Report from the Militant on the peasant struggle for land in Venezuela

Fred Feldman ffeldman at
Sat Aug 10 20:58:28 MDT 2002

  The following is an article on the current stage of the peasant struggle
for land in Venezuela.
The article shows that while the Chavez government has not so far pressed
ahead with the implementation of the land reform laws, there is growing
pressure to do so.  With the defeat of the coup and the disarray of the
coup-makers, this is likely to be the most explosive class-struggle issue in
Venezuela today.
  The articles in the Militant have gone a long way toward answering some of
the questions I raised on the Marxmail  list a while ago under the heading
"Who is gaining ground?"  I think the workers and peasants have continued to
gain since the coup and their foes have grown weaker, despite the
concessions Chavez made after the coup.
  I disagree with the Militant's judgment that after the coup Chavez  made a
general "turn to the right."   Despite some significant concessions that
must have alarmed many working class and peasant fighters in Venezuela --
dissent that is clearly reflected in the workers and peasants quoted in the
Militant -- the assessment that the government has generally turned to the
right doesn't seem to be supported by the facts, and didn't before the
restoration of oil shipments to Cuba..  The Chavez government, for example,
continued to sponsor the expansion of Bolivarian circles and other aspects
of mass organization, which the imperialists and oligarchy fear more than
just about anything else on the agenda of the "Bolivarian revolution"
besides agrarian reform.
   If Chavez was seeking to ally with the coup-makers against the workers
and peasants--and that is what a general turn to the right would mean, even
if it was motivated only by the desire to hold off another coup-- the course
of spreading mass organization would be counter-productive since it fosters
pressure on the Chavez government to go further in backing words with deeds,
including by fostering the expression of demands that go beyond Chavez's
calls for a more equitable, independent, and democratic Venezuela.
  The peasant meeting described in the Militant is an example of the
pressure that the Chavez government faces, and that it also often seems to
   I have also come to the conclusion that the Militant underestimated the
role that Chavez has played in fostering  revolutionary-nationalist,
antioligarchic and anti-imperialist radicalization in Venezuela, beginning
with the military revolt in 1992.  While this radicalization was not caused
or created by Chavez, it has certainly not taken place in spite of him or
without his participation.
Fred Feldman

  The Militant  August 19, 2002

Peasants in Venezuela
press fight for land
(front page)

SAN CARLOS, Venezuela--The fight by peasants in Venezuela for land and the
means to farm it was the central discussion at a conference of 300 people
held here July 21.
The many peasants who participated alongside agricultural professionals were
members of farming cooperatives awaiting title to land promised by the
government. A number have occupied idle lands over the past year and turned
them to productive use. Through the meeting proceedings, and in discussions
with Militant reporters during and after the event, they spoke of their
struggles and of the sharpening class confrontations in the countryside.
Held at the National Institute for Cooperative Education, the meeting was
convened to discuss the implementation of Law on Land and Agriculture
Development. Signed by the government in November of last year, this is one
of the most contentious measures taken by the regime of Hugo Chávez.
Among other provisions, the new legislation allows the state to confiscate
some idle private farms of more than 12,000 acres, and distribute the land
to the peasants. It also lays out procedures for peasants and indigenous
peoples to place claims for stolen land.
The law placed responsibility for land redistribution under a new
department, the National Institute of Land (INT).
While peasants have attempted to use the law to press their fight for land,
the landlord and bourgeois forces opposed to Chávez condemn it and call for
its "reform." Victor Cedeño, a leader of COPEI--a conservative party that
alternated in the government with the social-democratic Democratic Action
party until Chávez's ascendancy to power in 1998--complained in July that
the law includes "unconstitutional provisions to arbitrarily intervene into
private property."
In the wake of the U.S.-backed opposition coup in mid-April, which was
defeated by mobilizations of working people, government officials have shown
signs of backpedaling on the law. Late last year Chávez called on peasants
to put a stop to land takeovers.
Meanwhile, governors, mayors, and other government officials who are part of
the reactionary opposition--including the governor of the northeastern state
of Cojedes--have used the police and private goon squads to push back
attempts by peasants and their supporters to implement the new law. On July
12 Eduardo Lapi, the governor of Yaracuy state, ordered police to fire on
dozens of peasant families who had tried to move onto land turned over to
them by INT. Many peasants were seriously wounded.

Conference discusses land reform
The featured speaker at the July 21 meeting was Adina Mercedes Bastidas, a
university professor of agricultural economy. Bastidas served as vice
president under Chávez until her dismissal as part of a cabinet shakeup
following the failed coup. Denouncing opposition attempts to water down the
law, Bastidas said that its full implementation is necessary to reach a
"mixed economy" in Venezuela, that is, maintaining the capitalist market
system with more intervention by the state to achieve "social justice." She
encouraged peasants and others in the audience to keep up their struggle to
enforce its provisions.
In the discussion, William Bitelio Delgado, one of the meeting's organizers,
reported that the ownership of more than half the nearly 5 million acres of
arable land in Cojedes is in legal dispute. About 15 capitalist families
claim ownership, he said, in opposition to demands that the land be
nationalized and distributed to landless farming families.
"So far, INT has declared nationalized only 400,000 acres and has certified
private ownership of large farms for about a similar area," he said.
Corn, sugar cane, rice, yucca and a variety of other vegetable crops, along
with livestock, thrive in the fields that surround this city. While some of
the land is cultivated by peasants, most--a good part of it idle--is owned
by capitalist farmers, agricultural corporations, and other big landowners.

'We only had shovels and machetes'
Participants in the meeting were in the thick of a number of struggles for
land rights.
"The thugs of the Companía Inglesa [English Company] started shooting at
us," said Angel Sarmiento, 52, in an interview following the meeting. A
landless peasant who survives through contract field work and construction
jobs, Sarmiento had joined a land occupation by 400 families in La Palomita,
some five miles south of San Carlos, in early 2001.
"We took the land peacefully," he said. "We only had shovels and machetes to
defend ourselves. They killed several peasants and left many wounded."
Sarmiento explained that the land formed half the 12,000-acre property of
the company, which used it to graze more than 40,000 cattle. One of the
largest landholders in Venezuela, Companía Inglesa is run by British
capitalists, he said.
The federal government heeded calls by the peasants for protection after the
killings threatened to become a national scandal, he said. National Guard
troops were sent to the area and stayed for a few weeks until things calmed
down. The peasants moved the cattle off the area they occupied, formed
cooperatives, and began cultivating the land.
"None of them have been tried, however," he said, referring to the police
involved in the shooting.
Land titles in this area are now hotly disputed under the 2001 agricultural
law. Members of the Yauques, a family of indigenous people, have produced
documents showing a legal claim to some 153,000 acres--including the
Companía Inglesa farm--granted to their tribe in the 19th century. Big
landowners forcibly seized the land over the last half century, say the
Yauques. Joining forces with peasant organizations, the Yauques have filed
legal papers turning the land over to the state for distribution to landless
José Melisio Salmiento, 54, who has farmed for four decades, was one of a
number of peasants at the July meeting who have been promised land in the
area by INT officials. "I have 50 acres of land that doesn't produce
anything." he said. "I have been fighting for land in the Charcote zone.
That land belongs to the 'English.'
"Three years ago we tried to take it over but they threw us out with guns,"
he said. "The National Guard intervened to defend us. [The Yauques] gave us
these lands. We have the certificates, but the goons took them back and put
fences around. There are thousands of acres.
"We have now been waiting six years for these lands but the landowners don't
want to turn them over," Salmiento said. "Now that we have the support of
the government and the new law favors us, we expect to get the titles."
At the end of the July 21 conference, most peasants lined up to sign up for
cheap credit, supposedly guaranteed by the government under the new law.
"We can't do anything, though, until we get the title," said Maximo Flores,
who heads up a group of five families that have formed a cooperative called
Los Inocentes.
After the conference, Sarmiento hosted Militant reporters on a trip to La
Palomita. On the way, he made sure we stopped and took photos of thousands
of acres of prime land that is left idle, noting that it belonged to a
Venezuelan capitalist.
"Many peasants here are eyeing this land," commented Lijia Flores, another
conference participant. "Why should it be sitting idle while he makes
millions and we here have a hard time surviving?"

Land titles are crucial
At Palomita, it became apparent that the situation is not easy even for
those peasants who have occupied land and begun to farm. "We've been here
for a year and a half," said Pedro Roja, who had joined in the takeover of
the land from Companía Inglesa. "We use our hands, and some oxen. We don't
have tractors or other equipment. Without title to the land, there is no
credit from the banks and we can't claim insurance in the case of disaster.
When rainstorms destroyed my melons and yucca earlier this year, I couldn't
ask the government for compensation."
In an interview a few days before the meeting in San Carlos, Braulio
Alvarez, the general secretary of the Ezequiel Zamora National Agricultural
Coalition, one of the main peasant organizations in the country, helped put
these struggles in a nationwide context.
Militant reporters spoke to Alvarez, who has been appointed to INT's
national board, at the INT headquarters in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital.
He explained that about 1,000 big landowners control 85 percent of land
currently under cultivation--a total of around 75 million acres. Some
350,000 hard-pressed peasant families, who own between 3 and 50 acres each,
produce some 70 percent of vegetables and other major crops, he said.
The government has now declared the nationalization of another 75 million
acres of idle cultivable lands and promised to distribute them to peasants,
Alvarez said, adding that "there are more than 2,500 peasant groups
demanding land today."
"The land and its use has been nothing but a commodity," he said, "not a
social activity to produce enough food for the nation." Nearly 85 percent of
all foodstuffs are imported from Canada, the United States, and elsewhere.
The stance of the Chávez government following the failed coup has raised
questions about its direction even among supporters like Alvarez. The
peasant leader and INT official said he does not know whether Chávez will
govern in the interests of the majority--the peasants, fishermen, and other
working people--or will continue to appease the opposition and the
privileged minority of capitalists and landlords it speaks for.
Others are concentrating on advancing the battles at hand. As José Luis
Jiménez, one of the peasants who are part of the land takeover at Palomita,
put it, "We showed it can be done in the face of violence by the powerful
landowners and the police. At some point, we may have to help others in the
area to do the same if the titles and credits promised don't come through."
While the government still enjoys widespread support in the countryside,
some fighters are looking to chart a course independent of reliance on
Chávez or other figures in capitalist politics.
"They call it a Bolivarian revolution, but it's not a revolution at all,"
said Miguel González, a peasant who took part in the July 21 conference at
San Carlos, quoting the description used by Chávez and his followers. "We
need to make a revolution. The crisis we face is part of an international
crisis. There is no major difference between Chávez and his predecessors in
the government, except that Chávez has more radical discourse.
"Our biggest challenge is organization," said González. "There is no force
yet that defends the interests of the workers and farmers."
Carlos Cornejo contributed to this article.

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