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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.

"They were handcuffed, and I said, 'Take the handcuffs off them,' and we start having a civilized conversation," Vollmer recounted. "I said, 'What were you thinking?' "

He offered them two options. Either Vollmer would turn them over to the police, or they would agree to live on the hacienda for three months. They would earn nothing, but receive free meals and placement in job-training programs.

"We had to be much more ambitious and think, 'How are you going to change the reality of these people, so they're productive for themselves?' " Vollmer said. "It's not a handout. It's to give something sustainable."

When Vollmer agreed to expand the program, thinking three or four more gang members would participate, he was astonished to see 22 show up. "I thought, 'Wow, this is a huge opportunity,' " Vollmer said. "They've given us the most important thing they have, which is their identity."

Though some of those who've participated have been killed -- victims of the violence in the nearby shantytowns -- dozens of others have graduated and hold down jobs. Seventy-five remain in the program, young men who are required to do schoolwork, learn job skills and play organized rugby, Vollmer's passion.

"If other businessmen gave a little more of themselves like Dr. Alberto, I think Venezuela would be a more beautiful place," said José Arrieta, one of the first to leave behind a life of crime and take a job in the Santa Teresa plant. "It's rare to find someone who will believe in you."

Business schools have studied the Vollmer model, as have those who try to resolve conflicts in countries including Bosnia and Colombia.

Meanwhile, Vollmer's programs have helped Santa Teresa, one of Latin America's most storied rum brands, to thrive. He and his brother, Henrique, have modernized the company, restructured debt and cut product lines and costs. A company that was on the verge of bankruptcy in the late 1990s is now expanding and increasingly focused on exporting its rum, to 27 countries in all.

The success, Vollmer said, came in part because he and his adversaries were willing to bridge Venezuela's vast class divide. The key, he said, was to "put issues on the table and talk about them, with civility."

"You can just agree to disagree, but at least you're still at the table," he said. "If you decide not to talk and you lose the patience to keep on talking about things, you lose the debate."

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