Chávez seizes sugar plantations

Por Venezuela Real - 11 de Abril, 2008, 14:55, Categoría: Prensa Internacional

Chris Kraul
The Boston Globe / Los Angeles Times
April 11, 2008

BOGOTA - Venezuelan armed forces occupied 32 sugar plantations yesterday, the latest in a wave of takeovers that some say is a bid by President Hugo Chávez to regain political momentum and reverse his recent popularity slide.

The farms in Lara state were taken over by army units at the request of the Chávez government's National Land Institute, or INTI. The institute in recent years has handled takeovers of thousands of acres of underused farmland and turned them over to worker cooperatives.

The government last week said it would seize privately owned cement manufacturers, and Wednesday officials said it would "renationalize" Sidor, one of Latin America's largest steel factories. A 1998 privatization placed Sidor in the control of an Argentine-Italian joint venture.

INTI president Juan Carlos Loyo told reporters that the farm seizures were ordered after inspections showed 80 percent of them were idle. However, the local association of sugar growers said at a news conference that the farms were productive and that they would fight the "militarization" of their crops.

The seizures are part of Chávez's Socialism for the 21st Century, in which he is using Venezuela's oil riches to transform the economy. But they also show the challenges facing him and his Bolivarean Revolution, including whether replacing private enterprise with state-financed worker cooperatives and other measures will succeed at turning around his recent polling decline.

Critics said the takeovers appear politically motivated as Chávez strives to shift blame on the private sector for inflation and scarcities of food items and housing. Chávez wants to show strength in advance of state and local elections in November, observers said.

The president has seen his popularity plummet to 37 percent in March from 50 percent in June and as high as 66 percent in December 2005, according to Alfredo Keller & Associates of Caracas.

Chávez suffered his first setback at the polls in December when he lost a voter referendum that would have expanded his power and enabled him to run indefinitely for reelection. Inflation last year exceeded 20 percent, the highest in South America. Basic foodstuffs such as milk, chicken, beans and cooking oil often are hard to buy.

In January and February, Chávez scored public relations coups by brokering the release of six hostages held by the Colombian rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC. But he squandered much of the goodwill by leading a campaign to legitimize the rebels.

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