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Farmland seizures spark sharp divide in Venezuela

by Staff Writers
Santa Barbara (AFP) Jan 25, 2011
Farmers whose land is being taken away by the government of Hugo Chavez are gearing up for a struggle to keep their properties in fertile western Venezuela, a stronghold for the opposition.

"I'm afraid I'm going to lose my land. (But) dying of hunger is more painful than dying of a gunshot," defiant farming leader Ruben Barboza told AFP, vowing to keep his property in private hands.

The drastic measures, announced in early December, includes about 24,000 hectares (59,000 acres) of what a local farm union calls prime farmland that delivers half of Venezuela's food supply, especially beef and milk products.

The Venezuelan army and national guard have been steadily gaining control of areas south of Lake Maracaibo since then, ready to make good on Chavez's order to seize the land -- 47 properties in all -- in Zulia and Merida states, with 31 of the properties already being taken over.

With a steady build-up of forces in the area, a rural stronghold for political groups opposed to Chavez' leftist regime, the number of soldiers has risen to 1,600 troops -- many idling away the days staring at the picturesque rolling green hills dotted with fruit trees and cattle, and waiting for orders.

The fear of being next on the list of properties to be expropriated has prompted growing solidarity in this farming community.

Neighbors call Barboza a leader for "resistance" in the town Santa Barbara, around which most of the seizures are taking place.

Over his 169 hectares, he produces a bounty of milk, beef, bananas and other tropical fruits, and vegetables -- providing work to some 30 people. He fears once the government takes away his property, the farm will become fallow and useless.

Since taking 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.

Much of that land has been considered "unproductive" by the state, or where officials claim farmers employ workers in conditions akin to slavery.

There is however a sharp divide in Santa Barbara between landowners and some of those who work on the farms, with some in favor of the land seizures move.

"I agree with the fact that the government is taking measures favorable to workers. It is a fair approach, and landowners should take this into account," told Jairo Chaco.

Outside local government offices, manual laborers line up optimistically hoping to be granted land under the nationalization scheme.

In one area, the 4,000-hectare property Hacienda Bolivar stands empty of farmhands, with no trace of its former owners.

Inside, groups of Ministry of Agriculture officials, government soldiers and other volunteers work on renovating facilities with the expressed aim of building housing projects, build hospitals and schools on the land.

When the seizures began, government officials framed the expropriations as an aid initiative for those affected by widespread flooding and landslides, many of whom live in western Venezuela, below sprawling Lake Maracaibo.

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

Chavez has previously responded defiantly to opposition from landowners over the seizures, saying that if "they go for their rifles, let them face the consequences," adding ominously: "It's not a threat. Only that we'll answer in kind -- rifle for rifle."

The standoff has already affected farm production in the region, where 31 of previously announced 47 properties have already been seized and handed over for development in favor of those hard hit by the rains.

The national farming union Fedenaga said it has already seen a drop from 70 percent to 45 percent in banana production in the region, and has predicted beef production will drop by 30 percent and dairy by four percent as the seizures continue.

Chavez has previously blasted what he claims are greedy landowners only seeking to make a profit, stating that Venezuela has to "come down hard against large estates."

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.

Private business leaders have estimated that of the land seized so far by the government over the last decade, only 50,000 hectares -- 1/50th of the total -- has been put to productive use.

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