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Venezuela's new revolution centers on land

By David Adams | Sr. Petersburg Times

Published January 24, 2005 | HATO PINERO, Venezuela - Shortly after 10 a.m. at this world-renowned nature reserve, the revolution arrived in a cloud of dust.

A group of tourists had just left the pastel-colored eco-lodge to go piranha fishing when a cavalcade of a dozen government SUVs swept up a shady avenue of bamboo trees, escorted by soldiers.

Out stepped state Interior Secretary Comrade Rafael Aleman, sporting a Che Guevara key ring. The eco-lodge's nervous owner, one of the country's biggest cattlemen, waited in the shade of a grove of mimosa and mango trees.

After exchanging courteous greetings, the two sides sat down to discuss the sensitive topic of the day: land redistribution for the poor.

The Hato Pinero eco-lodge might seem an odd place to begin an agrarian reform program. Set in the sweltering savanna, the sprawling 180,000-acre cattle ranch teems with exotic wildlife. Giant green anacondas, the Orinoco crocodile and an endangered species of jaguar roam free.

But land - especially rich people's land - is the new front line in Latin America's latest revolution. Even in this far-off corner of the Venezuelan plains, there's no escaping the ever-tightening grasp on power of President Hugo Chavez.

* * *

The Hato Pinero visit came four days after Chavez signed a decree setting up land reform commissions. He called it the opening shot in a "war against the large estates."

Like many of his political moves, this latest one has everyone guessing. Chavez says he has no intention of copying Cuba's communist system, but he sure seems headed that direction.

"Land for those who work it! Justice in the farmlands," he told an adoring crowd of red-shirted revolutionaries who packed a Caracas convention center when he signed the land reform decree.

Buoyed by victory last August in a referendum called to remove him, Chavez has moved to cement his power. A new media law imposed tough penalties for ill-defined offenses against the "public order." Penal code reform limits political protest.

Chavez, a former paratroop colonel with the vision of a military strategist, is riding high.

"He has surprised people by seizing the initiative and pushing on all fronts," said Michael Shifter, a Latin American expert at the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. "He has complete control and is moving with tremendous speed."

He has surrounded himself with former leftist guerrillas and leaders of militant organizations, including one convicted of kidnapping a U.S. business executive. He recently appointed a former secret police chief - reportedly a former male stripper - to head the National Land Institute.

Chavez called the new land reform commissions a "leap forward" in his revolution for the poor, evoking Mao Tse-Tung's disastrous Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s.

Mao said his leap would make China's economy rival the United States' by 1988. Millions ended up starving to death. Chavez is almost as ambitious, pledging to eliminate poverty by 2021 by making Venezuela self-sufficient in food.

But experts warn that his policies are as misguided as were Mao's. "His plan won't work," said Carlos Machado, an agribusiness professor at the Caracas-based IESA business school. "The state is the worst farmer. All he can hope to achieve is a prize for preserving poverty."

If Chavez's ambitious plan collapses, the ensuing instability could undermine Venezuela's state-run petroleum industry, which provides 13 percent of U.S. oil needs.

* * *

Venezuela is the world's fifth-largest exporter of petroleum products, yet 60 percent of the population lives in poverty. The country imports 70 percent of what it eats, the government says.

Oil wealth drew millions to the cities, now home to 90 percent of the population. Most are concentrated along a narrow strip of land along the coast. The rest of the country is sparsely inhabited, mostly tropical wetlands with poor soil, bordered by the Amazon to the south.

The savanna is largely uncultivated because the acidic soil lacks nutrients. It has been left to open range cattle ranching, which requires more than 2 acres per animal.

Chavez cites a study that says more than 75 percent of Venezuela's agricultural land is concentrated in the hands of barely 5 percent of its farmers. His recently signed decree allows the government to "rescue" lands it deems idle, or whose owners fail to show clear title. The commissions have 90 days to determine the status of the land.

The cattlemen say proving legal title doesn't worry them; they're more concerned about the commission's understanding of farming and what constitutes idle land.

In the plains state of Cojedes, 44 large estates totaling about 620,000 acres are scheduled for inspection. One of them is Hato Pinero.

"It's easy for someone to look at empty pasture and declare it to be idle," said Jaime Perez Branger, whose family owns Hato Pinero and two other large cattle ranches in Cojedes. "But that doesn't mean it's not being used. We are constantly rotating cattle between pastures. It takes a lot of land."

Perez Branger, 45, holds a degree in econometrics from the prestigious London School of Economics. He says his family made its ranches profitable by investing in developing grasses and cattle breeds adapted to the tropics.

"Of course we all agree in the concept of social justice," said Perez Branger. "But we think there are more efficient ways of achieving it."

Peasant land invasions have meant major losses on the big cattle ranches in Cojedes. Worst affected is the 32,000-acre Hato El Charcote, owned by the British Vestey Group, where several hundred squatters occupy 80 percent of its land.

Peasant squatters have erected dirt-floor shacks and fenced off their own parcels, turning cattle pasture into small fields of vegetables, rice, sugar cane and corn. The company has lost valuable grazing land and has difficulty moving cattle from one pasture to another. Its herd has fallen by half, to 6,500.

At a meeting under tall, shady trees just down the road from the Vestey ranch office, squatters denounced " "los ingleses " - "the English" - as unwelcome imperialists.

"This land is Venezuelan. They should get out of here," said Rafael Delgado, a 57-year-old barrel-chested peasant leader in torn jeans. He accused the Vestey Group of producing meat for export only to the United States.

In fact, the Vestey Group, which owns 14 cattle ranches in Venezuela, is the country's largest beef producer for the domestic market.

The cattlemen fear Chavez's land reform will end up like other experiments in the region. Land usually ends up divided into plots too small to be farmed efficiently, the peasants left to eke out a living. Many of the squatters in Cojedes were lured from urban slums by the promise of free land. Most live in hovels of sticks and mud on tiny plots of rice and cassava.

"We've suffered a lot," said Luz Marina Gonzalez, 42, who fenced off 400 acres of ranch land on a rocky hillside four years ago after hearing a Chavez speech.

Her husband died last year of cancer, leaving her with 12 children to feed, none of whom attend school. "They (the government) said we'd have everything we needed," she lamented.

The family lives in a dirt-floor adobe hut with three rooms, without running water or electricity. They grow cassava and some citrus on a 6-acre plot and keep 30 cattle on a tiny pasture. The cows are so skinny they barely produce enough milk to feed the calves. Gonzalez doesn't dare take any for her family.

Some wealthier land invaders have formed their own cooperatives and occupy larger tracts. One of Gonzalez's neighbors, Gerardo Mujica, 64, occupies more than 2,500 acres on behalf of 11 partners. Poor peasants they are not. Mujica has a house in the state capital, San Carlos, where he commutes regularly in a sturdy 1978 Ford pickup.

If he gets to keep the land, Mujica hopes for a $210,000 government credit to purchase cattle. "We love it up here," said his partner, Lida Hrabewsky, 55, a former Tupperware saleswoman.

"Chavez has given us a new way of thinking, bringing us back to the land. I love the contact with nature."

* * *

Venezuelan officials say that by channeling the country's oil wealth into rural areas, they can make land reform work.

"It's not a Cuban model," said Cojedes state governor Jhonny Yanez, a Chavez ally leading the land reform charge. "It's a Venezuelan model based on an oil economy that can feed itself."

A former lieutenant colonel who left the army to go into politics, Yanez, 43, spent five years at Georgetown University.

He shares Chavez's grand strategy for "endogenous development," the president's ambitious pet project to make the economy self-sufficient by favoring domestic products.

Until recently unaware of the word "endogenous," Venezuelans now hear it constantly in speeches and propaganda.

The government is busy training an army of worker ants to boost production. Some 400,000 people are enrolled, studying cooperative business practices. Chavez says he hopes to raise that number to 1.2-million.

The "Lancers" as they are called, are paid $100 monthly stipends. They attend courses given by a government program, Mission About-Face. Students are taught to reject capitalist thinking in favor of cooperative solidarity.

The first 120,000 Lancers are due to graduate in March, with 12,000 headed to Cojedes. The state government is building a $180-million chicken farm and a $250-million sugar cane mill, both paid for with oil money.

According to Carlos Lanz, a former guerrilla who is the brains behind Mission About-Face, endogenous development is the way to end what he sees as the distortion of the Venezuelan economy.

"We have been exporters of raw materials and consumers of manufactured goods. One of the first objectives of About-Face is to put a stop to that game," said Lanz, who has undergone something of an about-face in his own life.

He was jailed for eight years in the 1980s for kidnapping an Illinois business executive. The victim was held for three years in the jungle, forced to sleep chained to a tree.

A key part of his plan involves reversing the drift into the cities. Poor slum-dwellers are to be encouraged to rediscover their peasant roots. But Lanz says there will be no forced exodus, like the one Cambodian dictator Pol Pot carried out in the 1970s. The idea is "to lead, to convince, to seduce with demonstrably successful alternatives," he said.

Critics say it's a quixotic masterpiece of ill-conceived social engineering.

"It just sounds so anachronistic," said Shifter at the Inter-American Dialogue. "If anything has been discredited in Latin America it's these great experiments with agrarian reform. They have produced nothing."

But with the country churning out upward of 2.6-million barrels of oil a day at $40 a barrel, money seems no object.

"People are waking up," said Norali Verenzuela, 29, who runs a small organic vegetable garden in downtown Caracas to showcase endogenous development. "We've been dependent on McDonald's and Wendy's for so long. Now people are learning to eat what we can produce."

The 1-acre garden was created with Cuban technical aid. But the co-op that ran it collapsed last year after its 10 members quit. "They weren't used to working the land," said Verenzuela, and now the government is running it.

"It's a pilot project," she added, "so it can't be allowed to fail."

* * *

Back at Hato Pinero the land reform inspection is in full swing.

In an awkward ceremony under the midday sun, Perez Branger handed over a folder of documents to Aleman, the interior secretary with the Che Guevara key ring.

"There is no intention to subjugate anyone here," Aleman said, with a national guard colonel by his side.

Perez Branger stood erect, his face showing no emotion.

Aleman continued: The government was there only to bring order; the inspections would end years of uncertainty over property rights as well as the "anarchy" of the peasant land invasions.

In response, Perez Branger asked only one thing, that the government give special consideration to Hato Pinero's conservation role. Besides its 23-bed eco-lodge, the ranch hosts an internationally acclaimed Biological Research Station.

"That's what we are here to determine," said Aleman. "The revolution recognizes that if nature is not respected we'll all disappear."

The revolution departed the eco-ranch. The tourists returned from their fishing trip, and bird song filled the air.

--Times correspondent Phil Gunson, based in Caracas, contributed to this report. David Adams can be reached at

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