Thursday, May 17, 2007

The New York Times does Yaracuy

I have to start by confessing that I do not know whether to be happy about the latest opus of Simon Romero of the New York times. One one side, he puts Yaracuy clearly on the map and writes a fairly reasonable article (accompanied with an excellent video though). But the article lacks some key elements that do not tell the whole story. Then again, Yaracuy, the mystery land of Maria Lionza, cannot be understood in a few days. I have been living here for soon a decade and some times I have the strange feeling that I still have no idea what is going on here, and this has little to do with Chavez. It is something in the air, and something that makes me love this state once so alien to me. So I will be game, recommend the article and just add a few elements that will help the regular reader of this blog to get a more complete picture of the agrarian problems of Yaracuy. Besides, for once that we have a gringo journalist that does real research on Venezuela, in the real hinterlands, with real violence, we must commend him!

The article

The article is overall OK. It could have been better if some facts had been checked a little bit more. For example it is written that "Before the land reform started in 2002, an estimated 5 percent of the population owned 80 percent of the country’s private land." This is not exact. The biggest landowner of Venezuela is the state and it has frequently been pointed out that many of the invasion schemes of Chavez could have been avoided if the state had given up some of the land it hoards. That is, in part the Chavez land grabs are also a personal vendetta of Chavez, with needless violence. It is often a political act more than a justice act as many producers would have accepted easily a fair compensation for at least all the work they put into the land.

This chavista propaganda manipulation is easily detected if one uses the excellent reference book of the "Fundacion Polar: Diccionario de Historia de Venezuela". On the chapter of the Reforma Agraria we can rad such things
- The Agrarian Reform Law was promulgated on March 5th, 1960. Thus it is clear that this law which was a fundamental one in the new democratic government and that Chavez IS NOT the first one who contemplated giving lands to peasants. In fact he does nto as they cannot hold any property right whereas the Reforma Agraria contemplated such figure.

- the statistics as of 1985, 25 years into the law, also reveal that a very significant land redistribution did take place in Venezuela. In the 1956 census there were 397 823 agricultural production units (from estates the size of a small country to the little "conuco") of which 24% where only legally owned. the law calculated that about 350 000 families were to benefit form the redistribution scheme (NOTE! then Venezuela population was barely 7.5 million folks so 350 000 families were a big deal!). In 1985 313 864 land grants had been made of which 84 997 benefited of full property rights.

- In 1985, the landless peasant congress claimed only about 100 000 landless peasants in Venezuela. Still a lot for sure, but it could not be denied that distribution had taken place.
Under Chavez we get lots of shows of him taking over big estates but statistics are hard to come. Romero does mention that there was a land redistribution scheme in 1960 but he seems to have fallen for the line fed by chavismo, that he himself alone has really done something for the landless peasants. (1)

There is also another detail that I think is important to point out. If Romero indeed describes the violence that comes from both sides, and particularly strong in Yaracuy (I can vouch how the countryside criminality even affects city security as the violent gangs forming into the country side do "branch out") he does not mention that some of the "chavista/squatter" victims are from internecine warfare. That is, the disorderly way into these land invasions are undertaken results in serious disputes among the squatters as to whom gets what spoil. Quite often death results. On the other hand Romero is absolutely right when he reports that in either case justice is not coming as the victims of land confrontations are just left for their relatives to cry over. Something that I am prepared to say is that I suspect it is a state terrorism policy to scare away the present owners but also to scare into submission the new "tenants".

Only more detail I would like to point out: the Fundo Bella Vista. This is THE Potemkine Village of pseudo land reform in Venezuela. The reason is that this Fundo was built to try to erase the images of the violent pictures of bloody confrontation that took place in the area two years ago (2). So as a good propaganda measure, and because any good propaganda machinery needs a showcase example to take tourists, the Fundo Bella Vista was constructed to the point that the video mentions it almost as having some US suburban characteristics. Now, I am not saying this with any bitterness: I wish ALL newly settled peasant and cooperative community were endowed with the same facilities as Bella Vista, but they are not, the huge majority does not get a quarter of what Bella Vista gets. Though Romero implies the ideological school that Bella Vista is becoming with the local leader shown with clothing rather unsuitable to go and dig in the fields (watch the video, you'll love it!). I wonder if he saw some Cubans while he was there, by the way.....

The video

I have little to say about the video. It gives really the two sides of the story. It is clear that the landowners where not the type of landowners that one find in the cliché imagery of pages of revolutionary sites. The ones interviewed clearly developed the lands that they bought rather empty, rather abandoned. The claims of the chavista activist organizer, Alonso Zapata, are rather hollow on this respect and in fact the video mentions that he has been accused by the same people he helps of cashing in along the way some juicy commission. Accused by his own folks, it bears repeating.

But the video also illustrates the hopes of the other side, as well as the betrayals. If the Urachice initiative of Fundo Bella Vista is a very nice example of what chavismo could do if it had some more consistency and dedication, the fact of the matter is that the overwhelming majority of cooperatives look more like the forsaken one also shown. Squatting takes place, some credits are given, maybe some supplies, and this is the last time peasants see public officials until election time. The same old story by the way from the AD agrarian redistribution of the 60ies....

And Gimenez, the governor, in his very best behavior, still looks like a sleaze bag no matter how hard the NYT camera tries to make him look respectable. I loved it! And he is basically the one behind the lack of sugar these days.

However I cannot end up this without patting myself in the back: some of the images shown in the video are actually some of the pictures that I have shown in the past in this blog, in particular the "welcoming" huge poster at the entry of San Felipe where Gimenez and Chavez appear together over a rural backdrop. Now, if the New York Times confirms my pictures then either I am Simon Romero or I do really write from Yaracuy :)

PS: since the New York times holds its articles for only a couple of weeks, I have lifted the article and put it here.

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1) Long ago I have written a long assay on these land schemes for those who want to know more about it.

2) The violence history of these take over of Fundo Bella vista is a clear case of political revenge as the former owner was a political leader of Yaracuy that organized the 2003 strike and dared run for governor in 2004 (which he totally failed at by the way). I have digged a couple of articles from El Universal for those who want to know more, here and here. I did write also on that but my blog is now too big for my search engine to find the post....


-The end-

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