Venezuela: Land Reform Battle Deepens

President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela

President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela transmitted his Sept. 25 broadcast of Alo, Presidente from La Marquesena, one of a number of large unused tracts of land held by latifundistas (big landowners) that his government has confiscated for redistribution to landless peasants. (Photo: STR / AFP-Getty Images)

Responding to the latest hysterical campaign being led by the right-wing media and big business, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez stated on Sept. 25 on his weekly Alo, Presidente TV program that “a small group … of lackeys of imperialism who have television stations, newspapers, playing the role of fire starters, are trying to set the country on fire … so that we can kill ourselves here, so that the country lights up to justify what at the U.N. they called the ‘right to protection’, because the tyrant Chavez is killing people.”

Claiming that the right to private property is coming under greater threat, with the government’s increasing moves towards “Cuban-style communism,” the media and key organizations of big business have begun to manufacture a scare campaign which some have likened to that which preceded the December 2002 bosses’ strike.

At that time, the aim of the country’s business elite was to strangle the economy and starve the population in order to create a crisis situation that would result in the ousting of Chavez.

What has triggered this latest round of attacks, including shots being fired at agriculture minister Antonio Albarran’s home and the opposition once again agitating for street mobilizations against the government, are the moves by the Chavez government to push forward on land reform.

Over the last few weeks, a number of large unused tracts of land owned by latifundistas (big landowners) were taken over by the National Guard in order to begin the process of its redistribution to landless peasants — giving land to those who want to work it.

Basing itself on the Land and Agrarian Development Law, which forces all latifundistas who have land-holdings that are 80 percent unused to prove their title to this land, the National Institute of Land (I.N.T.I.) has begun to move against 21 latifundistas. These big landowners control 612,289 hectares of land.

At the same time, 15 ranches that have been used to run drug-smuggling operations have been confiscated.

In his Oct. 2 Alo, Presidente, broadcast from La Marquesena, one of the latifundia currently in dispute, Chavez said: “Those who refuse to abandon their land will be removed by the Venezuelan military, because they have to respect the laws and the government.”

Referring to land ownership, Chavez said that under his government “things will change, or I will die trying to change it. There is no alternative. Venezuela needs to change, There is no step backwards in this change.”

Struggle for land

While the corporate media has tried to put the “sacred right” of private property at the centre of the debate over land reform, the key issues around the struggle over land go much deeper. As far back as the struggle for Venezuela’s independence from Spain in the early 19th century, land reform has been a crucial question.

Many of today’s ideas of the Bolivarian revolution’s agrarian reform are based on the ideas of Ezequiel Zamora, one of the key fighters for Venezuelan independence, who coined the phrase “free land and man.” Zamora fought unsuccessfully for the redistribution of land to the peasants.

Chavez’s government has resumed this same fight. On Dec. 10, 2001, Chavez went to Santa Ines, the site of one of the famous battles for independence led by Zamora, and declared the enactment of his new land law.

The new law, which was part of the 49 laws passed on Nov. 10, 2001, used an enabling act that allowed Chavez to pass the laws by decree. It was a sign of the resumption of the 200-year-old “war against the latifundia.”

The day of the promulgation of the new law coincided with the first major national strike organized by the right-wing opposition. One of the key laws the big capitalists opposed was the land law, which Jose Luis Betancourt, now president of the employers’ federation Fedecamaras, publicly ripped up on a live broadcast transmitted by all the private television stations.

Since that time, the battle for land has only intensified, with the latifundistas attempting a number of measures to block its implementation. In November 2002, Betancourt was able, through a Supreme Court ruling, to deal a big blow to the land law.

The Supreme Court, at that time narrowly controlled by opposition supporters, declared two articles of the law unconstitutional. The removal of the two articles, 89 and 90, made illegal the pre-emptive occupation of land by landless peasants and forced the government to give compensation for investments made by landowners on land taken from them by the government, including for investments made on stolen land.

Following this, the latifundistas increased their violent attacks on campesino leaders and cooperative members. Since the new land law was introduced, 145 campesino leaders have been murdered. So far, not a single person has been put in jail for these crimes, which have primarily been carried out by hired paramilitaries of the latifundistas.

Before Chavez was first elected president in 1998, 75 percent of agricultural land, generally the most fertile, was owned by 5 percent of the country’s 25 million people, while 75 percent of agricultural land owners shared 6 percent of arable land.

By the end of 2004, at least 2 million hectares had been redistributed to 100,000 families, but nearly all of it was idle state-owned land. In a report on on Sept. 26, Gregory Wilpert noted that “it was not until early 2005 that the Chavez government turned its attention to privately held land. For this task, Chavez put Eliecer Otaiza in charge of the I.N.T.I., a retired army captain who is known as a radical element in the Chavez government.

“Chavez apparently felt that it was necessary to put Otaiza in charge because of the 2 million hectares slated to be redistributed in 2005, 1.5 million were to come from estates that are privately owned. The land reform plan for 2005 has been named ‘Mission Zamora,’ so as to indicate that it is another of the government’s social programs, which, since 2003, all carry the title of ‘Mission.’”

The National Assembly, Venezuela’s parliament, modified the land law in April 2005, in effect reintroducing the two articles struck down by the Supreme Court in 2001.

The new phase of the government’s agrarian reform project, dubbed the “war to the death against the latifundista,” is the first direct challenge to the old ruling elite’s control over land.

The recent government interventions, despite all the mass media hype about the violation of private property, have shown what the real purpose of the land reform is. Rather than denying the right to private property, in many ways the government has extended it to large numbers of poor people, those who have never had any productive property.

The government has made it clear that anyone who can prove their legal title to the land they claim will not have it confiscated. In the case of lands that have been confiscated so far, none of the so-called owners have been able to prove their legal title to the land. In many cases, these were large tracts of state-owned land that were occupied by and then passed down along the family line but never legally acquired.

In cases where land ownership can be proven, the government has repeatedly stated its willingness to negotiate with the landholder to discuss how they can work together to increase production.

The government is handing over land titles to peasant cooperatives to work the land. It has ruled that the land cannot be sold. As well, the government is attempting to provide training and equipment to the cooperatives.

Despite the media frenzy, the recent actions have not gone beyond what is generally accepted as the right to private property. However, the opposition has tried to whip up its ever decreasing support among sections of the middle class with the fear that they could lose their houses, cars and other personal possessions.

What the big capitalists who fund and lead the opposition really fear is that the deepening of the land reform project is directly attacking the structures of economic domination upon which they have based their political rule over the country. Their control over large swathes of productive land has contributed to the neocolonial status of Venezuela, forcing the country to rely on importing 75 percent of its food supply.

The land reform is helping to strengthen the social base of the Bolivarian revolution by attempting to improve the conditions of life for the poor, most of whom live in the city barrios.

The number of assassinations, plus the slowness of the land reform process shows that while the Bolivarian revolution has control of the old state structures and progressive laws to back its actions, the relationship of class forces in the countryside has not been definitively shifted to the advantage of the working people.

A contributing factor in this has been the weakness of self-organization among the campesinos. At the first national congress of the National Campesino Front Ezequiel Zamora, (F.N.C.E.Z.), on Sept. 9-11, many campesinos expressed their frustration at the problems they have had in forming cooperatives. Many said they lacked adequate training and the necessary political education.

There have also been problems with corruption and ineptness in I.N.T.I., which has resulted in a growing frustration among campesinos.

Numerous campesinos and cooperative members at the F.N.C.E.Z. congress denounced problems they have had with some of the state institutions. One story was that of Carlos Perez. He spoke on behalf of 1527 graduates of Mission Vuelvan Caras, who had formed themselves into 36 cooperatives, of which 21 were agricultural cooperatives. Six months after doing so, they still had no decent land to work on and were unable to get any loans for technical equipment because of this lack of land.

The Sept. 24 DiarioVea quoted Minister for Popular Economy Elias Jaua as saying: “By the end of this month, 2140 cooperatives will still be waiting for land in order to commence productive activities.”

Originally published Oct. 12, 2005.