In Venezuela, Land 'Rescue' Hopes Unmet
Farmers Struggle on Expropriated Plots

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."

The Agriculture Ministry and the National Land Institute did not respond to requests for interviews.

Officials, including Chávez, had previously announced that they have taken over more than 5 million acres of land -- a total area bigger than New Jersey -- and have increased the amount of land under cultivation and provided thousands of Venezuelans with new livelihoods. Agriculture experts also confirm increased production of fruit, including pineapples, melons and bananas, since the measures were implemented.

But production of some of the mainstays of Venezuelan agriculture -- beef, rice, sugar cane, milk -- has fallen off, economists and food producers say. They attribute the contraction to the chilling effects of the land-confiscation program and government-set price controls. With consumption increasing, food prices have soared in Caracas, and there have been occasional scarcities.

In Aragua, a leading agricultural state that is a bastion of support for Chávez, farmers have been bracing since the government began in recent weeks to expropriate the properties of big cane producers.

On a recent day, Vicente Lecuna, whose family has owned the Santa Clara farm in Aragua since the 1890s, scrambled from one office to the next looking for paperwork.

Expropriations, he knew, often begin after authorities demand to see titles going back to the early 1800s -- documents many farmers are unable to assemble. That prompts the state to declare that somewhere in the ownership chain the land was illegally acquired.

Already, the state's land agency has taken a portion of the 2,300-acre farm, uprooting cane and preparing the soil for corn. "This isn't land for corn," Lecuna said, sounding exasperated. "In this region, corn has never been planted."

Nelson Fernández, 62, who oversees sugar cane cultivation for Lecuna, appeared incredulous as he told how government officials had arrived on a recent day and announced that the Santa Clara was not productive. That was a pretext for the intervention, he said.

"These people know nothing about agriculture," he said.

Just weeks ago, authorities seized nearly 20 farms in Aragua, triggering panic among farm owners, said Juan Dos Santos, director of Punta Larga, which owned the Tamarindo sugar cane plantation. Though the company filed reams of paperwork with a local court to prove ownership and the farm's productivity, Dos Santos said, authorities seized the farm in March.

"In our case, we had lots of infrastructure, an irrigation system, a service road, electricity, warehouses, machinery," he said, adding that Punta Larga had invested $18 million in the property.

"We presume it was because it was a well-developed hacienda," he said of the confiscation.

Similar measures have been tried before in Latin America, where the struggle over land has led to civil wars and simmering violence from Central America to Colombia to Brazil. In most cases, the so-called reforms have failed to spur production.

Felicia Escobar, a lawyer and consultant on land issues who used to work for the Agriculture Ministry, said land redistribution has failed across the continent because farmers are not given incentives to produce and governments have not provided adequate credit or technical assistance.

She said that in Venezuela, the new farmers are not even given title to the lands they occupy. In some cases, they are grouped into communes and expected to work as a unit, with little stake in their plots.

"That is socialism," she said. "It did not work before, and it does not work now."

Here in Las Vegas, on what's left of the Vestey hacienda, the new tenants said they remain firm supporters of the government as they attempt to make a go of farming.

María Rosario Chirinos, 40, said she worked in a small shop before she was assigned a plot of land, which she is planting with corn. "My dream was to have a little piece of land, to survive, because I had nothing," she said.

But just down the road, César Alviares, 50, who also supports Chávez, said he is barely getting by raising a few cows and chickens. The crops he tried to grow all failed, he said, because he never received credit or technical help to control flooding.

"I put in two hectares of yucca plants -- the water came and finished them off," he said. "I put in a hectare of bananas -- the water came and finished them off. The corn, all of it. So in the end, I just have pasture."

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