In Venezuela, Land 'Rescue' Hopes Unmet

Ramón Barrera arrived at a former ranch dreaming of his own small parcel filled with crops. Six months later, he has only some scrawny pigs.
Ramón Barrera arrived at a former ranch dreaming of his own small parcel filled with crops. Six months later, he has only some scrawny pigs. (By Juan Forero -- The Washington Post)
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By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 20, 2009

LAS VEGAS, Venezuela -- Dreaming of a new life, Ramón Barrera came to El Charcote, a vast farm here in northwestern Venezuela, several years after President Hugo Chávez's populist government had expropriated the property from its longtime owners and begun distributing parcels to small farmers like him to work.

Six months after he arrived, Barrera's dream is still just a dream -- his 37 acres are fallow, so he spends his time feeding grain to nine scrawny pigs. He and other farmers trying to earn a living on the farm's sunbaked expanse said the technical help they had been promised never materialized.

"Things are serious here. There is no water, no electricity, no comforts," said Barrera, 64. "There is no credit. There is nothing. How are people supposed to work?"

Chávez's so-called back-to-the-land movement calls for the redistribution of land -- increasingly properties that the state has taken over in what officials term a "rescue" or "recuperation." The objective is to ensure "food sovereignty," thereby reducing dependence on imports.

But nearly five years after the measures were implemented nationwide, farmers and agriculture experts say, Venezuela is not only far from self-sufficient in food, but also more dependent than ever on foreign countries. Food imports rose to $7.5 billion last year, a sixfold increase since Chávez took power a decade ago.

That has not stopped the government from accelerating its policy of dismantling big haciendas, holdings that officials often describe as unproductive. Owners are compensated, unless authorities accuse them of having acquired their properties illegally. Those who take over are promised courses in farming; some are settled in newly built communes. The policy is rooted in a 2001 law and driven by Chávez's insistence that the land belongs to everyone.

"I say to all who say they own land: In the first place, that land is not yours. The land is not private. It is the property of the state," Chávez said last month on an episode of his weekly television show broadcast from rural Barinas state, where he grew up.

"The land is for those who work it," the president said, adding that those who do not produce lose "their right to occupy the land." Chávez then turned to Agriculture Minister Elías Jagua, seated among Chávez's red-shirted supporters in the audience, and said, "That is what the law is for, Elías, unbending.

"Today we are going to recuperate other lands," he added. "Give me the list to announce it at once before it gets late." He then checked off one farm after another, while his ministers applauded.

Among the once-productive farms put out of business earlier this decade was this 33,606-acre ranch in Cojedes state owned by the Vestey Group, a British company. El Charcote used to turn out 3.3 million pounds of beef a year, making it one of the country's top 10 producers. Today, the 13,000 head of cattle that once roamed here are gone.

The small farmers working the property have a few cows, but those animals, and the small corn patches here and there, are mainly for personal use. New farm machinery, painted the government's trademark red, gathers dust in a lot on the outskirts of this town.

"If there is a word to describe all this, it is 'stagnant,' " said Carlos Machado, an agriculture expert at the Institute of Higher Administrative Studies in Caracas and a former agricultural consultant for the Organization of American States. "The government policy to increase the crop production in the country is a complete failure."

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