In Venezuela, a Scion Opens His Family Land to the Poor

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 25, 2008

EL CONSEJO, Venezuela Alberto Vollmer is as blue-blooded as they get -- a blond, rakishly handsome heir of one of Venezuela's richest and oldest families. It is a family that owns the fabled Santa Teresa sugar cane hacienda and rum distillery, the one where 19th-century independence hero Simón Bolívar announced an end to slavery.

In Venezuela, where President Hugo Chávez divides his countrymen into two groups -- the exploited poor and the malevolent oligarchs -- Vollmer would seem to fall into the latter category.

But officialdom does not scorn the U.S.-educated president of the Santa Teresa rum maker. Instead, because he has founded two highly successful programs to provide the poor with land and job opportunities, he has found a way to earn the respect of the self-styled revolutionary government. The programs have so effectively defused social tensions -- in a country famous for them -- that even officials in other countries emerging from conflict have sought him out for advice.

Vollmer, 39, wearing a tailored suit as he sips a mochaccino, chuckles with enthusiasm as he talks about the initiatives.

But he also explains that a cold calculation went into his thinking when he started the first one in 2000. At the time, he faced what other hacienda owners here have confronted -- poor squatters, whose decision to take over land sometimes ends tragically.

"If you resort to violence or being reactive or defensive, you're at an enormous disadvantage," said Vollmer, the descendant of German immigrants. "And you put yourself in a situation where you're not thinking in terms of going beyond your own boundaries."

So when 500 poor families invaded a hilly stretch of Vollmer's 18,300-acre hacienda, he did not fight back -- he welcomed them onto his land.

Vollmer entered into negotiations with their leader, José Rodríguez, a former air force sergeant who had participated in the 1992 failed coup that made Chávez famous. And then Vollmer pitched an idea to the state government, which was and remains solidly behind Chávez.

Vollmer would provide the land and design houses for 100 of the families; the rest would receive homes somewhere else, with the state's help. Officials would provide mortgages. The families would have a major say in how their new community would be constructed, but they'd also participate in job-training programs sponsored by Santa Teresa.

The outcome of Vollmer's proposal is now readily evident in the Royal Way neighborhood, with its colorful homes and gaggles of children. "We fought to have a home, and thanks to God we have a dignified home that I can leave for my children," said Yumila Aquino, who was among those who initially invaded the land.

Three years later, another problem presented Vollmer with another opportunity.

The shantytowns outside the hacienda had always bred violence and crime -- and Santa Teresa was not immune. Local hoods stole a guard's gun, and the security staff was sent out to nab the young criminals. They were taken to see Vollmer.

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