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Venezuelan government seizes Vestey's estate

Andy Newman



The Venezuelan government has acted to expropriate part of an estate belonging to Lord Vestey, an English aristocrat and meat tycoon, and redistribute it to landless peasants.

The decision to transfer part of the El Charcote ranch, in the central Venezuela's Cojedes province, is the first expropriation in President Hugo Chávez's land reform programme. Similar seizures of other large estates are expected in the coming weeks. In Venezuela, fewer than 5 per cent of landowners hold three quarters of the country's agricultural land. Of that, more than 22 million acres could be legally reclaimed by the state. Expropriation of land deemed to be either unlawfully owned or idle is permitted by a law passed in 2001. Compensation is applicable in some cases, although it is unclear if it will be granted in exchange for some of the Vestey land.

Mr Chávez recently said that the redistribution of land had become a priority for his government. Only in the past few weeks has the executive begun to act on the 2001 legislation. The land in question is already squatted by around about 1,000 poor farmers who have been farming the estate for the past four years in the expectation of an eventual legal title to the land.

Writing in the Independent, Phil Gunson reports how  President Chávez challenged state governors to speed up land reform. He told them: "Make a list, of the big haciendas in your state. I'll expect recommendations from each governor; let's see who gets them in first."

Last month, accompanied by soldiers and state police, State Governor Yánez , who like the president is a former army lieutenant colonel, told a crowd of supporters in a field in the heart of the El Charcote ranch. "Social justice is unstoppable," adding: "We have not come here as communists to put an end to private property." Property, he said, was "a right, but not an absolute right".

Venezuelan officials have repeatedly emphasized that they are not emulating the Cuban model of land reform – but the U.S.’ own Homestead Act. Signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862, that measure declared that any U.S. or intended citizen of at least 21 years of age could claim up to 160 acres of government land.

The government policy, “Vuelta al Campo,” (Return to the Countryside) is enacted as the Law on Land and Agricultural Development (2001). This set limits on the size of landholdings, and taxes unused property as an incentive to spur agricultural growth. It enables the government to  redistribute unused land to peasant families and cooperatives and expropriate uncultivated and fallow land from large private estates for the purpose of redistribution. The National Land Institute (INTI) was set up to facilitate achieving these goals by establishing criteria to determine what land could be redistributed and the eligibility of those applying for new land deeds. After a slow start, the Chavez government has redistributed about 2.2 million hectares of state owned land to more than 130,000 peasant families and cooperatives (1 hectare = 2.47 acres).

The expropriation of the Vestey estate is an escalation of this land reform, and is certain to exaggerate still further the tension between the Venezuelan government and the US.. The last few weeks have seen an unprecedented level of reporting in the US press about Venezuela, almost all negative disinformation. Indeed the Venezuelan government has recently exposed plans by the US government to assassinate Chavez. 

In anticipation that there may be military action by the US against the government, President Chavez has invited the "pueblo" to go to the local garrisons and barracks to receive training in self-defence. This was the first important step to gradually mobilizing the mass of the population for military resistance. Last week, in the President's radio and TV program "Alo Presidente," Chavez called on the "revolutionary squads" to prepare themselves and organize the local populace.

A citizen militia was established last year, initially with 50,000 members,  but by July this year it should be in the region of 190,000-­200,000. This supplements Venezuela’s 120,000 strong regular armed forces. New replacement weapons are being purchased from Brazil and Russia for the regular army, which will free up 100,000 AK 47 assault rifles that could be used for arming the population.

In a recent report on Venezuelan National Radio (RNV), it was revealed that the Bolivarian University of Venezuela (UBV) will be located in the barracks and garrisons of the armed forces. This popular university was created in June 2003 for sons and daughters of the poor who has been historically excluded from the middle class dominated educational elitist institutions such as the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) and the Simon Bolivar university (USB). The implication is that students from poor backgrounds are being trained in guerrilla warfare in anticipation of US military intervention.



February 2005


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