Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Wall Street Journal does Yaracuy

I am not too sure what kind of cosmic conjunction has brought these two papers together but on the same day both the new York Times and the Wall Street Journal publish an extensive article on the land problems of Yaracuy, my humble home state now on the front page of the WSJ (it was not front page in the NYT...). Since it is subscriber only I am delighted to report that already 4 readers have sent me a copy of the WSJ article. Impressive. For those like me who cannot afford a WSJ subscription (now that I think of it the WSJ should give me a courtesy one considering all the free advertising that they got through this blog), I have put a copy here.

The first thing to be said is that the WSJ opus is much more direct and plainly condemnatory of Chavez policies than the NYT does. This by itself is not surprising, and contrary to what some might infer, it makes the lecture of the NYT even more necessary. Simon Romero deals more with the psychological impact of the issues, a tremendous impact, whereas Jose de Cordoba focuses more on the negative economical consequences (and future aggravated psy impact?). Thus it is truly something that we have these two reads on the same day (and even better if we consider the not very optimistic Forero piece on the Washington Post also published today about the communal councils, who supposedly will direct some of these land grabs as the WSJ so justly qualify the land invasions in Yaracuy). Now, let's comment on the WSJ piece (which comes with a great slide show).

First we get the hard hitting fact: from 10 000 tons a year of sugar cane the farm went down to zero. The lost crop has been replaced at best by some banana/plantain stuff. Sugar is missing on the markets but bananas can always be found, as well as plantains. The reader can already draw its first conclusion. A drastic one at that considering that banana is the easiest crop to grow in Venezuela low lands such as Yaracuy and as such is the one with the lowest financial return unless you can export it all. As a cash crop substitute, bananas are a bust!

The next thing is that Cordoba provides us with more hard data (it is the WSJ after all) and we can read the following:
Since coming to power, the Chavez government has handed over 8.8 million acres, an area bigger than Maryland, for use by the poor. While much of this was state-owned land that was either idle or leased to ranchers, some 4.5 million acres were "recovered" from private owners, Mr. Chavez said recently. In some cases, the government compensated them. In most others, like Mr. Lecuna's, it has simply turned a blind eye to land invasions.

At least now we do get the first numbers I have seen of state lands involved in redistribution schemes. I cannot vouch for that number and I suppose Mr. Cordoba is well informed, but I am tempted to believe him considering that Chavez has probably given state land away but prefers to highlight for political reasons the ones he takes away from private owners.

And right after that there is another line that pretty much closes the article even though we are barely half way through it:
But so far, the effect has been to undercut production of beef, sugar and other foods, as productive land is handed to city dwellers with no knowledge of farming. Established farmers and ranchers, fearing their land may be seized next, are cutting investment in their operations to a minimum.

Nothing that readers of this blog did not already know, by the way. Still I will add yet one more excerpt that illustrates quite well how Chavez is fooling less and less people.
Mr. Chavez blames the shortages on "speculation" by distributors and producers. Agriculture Minister Elias Jaua recently called a news conference to deny there's been any decline in food production during the eight years of Chavez rule. The central bank stopped publishing agricultural statistics in 2005. A private farm association called Fedeagro estimates Venezuela grew 8% less food last year than the year before, citing factors including the price controls, land seizures and the wave of kidnappings of farmers.

All of this yours truly can verify on his own. Cordoba is not making anything up: if things go that way and if by bad luck oil production, or prices, or both, were to fall down, we will starve. Or limit ourselves to bananas.

The rest of the article is more concerned with illustrative details, but it includes a more complete description of the previous land reforms which already had ended the absentee landlord system. The implication is simple: this is not about absentee landlords anymore, it is a naked land grab for political reasons mostly.

Mr. Cordoba also underlines that the mision to train this new peasants plucked out from the cities is named now Mision Che Guevara, named for the notorious assassin, economy destructor, and a sure sign of the radicalization of the process (confirming that chavismo is preparing to kill recalcitrant landowners if necessary?).

But perhaps the best moment of the article, the
most telling one, is when Mr. Cordoba interviews the Branger Family of Hato Piñero and Paraima. This noted land grab, of lands fit only for some grazing and ecological tourism, was to give to peasants to plant whatever they wanted. And they have failed, as they were bound to do. I quote because it is worth it:
But the co-op members have seen their pastures dry up in the searing sun of the dry season. Some gave up. Others, in desperation, have turned to the Branger family for help.

How often has that happening Venezuela? Always, be it under AD, or under Copei or now under Chavez. That is what populism does best, to excite the masses, to give them a few free bees and then let them hang high and dry.

But the best was in fact for the end: a fabulous description of all the corruption associated with these land schemes and how oblivious of that Chavez is. He does not care about he results of his policies and of his agrarian ones probably even less. The only thing that matters for Chavez is to have a good show every week and if thousands of people rob the country during that time, he does not care. Pathetic, and great for the WSJ to report it so bluntly and even, let's not be afraid of words, scathingly.

Unfortunately the WSJ piece lacks one thing, a closer look at the hopes that Chavez repeated shows raise in some of the population. This perhaps is the biggest damage that the whole thing will create, a class of bitter, failed peasants that could end up in guerrilla, banditry or what not. But that is why the NYT article completes this one so well. Even a bleeding heart liberal must get the message that there must be a better way than the Chavez abuses of power who end up destroying everything, even those that he is supposedly trying to help. Sad, very sad.

-The end-

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