Clash of hope and fear as Venezuela seizes land

Por Venezuela Real - 17 de Mayo, 2007, 10:56, Categoría: Imagen gobierno / Chávez

Simon Romero
The New York Times /Petroleumworld.com
May 17,  2007


The squatters arrive before dawn with machetes and rifles, surround the well-ordered rows of sugar cane and threaten to kill anyone who interferes. Then they light a match to the crops and declare the land their own.

Members of a farming cooperative in Santa Barbara, Venezuela, on a break. President Hugo Chávez, whose poster hangs in their shack, has given them financial and military support to seize land from owners.

For centuries, much of Venezuela’s rich farmland has been in the hands of a small elite. After coming to power in 1998, and especially after his re-election in December, President Hugo Chávez vowed to end that inequality, and has been keeping his promise in a process that is both brutal and legal.

Mr. Chávez is carrying out what may become the largest forced land redistribution in Venezuela’s history, building utopian farming villages for squatters, lavishing money on new cooperatives and sending army commando units to supervise seized estates in six states.

The violence has gone both ways in the struggle, with more than 160 peasants killed by hired gunmen in Venezuela, including several here in northwestern Yaracuy State, an epicenter of the land reform project, in recent years. Eight landowners have also been killed here.

“The oligarchy is always on the attack and trying to say you are no good,” Mr. Chávez said to squatters in a televised visit here. “They think they’re the owners of the world.”

Mr. Chávez’s supporters have formed thousands of state-financed cooperatives to wrest farms and cattle ranches from private owners. Landowners say compensation is hard to obtain. Local officials describe the land seizures as paving stones on “the road to socialism.”

“This is agrarian terrorism encouraged by the state,” said Fhandor Quiroga, a landowner and head of Yaracuy’s chamber of commerce, pointing to dozens of kidnappings of landowners by armed gangs in the last two years.

The government says the goal of the nationwide resettlement is to make better use of idle land and to make Venezuela less dependent on food imports. New laws allow squatters to manage and farm land that has now been placed in government hands.

Before the land reform started in 2002, an estimated 5 percent of the population owned 80 percent of the country’s private land. The government says it has now taken over about 3.4 million acres and resettled more than 15,000 families.







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