The Miami Herald
November 20, 2001

Violence feared over land law in Venezuela

 Special to The Herald

 CARACAS -- Armed with a new land reform law, President Hugo Chávez is set to implement one of the most controversial policies of his ``peaceful revolution'' -- a sweeping redistribution of property that farmers believe will bring turmoil and perhaps bloodshed to the countryside.

 ``This will transform the reality of the country,'' said Chávez. ``We're not going to keep accepting big landowners who have abandoned their property while the majority of people live without a square meter to sow a stalk of sugar cane or bananas. This will favor millions.''

 Chávez is focusing on the many landholdings that he claims have been amassed illegally. According to the National Land Institute, 95 percent of landowners do not
 possess legal title to their land. Under the new law, landowners will have eight days to produce their titles or their land will be expropriated for redistribution.

 Underutilized holdings of poor quality soil in excess of 5,000 hectares (12,350 acres) will also be eligible for expropriation, with the farm's own laborers to be given the first opportunity on redistributed parcels, the law states.

 With some 60 percent of the country's arable land held by 2 percent of landowners, few would argue that Venezuela does not need some type of land reform. But the private sector bitterly complains that it wasn't consulted during the writing of the new law.

 And with the law due to be implemented on Dec. 10, Venezuela's big farmers are fearful and defiant.

 ``We're not going to let them take our land,'' says Genaro Méndez, president of the Tachira State Cattle Ranchers Association near the Colombian border. ``I don't know where we're heading with this, but there are people ready to defend their land with their lives and spill blood.''

 The law, adopted without congressional debate under Chávez's year-long legislative fast-track powers that expired Tuesday, stops far short of the mass expropriations of the Cuban or Mexican revolutions. But for many Venezuelans, it's close enough.

 Among other provisions, the law: places stringent restrictions on how owners can use their land and how much land they can own; widens the government's legal scope to expropriate land; and increases squatters' and farm laborers' rights.

 The issue has become a key element in the divisive debate between the haves and have-nots that has riven Venezuelan society since Chávez took office in February

 Furious farmers and businessmen are planning a series of nationwide protests and to file suit with the Chávez-appointed Supreme Court to overturn the legislation, alleging that it violates private property rights defined in the Constitution.

 ``It's a disaster. This is just to suit the president's ideological purposes,'' said Ruben Dario Barboza, who will have to end his family's 80-year tradition of cattle raising in Zulia state to sow plantains or African palm under the new land-use restrictions.

 ``It's going to generate chaos.''

 Chávez is unlikely to back down despite the deep discontent. His promise of land reform is a cornerstone of his effort to seek social justice in Venezuela, where the
 majority of the population live in poverty.

 Chávez, who comes from the cattle-ranching plains of southwestern Venezuela, answers that the day of the big landholders is over.

 ``There are minority sectors who took over ownership of the riches and the land and are used to their own dialogue for their own interests,'' he said. ``But they never heard or consulted the peasants.''

 Chiefly affected by this measure will be vast cattle ranches, many of which are situated on mediocre soil so that the only way to make a profit is through huge tracts of land, says Méndez.

 ``The idea of agricultural zoning is positive, but it doesn't take reality into account,'' he said. ``On fertile lands, such as in Zulia state, you can put four or five head of cattle on a hectare (2.47 acres). On the plains, you can only put one or two.''

 What Chávez terms ``national food security,'' or increasing Venezuela's agricultural production in order to diminish reliance on imported food and grains, is one of the principal goals of the land reform.

 Under the new law, the government will classify soils: More fertile soil will be reserved for agricultural crops, while less fertile will be reserved for livestock. Land deemed by the government to be idle -- not producing at least 80 percent of its ideal production rate -- will be taxed.

 The increased government intervention over property has the private sector bristling. ``We believe it is highly inadvisable to give such discretion [to the government] to determine when private property . . . is being rightly exploited,'' the Venezuelan-American Chamber of Commerce said in a prepared statement.

 The law also gives squatters the right to remain on invaded private property until the government makes a determination about whether the land can be expropriated, and mandates that laborers be given a share in harvest profits.

 Far from stimulating rural development, critics charge that the new burdens the law places on farms will make investors flee. Says Barboza, ``This is a communist
 orientation totally opposed to our philosophy.''

                                    © 2001