Wednesday, October 16, 2013


Alejandro and Anabela, Merida, Venezuela (Dec 27, 2004)

This is possibly the post where I have changed more my position since 2004. If you get upset by reading the first part, read on to the updates.

--- Originally published on December 27, 2004 ---

Anabela and Roxana
We spent our last day in Merida at la Finca, where we had lunch, to say goodbye to Mayli’s grandmother. There, we found some of Mayli little cousins, among which Alejandro and Anabela (in the photo above) and Roxana (right, in the photo on the right). When I proposed a photo session they were initially shy. Once started, however, they didn't want to stop and started fighting to be in front of the camera. I filled one full 512MB card (50 photos) just with them posing and and playing on the swing. We then went to the Merida market, which is the combination of a farmer’s market with little shops selling local artisan craft. Mayli’s mother wanted to give me a T-shirt as a present, but we couldn't find any I liked, so we got a very nice “gres” cup which I can use in my office tea. We also got two small T-shirts for Alice and Mililla (Letizia), my baby nieces in Italy.

Back at Mayli’s mother's home we listened to some stories about the ongoing land reform from Mayli’s father. He had recently met a cousin unhappy with the government and the way the reform is implemented. As many other south american countries, Venezuela suffers the problem of the best land being owned by a handful of families and multinational corporations, who use their extensive land holdings to raise cattle for meat export (this is one of the root causes for Venezuela dependence on food import, as the best land is used for foraging and is lost for farming). In many cases legal ownership titles of these holdings do not exists, as these lands have been accumulated during the turbulent historic processes leading to Venezuela independence and subsequent civil wars, at the expenses of displaced indigenous populations and small farmers. These violent processes have strongly contributed to the creation of the the huge slums crowning Venezuelan large cities.

Attempts to reform the situation have been made by successive governments during the 40 years of Venezuelan democracy, but have never succeeded to seriously dent the problem. Land distributed to would-be farmers without proper training and resources have been left unused, ultimately sold back to the same large landowners, while the would-be-farmers returned to the city, exacerbating the problem. The current government is trying to reverse the trend with a new reform, aimed to limit the maximum size of land holdings by purchasing or expropriating unused land from large owners, and then assigning small parcels to cooperatives of farmers trained in professional schools part of the “misiones” program, and granting them loans to purchase equipment and seeds.

The problems with this scheme is that the legal process for the expropriations is lengthy, and so far not many parcels have been assigned. This situation has triggered spontaneous occupation of land by landless peasants, at the expenses of the large landowners, resulting in some cases in a violent and deadly conflict.

After the last elections, emboldened governors of rural areas from the president’s party have decided to push forward the process by promulgating local decrees facilitating the process of expropriation, with the idea of forcing large landowners to negotiate a settlement. Among such governors is the re-elected governor of the state of Cojedes. In Cojedes, a dozen families and one british corporation own most of the land. The case of the british corporation is emblematic, as 90% of its land has been occupied by peasants that, without a legal title, are unable to cultivate the occupied land and cannot be included in the government program.

This initiative has naturally sparked yet another national controversy with the opposition press, accusing the government of communist measures by not respecting the land owners rights. Chavez himself had to release a communicate, just before a state trip to China, saying that the government has no intention of abolishing the private property, adding that: “Is communism the alternative? No! It is not pursued right now, as our reference point is the bolivarian Constitution of the state, and our social economic model. We are not proposing to eliminate the private property. We are not proposing this extreme. Nobody knows what will happen in the future, but in this moment it would be madness”. Is impossible to say if in the future Venezuela will become a communist country, but despite what the opposition claims, the current policies of the president Chavez are far from being totalitarian. The social programs so far are very respectful of individual freedoms, and the economic policies are not much different from the ones of the current governments of Brazil or Argentina. They have been lauded by international organizations as the International Monetary Fund and the international press like the Wall Street Journal, which are not exactly communist entities.

--- Updates (October 16, 2013) ---

In 2004 Chavez could still claim that Venezuela was not headed towards a socialist economic model, but he gradually reversed its course. The change was codified just two years later, when in 2006 he tried to change the constitution to decisively shift the country towards a more socialist model. The constitutional changes were defeated at the polls, but many of the provisions were later implemented, piecewise, by the National Assembly as part of common laws.

The main effect of the land reform initiated by Chavez has been the destruction of the agricultural production in the country, which is one of the root causes for the scarcity of common foodstuff plaguing Venezuela (the other being the exchange control, that limits the availability of foreign currency necessary to import products which are not produced locally anymore). As in the previous attempts of reform, the expropriations have not been followed by a return to production, resulting once again in the replacement of productive farms with unproductive land. The consequence of the reform have been similar to the "fast track" reform disastrously applied in Zimbabwe in 2000.

Another component of the disaster had been the nationalization of the industry providing agricultural services (seeds, fertilizers and credit) to the sector, primarily a company called Agroisleña. The result of the expropriations had been once again the destruction of the industry. One of Mayli's cousins told us the story of some land he own, that he has rented to local farmers for potato cultivation. Potatoes grow extremely well in Merida, and after the first year the yield was so large that he proposed the farmers to rent more land to increase production. He was answered that while they would liked to rent more land, it was impossible for them to increase production, because the nationalized seed company was only providing a limited amount of seeds to each farmer, due to seeds scarcity in the country, and the impossibility to import them from abroad.

This state of affairs is however not just due to incompetence, but also to corruption. The emblematic case of land reform gone horribly bad in Venezuela is the one of Franklin Brito. Brito was a biologist and agricultural producer in the Venezuelan state of Bolivar. In 2002 he submitted a project to the state-owned Corporation Venezolana de Guayana (CVG) to combat a disease affecting the yum plantations in the region. The project was however in conflict with another proposal submitted by the town Mayor, member of the Chavista party. When the project of the mayor, after allegations of misappropriations, was rejected, Brito was fired from his post at the local agricultural institute, as well from the secondary school where he was teaching. His wife (a teacher in another public school) was also fired. The vendetta was completed when a sizable portion of his farm was given by the national land reform agency to his neighbors. Despite several tribunal sentences in his favor, the land was never restituted, and Brito started a hunger strike. The hunger strike would ultimately lead to his death, under the watch of the military hospital in Caracas, where he was forcibly interned for "his protection". The story became a "cause celébre" in Venezuela and abroad, and a symbol of the abuses and corruption of the bolivarian government under the facade of a socialist revolution.

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