Chavez’s Farming Utopia Withers as Pet Projects Abandoned

The harvesters imported to overcome food shortages are gathering cobwebs near a burnt corn field in central Venezuela. A short distance away is the shell of a fertilizer plant and rows of empty red-roofed bungalows.

This is the William Lara agricultural commune, the first of five such projects that former President Hugo Chavez said were going to reverse a 11-year rise in food imports and put products back on the nation’s shelves. One year after his death, the last 30 workers on the site are removing equipment, surrounded by 4,300 soccer fields-worth of cleared land baking in the savanna heat.

“The president dies and the project dies with him,” Eumir Perez, William Lara’s former coordinator, said in an interview in Calabozo, a town in Guarico state 60 miles (97 kilometers) from the project. “The government is too busy staying in power, fighting against the capitalists’ economic war. No one dreams big anymore.”

The $300 million commune is one of the many projects on which the government has squandered the $50 billion Venezuela receives each year from oil exports, said Anabella Abadi, an analyst at public policy consultancy ODH Grupo Consultor. The national comptroller office’s 2013 annual report says there are 4,381 unfinished public infrastructure projects in Venezuela, a quarter of them started before 2006.

The projects include 100 kilometers of an elevated train line from Valencia, Venezuela’s third biggest city, to Cagua that was halted in 2010, and Steel City -- a town with houses, shops and steel plants in Bolivar state, which remains flatland.

No Water

Work on William Lara, the rural version of the Steel City, stopped last year after about $120 million was spent on clearing the land and building the first 176 houses.

The construction will resume after the government figures out a way of bringing water to the site 125 miles south of Caracas, Agriculture Minister Yvan Gil said.

“This is a technical problem, that our specialists are working to resolve,” Gil, 41, said in an interview in his Caracas office on April 10. “The project is advancing.”

Perez said construction began without checking water availability and now a dam would have to be dug to make the project viable.

Spokesmen for Maduro’s office and the Information Ministry declined to comment on project delays in Venezuela.

Chavez set up off-budget funds that are not subject to parliamentary oversight to finance infrastructure projects. The funds have spent $112 billion since 2005, including the resources for the William Lara project, according to the Finance Ministry’s annual report.

Broken Promises

“These are part of this government’s unfulfilled promises,” Abadi said in an interview in Caracas.

Ribbon-cutting ceremonies at new housing blocks and playgrounds helped Chavez’s hand-picked successor Nicolas Maduro win election in April 2013, while failing to revive industry, said Abadi. Non-oil exports fell to 4 percent of the total in the first nine months of 2013 from 19 percent 10 years earlier, according to central bank.

The decline of local industry and dollar shortages pushed inflation to 59 percent in March and emptied shelves of basic goods such as milk and soap, fueling two months of protests that have left at least 41 people dead.

Venezuela’s dollar bonds trade at the highest risk premium in the world, with investors demanding 10.41 extra percentage points to own the country’s notes instead of U.S. Treasuries. The country’s bolivar slumped 88 percent against the dollar when the government opened a new currency market last month to ease trading restrictions.

Belorussian Communes

Chavez’s plans for agricultural communes began with a visit to Belarus in 2007, when his counterpart Aleksandr Lukashenko took him on a tour of projects dating from the Soviet Union’s 1930s collectivization, said Perez, who now advises the president of Venezuela’s state agriculture fund.

Belarus shares similar economic problems with Venezuela. The country, which former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the “last dictatorship in Europe,” has seen its currency weaken 70 percent against the dollar since 2011 and has the world’s third fastest inflation after Venezuela and Iran, according to its central bank.

Belorussian construction company BelZarubezhStroy, known as BZS, began work on William Lara in 2011 and was scheduled to complete the project by the end of 2012, according to the Agriculture Ministry’s annual report for that year. The plan envisaged 500 houses, a school, grain silos, sports grounds, shops, a power substation, a milk factory and a slaughterhouse. The project is named after a Guarico governor and Chavez ally who died in 2010 when he drove his car into a river.

Setting an Example

The commune would “set the example for the development of agro-industry of Venezuela,” Chavez said in July 2012 after meeting a Belorussian delegation.

Farmers from the nearby towns of Calabozo and El Sombrero never came to the project amid the water and funding shortages. Meter-high dry grass now covers acres of fields cleared of stones and spindly dwarf trees, as new gravel roads snake across the featureless terrain. Some corn fields were burnt to chase away rodents because local workers weren’t sure how to use the Belorussian machines to harvest the crop.

Agriculture and food supply were at the heart of Chavez’s poverty reduction campaign during his 14 years in power, including land redistribution, farm credits and investment in rural infrastructure, Agriculture Minister Gil said.

Grains and corn production has doubled in the past 15 years as a result, he said. “Very few countries in the world can say this.”

Food Security

Higher grains volumes have failed to make up for the stagnant production of more expensive products such as milk and beef, said Alejandro Gutierrez, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of the Andes in Merida. Venezuela imports 70 percent of its food today, compared with about 50 percent in the late 1990s, according to the National Agriculture Industry Association, known as Fedeagro.

“Production hasn’t kept up with demand, pushing the country’s food security to critical levels,” Gutierrez said by telephone on April 21.

A decade of price controls on basic goods has exacerbated the situation. A kilogram of meat costs 8 bolivars (12 U.S. cents at the black market rate) and rice is 3 bolivars a kilogram in the Mercal state supermarket chain, fueling hoarding and smuggling to neighboring Colombia and leaving shelves bare.

More than one in four basic goods was out of stock in Latin America’s fourth-largest economy in January, the most since records began, according to the central bank. The bank stopped publishing up-to-date scarcity data last month.

“The legacy of this government is a very low rate of execution,” Jose Guerra, economics professor at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas, said by phone April 21. “They have tried to do too many things at the same time, causing inefficiency and waste.”

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