San Francisco, May 27th 2014. (Venezuelanalysis.com) – On Monday, hundreds of peasant workers, or campesinos, gathered in a central plaza of the Venezuelan capital Caracas to protest a Supreme Court decision. The ruling upheld agribusiness and large landowners’ claims to ownership of land that has been cultivated by peasant collectives for over 12 years.
The men and women stood defiantly in the Plaza Bolivar, showing no intention of accepting the claims made on their cultivated land. An older man from Yaracuay state warned reporters, “I want to tell the Supreme Court of Justice that the vanguard of the peasant movement has been activated across the country. Do not make the mistake of becoming our enemies, because he who becomes an enemy of the farmers is pitting himself against those who produce the food he eats every day.”
In all of Latin America, the latifundio represents a large barrier for autonomous growth in rural areas, often promoting what many call modern-day feudalism.
From the beginning, the Bolivarian Revolution has put emphasis on an agrarian reform; resulting in the expropriation of unused land, some of which dates back to when European descendant families acquired vast plots by questionable means during the post-colonial era. A new Land Law passed by former president Hugo Chavez promoted production among farmers and fishermen by evening the scales between these historic landowners and the corresponding peasant class.
In 2001 Chavez personally imposed the Land Law in Barinas state. The “Hato Santa Rita” was a large piece of allegedly unused land belonging to economist Rogelio Peña Aly, an ex-mayor of the region who, according to the peasants, had acquired the land through corruption and intimidation. A farmers’ cooperative known as Brisas de Masparro then occupied the land and, with support from the National Land Insititute (INTI), turned it into productive farmland.
Earlier this month the Supreme Court ordered the INTI to dispossess this 12 year cooperative from Hato Santa Rita in order for it to be returned to Peña Aly.
Additionally, Ruben Dario Mendoza, representative of cattle and agribusiness federation Fedenaga, recently made a statement to broadcaster Globovision citing ten different plots of land he says are the rightful property of their federation. He referenced one of them, Olla Grande, as a farm that produced 700 bushels of plantains weekly before it was “invaded” by its current occupants. The peasants deny his claim. This week, the Supreme Court decided in favor of Mendoza’s claim.
The Ezequiel Zamora National Peasant Front and other organized peasant groups traveled yesterday to Caracas to defend the land granted to them for public use by late President Chavez. Gathered in the Plaza Bolivar they chanted, “We are not invaders, we are rescuers,” insisting the land was uncultivated when Chavez stepped in.
The Front’s national spokesperson, Kevin Rangel, said “For 15 years we have been accompanying the Bolivarian Revolution, and the fight against the latifundio, against rural inequality and constructing Agrarian Socialism. We have come to Caracas, our peasant movement is on alert… to reject the declarations of landowners, of Fedenaga and the other bankers, corrupts thieves and murders of more than 300 peasant workers.”
In a statement released earlier this month, the Front accused the corporation of using threats and intimidation and even hiring paid assassins to take down leaders of local farming cooperatives. They attribute over 300 murders from the past 30 years to assassins in the pay of agribusiness.
“How is it that now they try to appear as the ones who wish to stimulate national production,” the statement read. “We know this latifundio and all its land to be the product of the usurpation of peoples’ land and riches obtained by the historical exploitation of the peasant worker.”
Formal claims have also been filed by members of the cooperatives. Eloy Arrieta, an elderly man from Guarico state, told reporters that he meant to expose the unprofessional tactics employed by an INTI coordinator and two generals involved in his community’s forced removal.
A number of pro-government National Assembly deputies have signaled their strong rejection of the Court decision. Among them is Braulio Alvarez (United Socialist Party of Venezuela, PSUV) of Yaracuy state, who stood with the protestors yesterday.
“We are publicly soliciting our comrade, [Agriculture] Minister Ivan Gil, to ask that the state, the legitimate proprietor of all land… whether it be of public, private of collective ownership… to recognize the illegitimacy of this [court] decision. It is not in line with our dignity, our morals, or with the liberation plan of the peasant masses which was laid down in our Bolivarian Constitution, where the laws of land and agrarian development are established.”
Jose Tapia Coiran, a coordinator for the peasant militia who led the movement to seize the farm land that is now destined to return to Peña Aly said, “In articles 305, 306, and 307 [of the constitution], we are told the latifundio goes against social interest. We do not negotiate with oligarchs… what Fedenaga said of us is false, there is production there. We produce 30,000 liters of milk a day, our number of livestock is over 25,000. We have 14 schools, four electoral centers, we have built over 230 km of agricultural roadways. Our production is for the people, for the state, for the institutions. These lands were rescued.”
Ramon Garcia of the Aroa Valley Ecological Peasant Movement warned, “We are willing to defend the Bolivarian and Agrarian Revolution at all costs. What we have in Yaracuy is a [regional] government that calls itself revolutionary, but serves the capitalists, ranchers, and industrial powers of that area. So we, who sow and reap the lands daily, are here to reject being run over. Nicolas [Maduro], take a strong hand against the latifundio.”
A National Peasant Congress has long been planned in Barinas for late July. Though the event was created to address issues such as transportation, financing, distribution, and farmer’s markets, it seems inevitable that it will become a hotbed for organizing. After all, the court decision marks what some campesinos have long expected. In a press release the Ezequiel Zamora Front refers to this moment as “the preamble, as two conflicting perspectives on property and national land begin to march.”