Venezuelans Divided Over Land Redistribution

The Venezuelan national guard is helping divide up the country's large ranches so that the land can be parceled out to the poor. But ranch owners say the government is riding roughshod over private property and planting the seeds of more national division.

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And now a closer look at the country the US finds so troubling, Venezuela. Farmers there, sanctioned by the government are seizing land from large landowners. NPR's Julie McCarthy traveled to Venezuela before going to cover this week's summit and she filed this report.

(Soundbite of cattle)

JULIE McCARTHY reporting:

It's the calving season on the Poriama(ph) ranch. Cows groan protectively at the sight of strangers in the carefully tended pastures, acreage that sprawls across the steamy Venezuelan landscape under a canopy of billowing clouds. How many more seasons there will be like this is an open question for Paco Brangier(ph), one of the owners of this spread that is about the size of the city of Chicago. Brangier wears the blue jeans of a farmer and the wide midriff of prosperity. He says in the 60 years that his family has worked this ranch, they have been pioneers in cattle breeding and conservation. Brangier says since the leftist government of President Chavez began allowing the landless to seize property here five years ago, the farm has shrunk.

Mr. PACO BRANGIER (Rancher): We have less land every day because of these invasions.

McCARTHY: President Chavez stepped up his campaign to hand land to poor farmers after beating back a recall election to oust him last year. Landless farmers backed by government security forces have taken over thousands of acres of the Brangiers' ranch.

The national guard turns up with a couple dozen more farmers who've come to negotiate the terms of their occupation. Talks soon devolve into recriminations as the farmers square off with ranch owner Paco Brangier. First, one woman...

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

McCARTHY: ...then the entire crowd.

(Soundbite of crowd speaking in foreign language)

McCARTHY: At one point, a farmer in a T-shirt emblazoned with the picture of President Chavez tells the owners, `The day we get one of your men from his horse, he won't walk again.' Paco Brangier cups a cigarette in his hand and shakes his head. A local official with the government land agency ignores the simmering class war and serves up socialist creeds from the sidelines.

Mr. RENALDO LE DON(ph) (Land Agency Official): (Foreign language spoken)

McCARTHY: `The revolutionary process is not for the fearful,' says Renaldo Le Don as a national guard commander steps in.

(Soundbite of crowd speaking in foreign language)

McCARTHY: The government says that 5 percent of the population owns 75 percent of the farmland, and scenes like this are repeated throughout Venezuela as the government wrests land from the wealthy and distributes plots to those who've never owned one. Chavez wants farming cooperatives which critics call a throwback to communist economies. But co-op farmer Napoleon Matute(ph) stands in mud-covered boots and declares he's rescuing the land.

Mr. NAPOLEON MATUTE (Co-op Farmer): (Foreign language spoken)

McCARTHY: `How is it that so few have so much when there are so many who have nothing to eat?' he asks. `I believe that this is national land and that it gave birth to all of us, and we should all have a small piece of it,' Matute says, adding that President Chavez is sent by God.

Across Latin America, the rural poor are increasingly mobilized, pushing land reform as a human right. The Chavez approach of seizing land from the rich may shore up his base with the landless, but constitutional expert Rafeal Chavera(ph) says it sets a bad precedent.

Mr. RAFAEL CHAVERA: It is popular to say that, `Well, look what he's doing. He's taking property away from the rich people and he's giving away the property to poor people. He's ruling for half of the country.'

McCARTHY: Chavera, who represents ranch owners, says the expropriation of land in full production without compensation violates the owner's constitutional rights.

Mr. CHAVERA: We are not respecting the due process.

McCARTHY: President Chavez denies violating anyone's rights or that these land seizures bear a likeness to Zimbabwe's, where white farmers have been run off. His hostility, however, is unmistakable.

President HUGO CHAVEZ (Venezuela): (Foreign language spoken)

McCARTHY: `There is nothing sacred about private property,' Chavez declares during a recent weekly television broadcast. He says the country needs to break its dependency on imported food and says he aims to reclaim a million and a quarter acres this year.

Scores of estates and hundreds of farms have been identified, the Frangiers among them. The government has allowed some ranchers to keep a portion of their property, but Pako Frangier sounds prepared for the worst and more than aware of a new dawning in Venezuela.

Mr. FRANGIER: I understand nothing lasts forever and nothing was in this Earth for someone in particular. So I wouldn't cry if I knew that it was for better.

McCARTHY: Until then, Frangier says...

Mr. FRANGIER: We're fighting, and we're going to keep fighting.

McCARTHY: Julie McCarthy, NPR News.

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