention at the El Charcote estate was carried out by the governor of Cojedes, Johnny Yánez, with about 200 national guardsmen and police along with helicopters which will allow them to survey the ranch.

As part of a regional review of land ownership the Cojedes regional governor sent a commission of enquiry to El Charcote. The ranch has not been "seized", as the Financial Times claims, but rather there has been an "intervention". There is now a technical team on the ranch which will investigate the claims of the British group over the land titles and whether the land is being used to its full capacity or whether parts of the ranch have been left idle.

As Chavez explained in his speech on Monday, the structure of land ownership in Venezuela is scandalously unfair. A 1998 census found that 60 percent of Venezuelan farmland was owned by less than 1 percent of the population. Chavez yesterday said that nearly 80 percent of the country's land is owned by 5 percent of landowners. Meanwhile, the smallest landowners representing 75% of agricultural holdings have to share 6% of the land. The 1998 census also revealed that 90 percent of farmland given to the poor under a 1960 agrarian reform had since returned to large landholders. "A democracy that permits such a situation of injustice will lose its democratic character and will end up turning itself into a pantomime of democracy. A revolution that permits this injustice cannot call itself a revolution," said Chavez.

This is at the same time that Venezuela, despite having large extensions of very fertile land with a benign climate, imports about 60 to 70% of all the foodstuffs that it consumes. Some have called it a "harbours' agriculture", since most agricultural products come from ... the harbours through which they are imported. For instance, every quarter, 14,000 tonnes of black beans (caraotas) and other pulses, which are an important part of the staple diet of poor Venezuelans, are imported. Production of caraotas actually collapsed in the 1990s, from 31,376 tonnes in 1988 to 18,627 tonnes in 1999, while the Venezuelan population increased by 20%.

In fact, agriculture is one of the most extreme expressions of the backwardness and parasitical character of the Venezuelan oligarchy, this reactionary alliance between capitalists, bank owners, landowners and multinational corporations that has ruled the country since it achieved independence. For them it is preferable, and more profitable, to live off the state and oil resources, gamble on the stock exchange, buy government bonds, invest their money abroad, and import luxury goods, than it is to develop national production in any field.

In these conditions it is difficult to see how an amicable agreement can be reached with the landowners to voluntarily distribute land to the hundreds of thousands of land hungry families that need it. The struggle for the land has been one of the most contentious issues of the Venezuelan revolutionary process so far. It was the passing of the Land Act in December 2001 (together with the Hydrocarbon Act and others) that triggered the opposition to organise the April 2002 military coup against the Chavez government. The hopes of thousands of peasant communities were again lifted during the regional election campaign last October, when Chavez delivered belligerent speeches against the latifundio and instructed the Bolivarian gubernatorial candidates to tackle the problem of land reform straight away.

No meaningful land reform possible within the boundaries of private property

The president of the ranch owners association, Betancourt, reacted strongly to the decree, saying in an interview on the Globovision television station that "If they eliminate private property rights, they will also be eliminating the peace in Venezuela''. This is an ominous threat. Some 100 peasant leaders and activists have been killed in disputes over land property with big landowners in the past 4 years. In some areas along the border with Colombia ranch owners have for some time armed white guards modelling themselves on, and sometimes getting advice from, the infamous paramilitary gangs from neighbouring Colombia.

If you have a situation in which 5% of landowners control nearly 80% of the land, then it is clear that one cannot carry out a land reform policy that will please both the owners of large landed estates and landless peasants. Even the Cojedes governor, Johnny Yanéz, had to say that private property "is a right, but not an absolute one, since the collective interest, public need, and food security are parameters that must justify this private right".

This is not just about land. If the conflict over land reform deepens, as it is bound to do, and land is expropriated and given over to landless peasants, then workers in industry are bound to draw similar conclusions. Instances like that of the Venepal paper mill, which the owners declared bankrupt and the workers took over and are now demanding to be nationalised under workers control, will spread. On the other hand, Venezuela's landowners are an inseparable part of the Venezuelan ruling class. An attack on them will be rightly seen by the capitalists as an attack on the very principle of private property of the economy.

The analysts of the ruling class can clearly see the implications of these moves. According to business analysts Bloomberg, Benito Berber, an analyst with HSBC Securities in New York said: "The erosion of private property rights may undermine long- term economic growth as capital inflows slow and investors lose confidence in the country's future".

The problem is precisely that, as in other areas of the progressive government of Chavez, any social justice measures implemented, no matter how "moderate" they might be, clash head on with the vested interests of the owners of industry, capital and the land. We must remember that, even though the Bolivarian revolution has not directly infringed on the rights of private property, the capitalists and landowners have attempted the violent overthrow of the government on several occasions. The fact is that the basic needs of the working people of Venezuela (to free health care and education for all, to a roof over their heads, to decent food on their table, to means of earning their livelihood) are in direct contradiction to the existence of the capitalist system based on private profit and the benefits of a wealthy minority. And this is why the very existence of a revolutionary movement in Venezuela is seen by the oligarchy, rightly, as a threat to their interests.

The Bolivarian revolution should understand this basic fact and move to wrest from the oligarchy the levers of economic and political power they still control as the only guarantee for the victory of the revolution.

January 11, 2005