The Miami Herald
Sun, Apr. 25, 2004
'Lead vs. machete'

Bloody disputes erupt between those who had property and those letting their first taste of ownership. Nowhere are these battles currently claiming more lives than in Venezuela.


Second in an occasional series

YARACUY, Venezuela -- Aldrin Escalona recalls the words his brother Hermes uttered just before two trucks full of armed men started shooting at peasants working the soil awarded to them by the government.

``They are going to have to take me out of here dead.''

They did.

Hermes Escalona was the 75th peasant killed in Venezuela since leftist President Hugo Chávez enacted a divisive land reform program two years ago.

Hermes and five other men, all awarded someone else's land as part of the $40 million redistribution program, were shot Nov. 4 in the nearby town of Bruzual. Thirty of the owner's employees tried to evict people they considered squatters, according to the government account.

''It was lead versus machete; they were going to win,'' said Escalona, 27. ``They started shooting us like animals.''

Land violence is not unique to Venezuela. With one of the most unequal land distributions in the world, Latin America has long been the site of bloody land disputes.

According to the World Bank, 1,338 people lost their lives to rural land disputes from 1985 to 2003 in Brazil alone.

Demands from landless peasants were key factors in triggering several civil wars in Latin America, particularly in El Salvador, where more than 75,000 people died, and Guatemala, where up to 200,000 were killed, in the 1970s and '80s. Land disputes have prompted some of the region's bloodiest massacres, including one that claimed at least 100 in Jean Rabel, Haiti, when peasant protesters demanded the return of land expropriated from them.

Expropriating large and medium-sized land holdings was one of Fidel Castro's first moves when he came to power in Cuba in 1959. Other leftist governments, such as those of Salvador Allende in Chile and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, tried large-scale land reform but backed off when it led to clashes.

But nowhere is land violence currently claiming more lives than in Venezuela, in part because of a firebrand populist president who has vowed to help his country's poor by attacking its economic elite.


Venezuela's antiquated land-titling system -- a holdover from when Spanish conquistadors gave land to faithful soldiers -- has only complicated matters. Many landowners lack documentation to prove the property is theirs. Absent titles, thousands of ranchers around the country are having chunks of their property taken away without compensation.

The reforms began two years ago, when Chávez decided that vast and idle lands -- mostly cattle pastures -- would be subject to seizure by a new government agency, the National Land Institute, known as INTI. The land is then handed over to cooperatives of landless peasants.

Chávez deemed the program so important that he named his brother Adán to lead it. But the controversial land reform, among the most ambitious ever taken on in Latin America, has triggered bloodshed between those who had property and those who are only now getting a taste of it.

It's a classic case of the rich against the poor, but in this case, the government and armed forces are backing the poor.

Landowners say the government redistribution program has encouraged landless peasants who are not beneficiaries of the program to illegally invade private properties that were not confiscated by the government. A project aimed at rectifying social injustice has turned into an illegal land grab, they say.


Ranchers, meanwhile, are allegedly organizing paramilitary forces to beat back with weapons what they have been unable to stop through the courts.

''I have always said once there is one dead, there are going to be more dead,'' said Abraham Alcalá, president of the ranchers association in Yaracuy, in northwestern Venezuela. ``These people defend themselves with the army. A fight with the army is a little uneven.''

He denied farmers are hiring killers.

''We are farmers, not assassins,'' he said.

Venezuela's land war started in 2001, when the Chávez-controlled legislature enacted laws that allowed the government to take under-used private lands. A series of adverse court decisions set the project back, so Chávez continued his pet project under a presidential decree.

By order of the president, INTI has doled out nearly four million acres to some 69,000 peasants, giving them huge sections of other people's properties. The peasants are armed with ''agrarian letters,'' pronouncing them the new owners.

Former owners have challenged the legality of the letters but say it's a lost cause.

Right to property, right to due process, and the right to free enterprise are all violated by the land reform process, said Carlos Canelón, executive director of the National Ranchers Federation. He has photos of peasants being guarded by armed groups that he said the government protects.

''I believe Mr. Chávez has a fixation on ranchers,'' Canelón said. ``He thinks all ranchers are rich. He thinks all have vast extensions of land -- and he's exploited that opinion.''

Some 490,000 of the nation's 500,000 ranches are smaller than 1,200 acres, he added.

The land-reform program was one of the catalysts of the political crisis that has dogged Venezuela for two years now. An opposition led by the well-off elite organized against Chávez and tried to topple him through street marches, national strikes and military rebellions. Chávez's government collapsed briefly in April 2002 but was restored to power two days later, even more emboldened to take on what he considers oligarchs.

People like Sioly Torres.

Torres has taken the government to court over the 140 families now living on 651 of her family's 3,700 acres in Vigía, 350 miles from Caracas. She says the investigation of her ''idle'' pasture was falsified, documents and photos altered. She was not notified that she lost her case until after the peasants stormed in last fall.

Now her property is peppered with dirt-poor families living in ramshackle huts. Financed by government loans, they are growing plantains, corn and yucca -- although they haven't the money to cultivate the majority of the land they were given.


''We were living like slaves, and slaves don't make enough to eat,'' said Jesús Guerrero, one of those living on the property. ``What happened here is that the owners got spoiled. They had this land for more than 40 years, but as children of Venezuela, we all have rights to its fruits.''

Two rifle-toting policemen protect them, should Torres be tempted to take up arms.

'How can they possibly be providing security to these people -- to protect them from us?' Torres said. ``How is it possible that with this little agrarian letter, absolutely anyone, maybe a thief or a kidnapper, can come hide out on my ranch? The government is just going to say, `No, this isn't your house. We're going to give to these people because they need it.'

``That just doesn't fit in my head.''

Torres also resents the government's stance against families like hers: owners of a hotel, gas station and several ranches.

Although she and her four siblings are clearly far better off than the peasants on her property, she says her decidedly middle-class family is snowed under with debt: They shelled out more than $600,000 in ransom when her father and brother were kidnapped two years ago.

Torres and her sister Lucy rode around the property one recent afternoon in an SUV, only to find new settlements. Watching sweating, shirtless men hammer away at what would become their new home, Lucy's voice began to shake.

''That thing is coming down if I have to knock it down myself,'' Lucy Torres said. ``What should we do? Shoot them?''


Although her question was a rhetorical bluff, the government says that is precisely what many landowners are doing.

''I have 15 cases where a so-called invader was killed, and I don't know of a single rancher dead,'' said Maite García, 18, who, after her own father was killed for organizing peasants, now runs an agency that helps the families of victims of land violence.

García maintains a list of at least 60 people killed by ranchers, 19 in her state of Zulia alone. Many of the victims, like her father Armando, were not so much squatters as activists who organized the poor and researched idle lands.

The INTI staunchly defends its program as a model for social justice in a nation where poor people have for centuries been shut out.

''This is not a whim. This is fixing social justice,'' said INTI board member Roosevelt Fránquiz. ``People are determined. No one will stop this. They will defend it to the end.''