In Venezuela, Land Redistribution Program Backfires

In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez's government has made the expropriation of farmland — taking land from big landholders and giving it to the poor — central to his so-called revolution. The idea is to spur production and end dependence on food imports.

But the results have fallen short, making the country more dependent on foreign food than ever before.

Consider farmer Ramon Barrera, who spends his days feeding a handful of scrawny pigs.

He thought he also would be raising crops after arriving a few months ago in Las Vegas, a town in a sun-baked corner of northwestern Venezuela.

The land had been a vast cattle ranch before the government seized it to redistribute to poor farmers like Barrera.

But Barrera says there is no irrigation, no technical help from the government and no credit.

"How are people supposed to work?" he asks.

'Property Of The Nation'

Venezuela's land reform is rooted in a 2001 law and Chavez's conviction that the land belongs to all Venezuelans.

The president drove home his point recently on his weekly television show.

"To those who own the land, this land is not yours," Chavez said. "The land is not private, but the property of the nation."

The state has redistributed more than 5 million acres, about the size of Massachusetts. Some was unused state land, but increasingly it includes land seized from farmers. The government says it goes after unproductive farms, compensating the owners, or land deemed to have been stolen years ago.

The state recently seized the Tamarindo sugar cane hacienda. Juan Dos Santos says the farm rightfully belonged to his family and that they had invested $18 million making it a showcase farm.

"The farm had it all — a modern irrigation system, roadways, electricity, warehouses, machinery," Dos Santos says.

But the government says farms such as Tamarindo are put to good use.

Success Stories Rare

Maria Rosario Chirinos is among those who have benefited from the government policy.

She used to work in a corner store. Then she heard about the land expropriation program and came looking for a farm.

She says her dream was to own her own plot of land.

Agriculture experts such as Carlos Machado, though, say the success stories are few and far between.

Machado says once-productive spreads, such as the land Chirinos now farms, are now unproductive. And the result is that Venezuela is six times more dependent on foreign food imports than before Chavez took power.

"That shows that the government policy aims to increase the crop production in the country are a complete failure," Machado says.

Among those trying to hang on to his farm is Vicente Lecuna, whose family has run Santa Clara since 1890.

From the looks of it, the Lecuna farm is thriving. Field hands ride horses while cattle graze. The fields are green with sugarcane and the farm also grows coffee.

But already the state has taken a part of this farm, replacing sugarcane with corn.

Lecuna says the land there is not suited for corn.

Nelson Fernandez is among Lecuna's workers who worry about the arrival of newcomers.

"I graduated as an agricultural technician in 1966," he says, "and am still learning something every day."

Takeovers Continue

Still, in Venezuela, it appears that the government is accelerating its takeover of farms.

On his show the other day, Chavez said the land reform law is unbending and that it is time to expropriate more farms.

He asked his aides to hand him a list of farms deemed unproductive. One after another, he read off the names of the farms and announced their expropriation.

In the audience, Chavez's ministers applauded enthusiastically.

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