Chávez May Set Off a Land Reform Earthquake

Big owners fear he'll turn over their holdings to peasants

Diego García's 3,000-hectare cattle ranch, Hacienda El Capitán, has been in his family for 110 years, but nothing like this had ever happened. Last September, a group of peasants armed with shotguns and machetes invaded the ranch, which lies near Venezuela's western border with Colombia. The intruders commandeered more than 360 hectares, building huts, cutting down trees to sell timber, and even peddling parcels of land to new arrivals for $15 each. "We can't get them off," fumes a frustrated García. "We've got eviction orders from the courts, but we can't get anyone to execute them. There's no political will."

Politics does not currently favor Venezuela's large landowners. Any day now, the government of President Hugo Chávez will unveil land-reform legislation that, he promises, will end a centuries-old system that has advanced the interests of a few at the expense of the many. "We're not going to keep accepting that there are big landowners who have abandoned their property [while] the majority of people [live] without a hectare, without a square meter to sow a stalk of sugar cane or bananas," declared Chávez in a recent speech. The President's populist rhetoric has already abetted bands of squatters: Nearly 140 farms have been invaded since he swept to power in February, 1999.

CIVIL WAR. Many of Latin America's enduring social problems are rooted in the uneven distribution of land, a pattern dating back to the colonial era. The inequity has helped fuel a 37-year-old civil war in Colombia, and it spawned a militant peasant movement, known as Sem Terra ("without land"), in Brazil in the 1970s. Venezuela is no exception. Some 60% of the country's private agricultural land is held by 2% of landowners.

That reality does not square with Chávez' pastoral vision of Venezuela. Agriculture's share of national output has been dwindling steadily since the 1950s, when oil production began to boom. It stood at just 6.1% in 1999. Chávez, who hails from the cattle-ranching state of Barinas, wants to give the struggling sector a boost. New legislation is expected to call for a complete overhaul of the country's anachronistic--and anarchic--property-deed registry, which has long been open to abuse. Chávez also wants a new tax under which idle land would be tithed at a higher rate than productive land. Although the measure is supposed to encourage farming, there is little doubt it is aimed primarily at big landowners.

What really has Venezuela's land barons quaking, though, is that Chávez may put limits on how much land a person can own. They also worry that the government may confiscate large farms and parcel the land out to poor peasants. Although Chávez is unlikely to go as far as the mass expropriations of the Mexican and Cuban revolutions, he could well seize a few symbolic properties.

Chávez' critics claim he is missing the point on agrarian reform. Venezuela's biggest property owner is the state, which controls most of the 20 million hectares of idle land deemed suitable for agriculture. Experts argue that rather than targeting private landowners, the government should revamp a program that doled out public land to 150,000 small farmers before falling into mismanagement and disarray in the 1970s. That scheme had one major flaw, however: Its beneficiaries were barred from selling their land or borrowing against it. "It was a brake on getting much needed financing and led to a big black market in property titles," says Carmen B. Fernández, president of DataStrategia, a local market research firm.

Venezuela's landless are taking matters into their own hands even before legislation is introduced. On Mar. 30, farmer Luis Delgado was killed when he tried to evict a group of squatters from a piece of his property in central Venezuela. "There's a lot of anguish, a lot of fear," says José Luis Betancourt, president of Venezuela's National Cattle Ranchers Assn. And that's not likely to end anytime soon.

By Christina Hoag in Caracas

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