Venezuelas land reform challenges elite

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, signing new land reform decrees last January, declared, “The war against the large estates is the essence of the Bolivarian Revolution. It’s land for the campesinos, land for the ones who work the land!”

Landowner Vicente Lecuna commented at the time that land reform in his northern state of Yaracuy “would end with a shot to the head of Braulio Álvarez,” a veteran peasant leader and member of the National Assembly. On June 23, two hooded gunmen stepped out of a sports utility vehicle and fired three shots, hitting Alvarez’s shoulder and knee.

Alvarez survived. However, since the Chavez government launched its land reform program in 2001, hit men have killed an estimated 130 rural activists. Since January, when the government first began to transfer unused and illegally acquired private land to the campesinos, killings have occurred at a rate of one per week.

Undeterred, the National Land Institute has transferred 4.94 million acres, most of them taken from unused public land, to peasant farmers in the past four years. Since January, almost 2 million acres of once privately held land has been transferred to 452 agricultural cooperatives, government officials say.

Small farmers and cooperatives new to the land are subject to a three-year monitoring period before they gain undisputed use of their holdings. The government holds deeds under escrow to prevent land from being resold to large landowners. Peasant farmers receive considerable educational, financial and technical support.

The Chavez government sees traditional patterns of landownership as holdovers of the old order, where a handful of people controlled most of the nation’s resources. Even today, 2 percent of the population owns 60 percent of the farmland; the top 5 percent owns 75 percent. Among the very large holdings is the British-owned El Charcote ranch, which encompasses 32,000 acres and produces 4 percent of the nation’s beef. Much of the private land, held for speculation, is unused.

Big landowners are closely connected with segments of the urban middle and upper classes. Their friends and dependents populate the bureaucracies that administer land reform programs and regional governments. They fill judicial posts in rural areas that deal with land use disputes and attacks on peasant and labor organizers.

Land reform in Venezuela relates to social justice. Since the 1960s, when two-thirds of Venezuela’s population lived in rural areas, large numbers have moved into the cities, where 90 percent of them now live. Almost 80 percent live in poverty.

Because 70 percent of the nation’s food supply is imported, it is subject to monopoly control and manipulation. The move toward expanded land ownership is therefore seen as a step toward food independence for the nation.

The other big step toward that end is the “Mercal Project” that the Chavez government has launched for storing, distributing and marketing food. Utilizing money from oil sales and drawing on the assistance of the military, the government has developed thousands of new food outlets through which masses of poor or infirm people are gaining access to nutritious, inexpensive food.

The government’s steps are also a response to growing pressure from the peasant farmers. During celebrations of the third anniversary of the failed April 2002 coup attempt against Chavez, demonstrations and strikes took place calling increasing the tempo of land reform and for stopping landowner assaults.

Widows of murdered peasants marched in Caracas July 10 as a leading peasant group, the Ezequiel Zamora National Agricultural Coordinating Group (CANEZ), proposed the creation of local defense committees made up of government agencies, elements of the army and the peasants themselves.

Peasant groups July 11 asked the attorney general to investigate and prosecute the wave of assassinations. Johnny Milano, president of CANEZ, said, “We want small farmers to remain in the country and the big landowners to respect them and provide them security as they work on the land.”

For Chavez, land reform is “a revolution within a revolution.” Country people themselves have helped set the course of that revolution and apparently now have taken on the role of pushing it ahead.