30 de Julio, 2006

Venezuelan Cattlemen Linving in Fear

Por Venezuela Real - 30 de Julio, 2006, 10:09, Categoría: Prensa Internacional

Chris Kraul
Los Angeles Times
July 25, 2006

Ranchers say rebels from Colombia are running a kidnapping industry on their land

VILLA DEL ROSARIO, Venezuela — The violence has come too close for comfort for dairy farmer Edgar Vargas, whose family has raised cattle on their ranch near the Colombian border for three generations.

First his friend and fellow rancher Mario Vassallo was kidnapped and killed in February. Then a neighbor, Salvador Ferrante, was kidnapped and spent three weeks in a Colombian rebel camp before his family paid a $600,000 ransom. The final straw came last month when the president of the local cattlemen's association, Luis Martinez, was shot nine times as he rode on his tractor.

Martinez had gone to the police days before to report that he'd been threatened and to ask for protection. He'd even brought along photos of the suspects that he'd taken with his cellphone. Martinez had told other ranchers that he'd rather die than be kidnapped, Vargas said. And he did just that, witnesses say, resisting a group of eight men dressed in the battle fatigues and knee-high rubber boots preferred by the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

"We live in constant fear," Vargas, 46, said as he walked among his herd of 300 cows, the mountains bordering Colombia looming to the west. "Farming is a beautiful thing, working the land and raising animals. But there is no security anymore."

So he's selling his ranch and getting out.

Once a peaceful dairy region, this section of Venezuela's western border with Colombia has become a lawless zone where kidnappings, cattle thefts and forays by suspected Colombian rebels rule the day. Vargas said his employees had spotted armed groups in battle fatigues crossing his property five times in recent months.

Farmers say kidnappings, once an occasional event, have multiplied in the six years since the advent of Plan Colombia, the anti-drug and anti-terrorism campaign largely financed by the United States.

They complain that the effort has pushed guerrillas into Venezuelan territory, where they rest, recuperate, resupply — and wreak havoc on local farmers.

"There is a kidnapping industry in place now. We all are afraid," said Hugo Suarez, another cattle rancher here. "We never tell anyone when we will visit our farms. When we do go, we go quickly and stay as little time as possible."

The response of the government of leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is largely to act as if there is no problem, said Adonay Martinez, president of a ranchers' association called Fegalago that is the umbrella group for several local groups between Lake Maracaibo and the Colombian border.

"Our government is totally indifferent to the problem," Martinez said. "Our sovereignty is being violated, and the response we get is total complacency." Other cattlemen who asked not to be named theorized that the military has been passive because it is sympathetic with the leftist rebels' cause.

Carlos Luna, who heads the kidnapping unit in the local office of the Venezuelan equivalent of the FBI, said he agreed that Colombian "dissidents" were causing trouble, and that kidnappings had increased since Plan Colombia took hold. But he said rogue elements of the right-wing Colombian militias were also involved in criminal activity in western Venezuela.

"Here we have criminal gangs who cooperate with armed Colombian groups, the guerrillas and the paramilitaries," Luna said.

The national cattlemen's association has sharply criticized the military for its "absurd passivity." It has demanded that the government garrison a major army presence here to defend against the rebel incursions.

Vargas recalled the government's reaction when a friend disappeared a decade ago, before Chavez came to power.

"Ten years ago when Erlen Atensio was kidnapped, the government sent a thousand army units here to comb the mountains. They never found him, but at least they came," Vargas said. "Now we've had eight kidnappings in less than a year, and we haven't seen a single soldier."

Ranchers say the rebels have since set up base camps in the mountains above this town on the Venezuelan side of the border and make forays into the area to look for food, collect "vaccinations" — extortion payments — rustle cattle and seize victims.

The Chavez government's alleged inaction in the face of Colombian armed groups' incursions has also drawn fire from the U.S. government, whose officials charge that the anti-American leader is allowing the FARC to use Venezuela's border region as a rest and resupply zone.

The Venezuelan government has also been criticized by Italy, which has expressed concern over the fact that a disproportionate number of victims in western Venezuela, at least 16 over the last two years, have been of Italian lineage or had dual citizenship. In the years after World War II, this country received a wave of European immigrants, many of whom bought farms.

Late last month, an Italian delegation headed by consular officials arrived in the nearby city of Maracaibo to publicly complain about the kidnappings and to offer technical assistance, including sophisticated telecommunications equipment to track kidnappers' calls. An Italian law enforcement official who asked not to be identified said the kidnapping problem had heightened over the last year and seemed to be targeting people with Italian names.

"The criminals know we work hard, that we establish businesses and save our money," said Geovanna Vassallo, the daughter of Mario Vassallo. Her father, a 68-year-old native of Naples, was killed this year even though his family paid a $50,000 ransom.

Vargas said the violence wasn't the only factor in his decision to sell his 730-acre ranch. In addition to the physical insecurity, there is the legal insecurity caused by the invasions of ranches by squatters. One of the pillars of Chavez's "socialism for the 21st century" policies is redistribution of underutilized land to peasants, which some have taken as a green light to take over farms.

Moreover, the Venezuelan government has imposed price controls on milk, limiting prices to about 40 cents a liter (slightly more than a quart), less than the 45 cents it costs Vargas to produce a liter, making dairy farming a losing proposition, he said.

"We have many enemies here," Vargas said, "but the worst one is our own government."

A Letter To Hugo Chávez

Por Venezuela Real - 30 de Julio, 2006, 10:06, Categoría: Prensa Internacional

Diana M Daniels
Washington Post
July 29, 2006; Page A19

Dear President Chávez:
Last week I spent three days in Venezuela following up on an open invitation from a representative of the Venezuelan legislature. (It had been extended at the March meeting of the Inter American Press Association.) I had been looking forward to meeting you and other members of the Venezuelan federal and provincial governments to have an open dialogue about freedom of expression and freedom of the press in your country. To my regret, no one from the Venezuelan government was willing to meet. Instead of having that dialogue, I found the organization I represent in the unusual circumstance of being the object of petty name-calling by officials of your government, behavior somewhat akin to what my children do when they throw a temper tantrum and they can't think of anything better to say.

Here is what I would have wanted to talk about with you if we'd had the chance.   

As head of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, whose founding was rooted in the democratic movements of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, what is it about a truly independent and free press that is of concern to you? As Simón Bolivar stated in his Carta de Jamaica, written in Kingston on Sept. 6, 1815: "The first steps of all the new governments are marked by the establishment of juntas of the people. These juntas then draft rules for the convocation of congresses, which produce great changes. Venezuela erected a democratic and federal government, after declaring for the rights of man, establishing a system of checks and balances, and passing general laws granting civil liberties, such as freedom of the press and others."

Paying lip service to the concept of freedom of the press and freedom of expression is just that -- lip service. The current Venezuelan Constitution provides for freedom of expression and a right to information, but requires that that information be "timely, truthful and impartial." Those qualities are all in the eye of the beholder. What is impartial to you may be biased to others and vice versa. Remember the days not so long ago when, under President Carlos Andrés Peréz, copies of newspapers were confiscated if your picture appeared in them, and your vice president, José Vicente Rangel, was harassed and threatened for articles he wrote that were critical of that regime.

If a government is confident that it is representing the will of the people and working in their best interests, then that government should be confident enough to withstand the scrutiny of a critical press. By restricting freedom of the press and freedom of expression, you take away an essential right that belongs not to the press but to the Venezuelan people.

How are the interests of the people served by threats to take back the radio and television licenses held by the independent media should these media publish or broadcast any news item that annoys the government or one of its officials? How would allowing the government not only to decide editorial content and staff hiring policies but also to set strict time limits on newscasts further the interests of the Venezuelan people? What makes the efforts of the government in Bolivar state to evict and close down the Venezuelan daily newspaper Correo del Caroní anything more than a clumsy attempt to silence an independent media outlet and set an example for others who dare to be critical of the government?

In a time of jet travel, Internet and cellular telephony, and instant messaging, information is hard to control. It will be very difficult to keep it from the Venezuelan people. By trying to eliminate the independent media, you will only make the people of Venezuela and the rest of the world wonder what you're trying to hide.

Why not let the independent media flourish in your country? Let Venezuela become the model for the rest of the hemisphere for tolerance, and have the confidence to allow a diversity of views to be voiced. As Walter Lippmann, the 20th-century American columnist, wrote, "A free press is not a privilege, but an organic necessity in a great society." Venezuela can be that great society, but first it must have a truly free press that applies not just to a single person's right to publish ideas but also to the right of print and broadcast media to express political views and to cover and publish news freely without interference, intimidation or reprisal.

It is up to you, Mr. President, to lead and to carry on the tradition of a free press in Venezuela begun so many years ago by Simón Bolivar.

The writer is general counsel of The Washington Post Co. and president of the Inter American Press Association. She was accompanied on the IAPA mission to Venezuela by newspaper representatives from Chile, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic.





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