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Chavez redistributes land to rural poor { November 14 2005 }

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Published on Monday, November 14, 2005 by the Toronto Star
Redistributing the Land, Hugo Chavez Style
Analysts say president's land-expropriation plan a world away from disastrous Zimbabwean program

by Jens Erik Gould

The privately owned, 1,200-hectare Santa Isabel farm has grown sugar cane for decades, but Antiaga says the Venezuelan government will help him use the land to grow pumpkins, beans and squash.

Under a land redistribution campaign led by President Hugo Chavez, thousands of rural poor like Antiaga are being granted rights to farm arable land traditionally concentrated in the hands of wealthy landowners.

But Artiaga isn't waiting for the government to take the lead. He and other farmers are slashing the Santa Isabel cane with machetes and laying claim to land they say is rightfully theirs.

"We're obligated to take this land because it is state land," says Antiaga, clad in a torn shirt dirtied by the rich soil. "Commander Chavez is with our movement."

Venezuela's land-reform campaign has won support from the rural poor but has sparked criticism that it could infringe on private property rights.

"In Yaracuy, there is no rule of law," says Santa Isabel owner Vicente Lecuna, who accuses state officials of encouraging peasants to settle on his property. He says farming co-operatives like Antiaga's have destroyed 40 per cent of his sugar cane.

Chavez insists his government respects private property rights and contends that the land expropriations are being carried out only for public use or for social necessity in a country where most non-state land is owned by a small elite.

In the latest stage of what he calls the "new socialism of the 21st century," Chavez has called on state officials to take over private land deemed "idle" or lacking property titles dating back to 1848. Soldiers have enforced some of the takeovers, at times denying owners and workers access to the land.

In recent months, the government has extended its campaign to corporate-owned land. One state government expropriated an idle tomato processing plant from U.S.-based H.J. Heinz Co. and another seized a silo installation from Empresas Polar, Venezuela's largest food company.

The state government paid Heinz $256,000 (U.S.) for its seized plant, distinguishing Venezuela's reform from Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's massive land redistribution effort, which has not reimbursed thousands of white landowners for their seized farms.

While critics say both the Venezuelan and Zimbabwean governments are giving land to peasants with little agricultural experience, Venezuela offers farming loans while Zimbabwean farmers severely lack resources to develop their land.

With agriculture a small player in Venezuela's oil-dependent economy, it is unlikely that a fall in food production would cause the kind of food shortages and other crises it has in Zimbabwe, notes Orlando Ochoa, an economics professor at Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas.

Mugabe's reform also seized farms on the basis of race, targeting land owned by white farmers, while Caracas focuses on productivity and property titles, Ochoa says.

Critics argue that the Venezuelan expropriations are concentrating more power in the government by giving peasants farming licences for rather than ownership of the land they farm.

But Carlos Escarra, a constitutional lawyer and professor at the Central University of Venezuela, rejects this common criticism, saying peasants actually become property owners who lack only the right to sell their land.

Chavez says that having co-operatives like Antiaga's farming on expropriated land will lessen Venezuela's dependence on imports by satisfying domestic deficits in food.

And the government has launched a campaign to plant more than 200,000 hectares of new sugar cane and cassava to produce sugar-based ethanol gasoline.

Yet Yaracuy farm owner Vladimir Rodriguez says it is ironic that the same government has not prevented co-operatives and extortionists from destroying more than $15 million worth of sugar cane on 33 farms in his state alone, according to his statistics.

A state-run agrarian fund known as Fondafa also grants loans for farming machinery to co-operatives that have taken over private property without state permission and uprooted sugar cane crops.

In one case of extortion, local delinquents who farm owners say posed as landless peasants murdered sugar cane farm owner Antonio Vieira after he refused to pay them to not destroy his crop.

Yaracuy state secretary-general Col. Angel Yarza, who called on the government to take over 48 ranches, denied in an interview that he had seen large quantities of destroyed sugar cane. He assured that the state does not encourage land invasions, but will not intervene to protect privately owned farms.

Antiaga says Yarza and other state officials are helping his group's long fight to take land away from owners like Lecuna, who for him represent a system of traditional land ownership that prevent the rural poor from acquiring farms or landing sustainable jobs.

"We're human beings, too, and we have to eat," he says.

But for farm owners, seizing private property and issuing loans to poor farmers is no solution to poverty and unemployment.

"(The co-operatives) just want credits that they won't pay back," says Lecuna. "They're not going to produce."

Copyright Toronto Star Newspapers Limited

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