Wednesday, November 05, 2003

RURAL VIOLENCE IN YARACUY

Wednesday 5, November 2003

It was bound to happen. Yesterday in a clash between two rival bands for a piece of land fire erupted leaving one dead and several injured. I must confess that I do not have all the elements to inform adequately. I only could get the local pro-Chavez paper, Yaracuy al Dia, which had one full page and 4 out of 5 columns of an inside page describing victim side of the story, that is, the side of the poor peasants that are the beneficiary of an “agrarian chart” (Carta Agraria). The other side got one column. The other paper, El Yaracuyano, was sold out and unfortunately does not have a web site.

Yet, this is not going to stop me from writing. Whatever happened there, it is easy to know why it happened.

THE FACTS SO FAR.

A significant piece of land has been granted to a few landless families, carved out of the holdings of Central Matilde, one of the big sugar cane plantations and sugar manufacturing plant of the area [1]. Supposedly the property claims of Central Matilde were not strong enough and the INTI (the land distribution agency) decided to give that land to the peasants. Central Matilde appealed and for the past year or so, the area has been subjected to repetitive clashes. Yesterday in an apparent show of strength some people from Central Matilde went to work part of that land, resulting in the deadly confrontation. According to Yaracuy al Dia fire would have come first from Central Matilde folks who sent several groups of armed men while the police posted there to keep peace suddenly were not there anymore. The peasants of course accused the governor of complicity by removing the police. Arrests have been made and we will need to wait for tomorrow papers to obtain more details. Yaracuy al Dia dedicated all of its pictures to the grieving relatives and the national security police, DISIP, arresting some of the Central Matilde workers and lawyers.

THE CAUSES, LIKELY.

I am going to start by saying that I would not be surprised to learn that indeed the Central Matilde has tried that stunt. The ghost of Doña Barbara has never left the Venezuelan countryside [2]. I will also add that the need for some land redistribution is real.

But is this enough to explain what happened yesterday near Chivacoa?

Land need in Venezuela?

For all of Chavez declarations, the rural population in Venezuela is not as important as it is in other South American countries. Between 2 and 3 millions people live in Caracas shanty towns, a count probably larger than the total rural population of Venezuela. To that Caracas count one can add several millions living in other cities shantytowns (Maracaibo, Valencia, Barquisimeto mainly). The living conditions of these city dwellers are probably worse than many of the rural inhabitants. This should already set the priorities of any Venezuelan administration. That does not mean that rural folks should be neglected but Chavez has made the rural question a central piece of his policies. The reason? Chavez comes from Barinas State and certainly during his childhood he must have suffered one way or the other some of the abuses on the country side. He made Zamora one of his heroes. Zamora was one of the Venezuelan warlords of our troubled XIX century and he probably was using rural misery for his political motives rather than indeed doing land redistribution. But Chavez has an established tendency to rewrite history.

Therefore, Chavez made a priority of his administration to do a “real agrarian” reform. A new land law was decreed in 2001 and since then trouble has hit the countryside [3]. That law, for all of its possible justifications is deeply flawed. Redistributed land is actually bestowed to the needy peasants for their use but not for their property. That is, they cannot sell it, split it, etc… In addition the State reserves the right to decide what would be cultivated in the redistributed lands. The first consequence is that the beneficiaries of the law cannot offer collateral for bank loans. That would not be too bad if the government would come through with the necessary help, financial or technical. At best, the help provided is insufficient and inefficient. The agricultural output of Venezuela seems to have been decreasing although the inadequate statistics do not allow deciding if the decrease is mainly due to the law or to the current crisis.

But two other factors must be considered to explain the declining production figures.

First, in a country where there is basically no justice and where most courts will be unwilling to take side against governmental decided land seizure, nobody that owns land is going to do significant investments if they think that next day they will be “invaded”. By law to take the land the government must prove that either the owners do not hold a valid claim, or that they do not work the land adequately. Also proper notification must be given. Evidence is that the law is not followed and seizures, or “invasiones” as they are termed, depend on the whims of local rural leaders.

The second factor is that if you have ever been working in the tropics, with a simple machete under the sun, you know that you will not give 100% of your effort if the land is not really yours. It is that simple.

In other words, the best intentions to solve the agrarian problems have become a source of even more problems because cheap throw back idealism has been injected in what should have been a real national debate.

The reality of land seizures: the Yaracuy case.

Reading the papers it is easy for anyone to realize that most land seizures are politically lead, are always near major cities, by paved roads, preferably of land that is currently being worked, that no compensation for investment is offered the previous owner (or squatter as the administration would like to qualify them), that it has very good potential for added value in the future. Land further away, even if fertile, is rarely seized.

The Central Matilde “invasion” does fit several of these qualifications. The land seized has been duly prepared for sugar cane production. Thus is rather flat and easy to work. The land is very close to Sorte and Chivacoa. Sorte is the biggest voodoo center of Venezuela and thus attracts hundred of thousand of tourist every year. Chivacoa is perhaps the main industrial town of Yaracuy and thus land around it can only go up in value, either by industrial demand, by urban need or by tourism development. This is not a random land seizure. [4]

But there is also a very strong political content. To begin with, the courts are not deciding although clashes have been frequent. One would think that Central Matilde owns the land or does not. How long can this judicial determination last? More importantly, Yaracuy’s governor, Eduardo Lapi, has been a Chavez opponent from the start. In 2000, even as Chavez carried the state, Lapi retained the Statehouse with more votes than Chavez got himself. In this year negotiations Lapi was one of the 6 negotiators named by the opposition to discuss an issue for the crisis. He did gain significant national recognition for a small state governor. And until one year ago Yaracuy was perhaps the only state yet untouched by “spontaneous invasions” of land by landless peasants. Chavez has targeted Lapi and the Chivacoa disaster is just one way for him to try to sap Lapi’s authority, when local pools give Chavez below the national level and Lapi apparently out of reach for any of the local chavistas aspiring to the statehouse.

Indeed, whatever has happened in the tragic incident of Chivacoa yesterday, we can design at least one of the guilty parties: the inefficiency and moral corruption of the Chavez administration. Chavistas in Yaracuy are now probably happy to have a martyr out of a poor peasant that likely never knew that he was just a pawn.


[1] “Central X” is a common name for sugar cane complexes in Venezuela. The Central coming for the manufacturing facility, and the X for the name of a local hacienda that started the whole process.

[2] Doña Barbara is the great Venezuelan novel, written in 1929 by Romulo Gallegos. It describes the clash between the primitive rural culture of raw power into the hands of a few, incarnated by the Doña herself and a more modern vision of the country.

[3] The series of 48 “law-decrees” promulgated late 2001 was the starting point of the general confrontation that lead to the April 2002 disaster. One of these decrees was immediately contested in court and although the courts have partially ruled against the “land law” the administration in full contempt has ignored the questioned clauses.

[4] For those that read French there is an interesting page form a Belgian leftist site that has an interesting account of the Central Matilde affair before the event that holds today’s attention. Besides the fact that the Central Matilde owners are condemned without trial, the interesting point is the “Rousseau” like vision that the writers have of Venezuelan country side.

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