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Chavez, farmers square off over land seizure

by Staff Writers
Caracas (AFP) Dec 20, 2010
Scores of farmers in western Venezuela squared off with the military at road blocks Monday, saying they would rather die than have President Hugo Chavez turn their land over to thousands of homeless flood victims.

"We're determined to defend our land... We feel like they're throwing us out into the street and, in that case, we'd rather die than lose our land," former farmers union leader Ruben Barboza told AFP.

"We can't take this," he said with disgust.

The Army and National Guard began swarming areas south of Lake Maracaibo over the weekend, ready to make good Chavez' order to seize idle farmland -- 47 properties in all -- in Zulia and Merida states, where floods have forced thousands to evacuate these past few weeks.

The drastic measure, announced earlier this month, includes about 24,000 hectares (59,000 acres) of what Fegalago farm union calls prime farmland that delivers half of Venezuela's food supply, especially beef and milk products.

Chavez has said "idle land" must be given up to help house some 130,000 victims of widespread flooding and landslides, many of whom live in western Venezuela, below sprawling Lake Maracaibo.

Devastating floods and mudslides across Venezuela have killed at least 38 people and left thousands homeless in the worst rainy season in 40 years.

"Farmers have developed this land that was inhospitable and has now become the miracle south of the lake. Many gave their lives to farm the land, and now they treat us like common criminals," complained Fegalago President Jesus Iragorri.

He slammed the "military threat" looming in the area and said he was willing to negotiate: "We've never told the government we're not willing to cooperate."

"We'll take this all the way to national and international courts," said a local livestock owners union leader, Reinaldo Celis.

Chavez on Monday talked about the standoff and did not mince his words.

"If they go for their rifles, let them face the consequences," he said.

"It's not a threat. Only that we'll answer in kind -- rifle for rifle," Chavez added ominously.

Chavez, however, said 16 landowners were negotiating and could be reaching an agreement with the government. He did not provide any details of the talks.

The standoff is affecting farm production in the region, which was already hard hit by the rains, said Fegalago, estimating that beef production could fall by 30 percent and dairy by four percent in the coming weeks.

But Chavez on Sunday slammed what he claims are greedy landowners only seeking to make a profit.

"We have to come down hard against large estates. We've got to free up every last square millimeter of national territory," the populist-socialist said.

Early in December, Chavez opened the doors of the presidential Miraflores Palace to 25 homeless families, and announced the government would take over private property and rezone a national park to provide housing for flood victims.

Since he took office in 1999, Chavez has taken over some 2.5 million hectares (6.2 million acres) of land, in line with his so-called Bolivarian Revolution to aggressively consolidate private assets under state control.

Private business leaders have estimated that of the land seized so far by the government, only 50,000 hectares -- one fiftieth of the total -- has been put to productive use.

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