This report was originally published on September 6, 2003
in The Narco News Bulletin (www.narconews.com)
“The only way to end poverty is to give power to the poor”
-Hugo Chávez Frías
President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela
Lara, Venezuela, September 2003.- The land, which had become a commodity rather than a common good, and which served to illicitly enrich the powerful who owns it without utilizing it, will begin to be used for communitarian activities and rural development.
President Hugo Chávez hands land deeds over to peasant-famers
On August 31, President Hugo Chávez handed over land deeds to campesino representatives from the states of Barinas, Carabobo, Cojedes, Lara, Portuguesa, and Yaracuy at the Cuara Farm School in Jiménez de Quibor, Lara. The farmers were also given plows and tractors, as well as new credits for farming. The land used to belong to the government and wasn’t being utilized.
The small farmers, who have spent years fighting for land ownership, celebrated the revolutionary conquest. A huge number of Venezuelan children, women and men, carrying flags, placards, and copies of the Venezuelan constitution, converged at this historic event. Later, Chávez broadcasted his famous “Aló Presidente” (Hello Mr. President) television and radio show from the festivities.
“The peasant-farmers who had fought for years to recover their land made the land transfer into an act of justice”, said Braulio Álvarez, a representative from the Ezequiel Zamora National Agrarian Board.
The Venezuelan National Land Institute (INTI in its Spanish initials) is carrying out the land distribution under the co-called “Plan Zamora.” The plan as well as Álvarez’s organization is named in memory of Ezequiel Zamora, the 19th century Venezuelan peasant leader who struggled for land reform, social equality, and human rights for the poor.
In the first phase of Plan Zamora, more than a million hectares (2.5 million acres) were transferred to campesinos , benefiting more than 40,000 families. The government handed over 31,437 land deeds, 121 farm machines and 30 billion bolívars (US$20 million). The second phase of the plan will be to distribute two million hectares by the end of this year.
The Ezequiel Zamora National Agrarian Board brings together 22 campesino, indigenous and small business organizations in a horizontal organizing structure.
International representatives participated together with the people Venezuela in the main event of the land transfer. Among them were, from Honduras, Rafael Alegría of the Vía Campesina (“Farmers’ Path”) organization and Juan Tiney of the Latin American Peasant-Farmer Organizing Board; from Ecuador, Blanca Chancoso of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities; and from Brazil, Elgidio Brunetto of the Landless Workers’ Movement. They were all there to bear witness to the Agrarian Reform, part of the proceso, or change process, going on in their neighboring country of Venezuela.
Along with this change in agrarian policy, other processes going on in Venezuela must be emphasized here. The literacy project known as the Robinson Mission hopes to teach 1.5 million Venezuelans to read and write. The Barrio Adentro (“in the slums”) program provides free health care to more than 200,000 people without access to private or deteriorated public hospitals. Basic, secondary and university education, as well as many other public programs, have improved.
A Difficult Process
The land distribution process has not been easy. Powerful business and political interests have tried every way to stop justice from being done. In the last few years, mercenaries have killed 79 people for defending their land. Marginalized peasant-farmers have begun to seek ways to pressure the authorities into hearing them.
INTI director Leonel Ricaurte said that land distribution affects the powerful groups that governed Venezuela many years ago. The ITNI is known for its hard work, strength and transparency.
There is a festive atmosphere in many farming communities here due to the land transfers. A day before the big event, hundreds of campesinos met in Comunare Rojo (in the state of Yaracuy) to express their support for the revolutionary process. With music, poetry, and songs but also with a profound commitment they demonstrated that they would defend their lands, even if it meant giving their lives.
Speaking for the peasant and indigenous leaders who had come from other countries, Rafael Alegría from Vía Campesina expressed his solidarity with the Venezuelan people. In a document handed to President Chávez, all the organizations endorsed the agrarian reform process and Venezuela’s goal of food sovereignty. They also condemned the repression from “insubordinate sectors” that hope to use mercenary killers to maintain their privilege with threats and assassinations.
The document states:
“Vía Campesina expresses its firm support for the Venezuealn people and the Bolivarian process, and announces that the coming months we will be organizing together with other organizations committed to social justice and the search for concrete alternatives to neoliberalism an international conference of solidarity with the agrarian reform process.”
Despite the threats, under the premise of “globalizing struggle and hope,” Venezuela’s small farmers are moving ahead with a genuine rural development program after years of injustice. As the campesino and indigenous leaders from around our América say, “la tierra es vida” “land is life.”
There hasn’t been a single instance (know to the general public) of private land being confiscated by Chavez’s government and given to others. The current Land Reform can be seen as somewhat mild compared with Land Reforms of the past, where land was actually taken away without pay from big land owners and given to small farmers. The current Reforma Agraria contemplates paying land owners market price for land that they don’t use for a number of years.
On the other hand, what is really progresive about the current Land Reform is the fact that this time around, farmes are not left on their own to get started with their new patches of land. They are encouraged to form cooperatives to share equipment and land, and are given low interest loans, and tractors.
The same situation occurs in the cities. The shanty towns where land titles have been given by the government to people who have lived there for decades, were built on public land, so the titles of ownership given by the government there, do not affect the private property of the wealthy.