Caracas, Venezuela, September 26, 2005—Venezuela’s President Chavez broadcast his weekly television program, Aló Presidente, from a large landed estate, La Marqueseña, yesterday, which the government’s Land Institute, has recently declared to be state property. According to Chavez, the Azupurua family, which claims title to the land, has held the land illegally for decades and must turn it over to the state, which will use it for the government’s land reform program.
Two weeks earlier, soldiers and representatives from the National Land Institute (INTI), which is in charge of administering the land reform, occupied the 8,490 hectare (21,000 acre) ranch in Chavez’s home state of Barinas.
Chavez explained, during his 4-6 hour TV program, in which he usually explains government policy and has various guests, that his government is dedicated to the eradication of latifundios, the large idle landed estates that exist throughout Venezuela. “The latifundio is one of the most powerful obstacles for the development of the country and as long as it exists, it is impossible to begin the foundations of progress,” said Chavez.
Opposition critics of the government’s drive to redistribute land argue that the reform violates the right to private property. Chavez responded to this charge by saying, “There is no violation of private property; we are restituting law and order.”
Venezuela’s 1999 constitution, in articles 306-308, explicitly outlaws the existence of latifundios. The precise definition of these has varied, but it is generally considered to be a landed estate of over 1,000 hectares that is idle.
According to Chavez, the Azupurua family cannot prove ownership and so the land actually belongs to the state. In an effort to avoid disputes over the land, Chavez called a member of the Azupura family and told him that the government could offer the family 1,500 hectares (3,700 acres). Carlos Azupurua said that his family would take the offer under consideration, but “this is not just my decision, but that of [the ranch’s] shareholders and we will also listen to the opinions of the workers.”
According to Azupurua, the land is legally owned private property that is being used for agriculture, except for a portion of the land, which is under ecological protection and under the regulation of the Ministry of the Environment. His family will provide additional documents to the government soon to prove its legal title in a chain of documentation that reaches back over 100 years. For land titles to be legal in Venezuela, the documentation has to reach back to 1848.
According to Venezuela’s land reform law, only unproductive land over a certain size may be expropriated, with full compensation at the land’s current market value. If the legal title is not in order, though, the government may confiscate the land without compensation.
Azupurua also said that he will maintain a dialogue with the government, “because this is the position that will most benefit the country and I believe that the country needs dialogue.”
A government press release stated that the land would be divided up among 80 families and the 60 current workers of the ranch.
Chavez issued a presidential decree in January of this year, which would accelerate the land reform process. Until the end of 2004, most of the land that had been redistributed was undisputed state-owned. With the January decree, though, Chavez hopes to redistribute 21 latifundios with a total of 612,000 hectares.