Peasants at Agua Negra in Yaracuy state, Venezuela, October 2, on new tractor purchased with credit from state agency. About 300 peasant families farm the land in cooperatives there, having waged battles over a six-year period to take it over from landowners. The peasants received land titles under the 2001 agrarian reform law.
She was referring to the Law on Land and Agricultural Development, passed by the Venezuelan government in November 2001. This has been one of the most contentious measures decreed by the nationalist government of Hugo Chávez, one that has stoked the fury of big capitalists and landlords and increased Washingtons hostility.
Taking advantage of provisions in the new agrarian reform legislation that allow expropriation of idle lands or large estates previously owned by capitalist landlords, peasants throughout the country have accelerated land takeovers this year, especially since the defeat of the two-month-long employer strike in early February. That was the second unsuccessful attempt by the Venezuelan bourgeoisie to oust Chávez. In April 2002, a U.S.-backed military coup failed because of massive mobilizations by workers and peasants.
As a result of hard-fought battles, nearly 60,000 peasant families who were landless have obtained titles to 4 million acres of fertile land since 2001, according to figures issued by Venezuelas National Land Institute (INTi). Most of these titles, encompassing 3.5 million acres, were granted over the last year. Beginning this spring, thousands of peasants who are organized in cooperatives also began to receive credits, allowing them to purchase tractors and other equipment, as well as to expand and diversify production.
Now with a good government we have water, electricity, credits, new housing, a new tractor, and a cooperative thats recognized by the state, said Rojas. The big businessmen and landowners used to rule as they pleased. Now with Chávez they cant quite do that. They have tried to kick us off our land by hook or by crook, but they will fail because we shall defend it.
Los Cañizos has a reputation in this region as a symbol of determined struggles by the peasants, who comprise 13 percent of the countrys population of more than 24 million, according to a 1997 estimate.
We started the fight to reclaim these lands from the landowners in 1987, said Napoleón Tortolero, president of Los Cañizos co-op and a central leader of the struggle. Peasants in the area formed land committees, he stated, to press their demand for the right to till previously communal lands that the capitalist landowners had taken over by force. The landowners responded with violence. After many years of struggle and repression, we took back 11,476 hectares [28,690 acres] in 1992.
For another 10 years after that, however, the rich landowners in the area used the police to harass these peasants, who did not get title to their land until this year. Even as late as July 12 of last year, Eduardo Lapi, the governor of Yaracuy, who is with the pro-imperialist opposition that is trying to undermine the Chávez government, ordered police to fire on dozens of peasants who had tried to move onto lands turned over to them by INTi. A number of peasants were wounded in that incident.
Graciela Rojas gave more details of the 15-year-long virtual guerrilla war the peasants had waged. We used to have meetings all the time to talk about our situation, she said. Braulio put an end to that, convincing us we had to stop just talking and take action to get land. She was referring to Braulio Alvarez, a central leader of the peasant struggle in Yaracuy who is now the general secretary of the Ezequiel Zamora National Agrarian Coordinating Committee and a member of INTis national board.
So we occupied most of this area in 1987. The government sent the National Guard and they kicked us out by force. But in a few days we would go back and retake the land. Then they would come and evict us again. So it went for a while.
In 1989 we decided to take more forceful action, Rojas continued. We took the cathedral in San Felipe and blocked highways in this region.
That was the year of the Caracazo, a working-class rebellion in Venezuelas capital and other cities in face of a steep rise in fuel prices and skyrocketing unemployment. The social-democratic government of President Carlos Andrés Pérez sent the army against masses of working people who had broken into supermarkets to get food and had begun marching toward rich neighborhoods. More than 3,000 were shot down in cold blood in Caracas alone. Despite the harsh repression by the capitalist regime, the Yaracuy peasants were not deterred.
We also occupied the Mexican and Spanish embassies in Caracas, and other government offices, so that the people could hear about our problems in Yaracuy, Rojas said. Repression was fierce. On Jan. 3, 1991, the National Guard attacked us with force. We suffered many wounded and a young peasant was killed. The National Guard tried to cut off our access to water and to the rivers. But we continued to find ways to fool them and get around them.
Credits for the first time, housing
This spring INTi granted the 35 families in Los Cañizos cooperative agricultural certificates, that is, titles to their land. On August 21 we obtained credits for the first time, said Víctor Torrelles, a veteran of the Mexican embassy occupation.
Torrelles, Tortolero, and other peasants proudly showed their newly acquired, Chinese-made tractor. FONDAFA sold it to us at cost for 33 million bolivars ($20,000), and we have five years to pay at very low, fixed interest, Tortolero said. And we have enough for seed and fertilizers. The tractor was financed by the overall credit the cooperative got this summer, amounting to 77 million bolivars ($48,000). FONDAFA is one of the rural banks created by the Chávez government that now provides such credits to agricultural producers.
What made Torrelles most proud, however, was the new housing. Cooperative members built 20 new units this year, with materials provided by the state, to replace the old mud shacks that continue to predominate in the countrys rural areas. Another 20 are under construction. This two-bedroom house costs us 5 million bolivars ($3,150) and we have 20 years to pay it down, Torrelles said, showing off one of the units. Its cheaper and better than anything we were able to build before.
For the first time this year, all the 400 households in the township that includes Los Cañizos have running water and electricity, we were told. We also have a new elementary school, Tortolero said.
About 20 miles away from Los Cañizos, in the township of Agua Negra, César Ranjifo, president of another co-op there, told us that 300 peasant families, organized mostly in cooperatives, cultivate an area of 8,500 acres previously owned by the Atteques. These big landowners were Batistianos, Ranjifo said, Cuban capitalists who fled the Caribbean island after the overthrow of the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista there in 1959 and came to Venezuela. Most of them are now fleeing once againto Miami, Ranjifo said with a laugh. In Agua Negra, peasants had also fought battles for more than half a decade, we were told, occupying these lands and finally getting titles and credits this year.
The struggle for land and the means to till it is intertwined with the fight against racism at Agua Negra, in a way these reporters did not see in other parts of the country. Most residents in that area are of African origin. You have Blacks like myself running cooperatives, and people are not used to that in this country, Ranjifo said.
Yauques claim 150,000 acres
Later that afternoon, on October 2, these reporters drove about three hours south to San Carlos, in Cojedes, one of the states with the highest production of grains.
During a Militant reporting trip there in July 2002, hundreds of peasant families who were landless had formed 50 cooperatives and signed up for credits from FONDAFA at a conference these reporters attended. Fourteen months later, however, neither the titles nor the credits have materialized, said Angel Sarmiento, a peasant who gave these reporters a tour of the area last year.
So far, meeting these peasants land needs depends on the resolution of a land claim by the indigenous family of the Yauques for some 150,000 acres of fertile land stolen in the last 40 years by latifundistas, as Sarmiento put it. Part of this land today is used for cattle grazing but much of it is idle. Big capitalist interests are involved here, including British landowners backed by London, we were told.
We are not fighting to reclaim the land for ourselves, but to turn it over to the hundreds of peasant families in the area who have formed cooperatives and are waiting for land, said Jubir Yauque, in an interview at his house in a working-class neighborhood of San Carlos. Thugs organized by big landowners killed his father in 1968, he said, the only one from the Yauque nation that held legal papers to the land. No one ever faced charges for the crime. These documents later disappeared from the public registry, as the Yauques discovered when they initiated a struggle for access to a few hundred acres of this land in the 1970s. It wasnt until after Chávezs election in 1998 that the Yauques were able to get legal help and link up with peasant groups that helped them uncover evidence to back their claim.
It seems, however, that this land claim may take a long time to resolve. There hasnt been the kind of struggle here that has marked the rural areas of Yaracuy.
Land titles go to peasants who fought
In most cases, peasants who have received land titles are those who have fought hard for land, sometimes for a decade or more. In an interview at the offices of the National Land Institute in Caracas October 3, Braulio Alvarez told us that nearly 4 million acres of land have been distributed to peasants since 2001, involving almost 59,000 families who had been landless. The overwhelming majority have been decided by settling land disputes that come out of hard-fought peasant occupations, he said. INTi, which is charged under the new agrarian reform law to settle all land disputes, aims to have distributed 5 million acres of land by the end of this year, providing titles to 75,000 families. Their goal is to turn over land to 300,000 landless peasant families across the country, Alvarez said.
Until two years ago, Alvarez pointed out in an interview in July 2002, about 1,000 big landowners controlled 85 percent of land under cultivationa total of around 75 million acres. Some 350,000 hard-pressed peasant families, who owned between 3 and 50 acres each, produced some 70 percent of vegetables and other major crops. The Chávez government declared the nationalization of another 75 million acres of idle but arable lands and promised to distribute them to peasants. The land and its use has been nothing but a commodity, Alvarez had pointed out, not a social activity to produce enough food for the nation. Nearly 85 percent of foodstuffs in Venezuela are imported from Canada, the United States, and other countries.
With thousands of peasants getting land, this is now beginning to change, he said on October 3. For the first time we are beginning to make some progress toward food self-sufficiency. This year we had record production in corn, sorghum, and rice.
The fight to implement the land ownership laws has been the bloodiest, Alvarez stated. He showed us a leaflet issued in September by the Ezequiel Zamora National Agrarian Coordinating Committee, which names 58 peasant leaders murdered in the last two years by paramilitary squads organized by big landowners.
The battle is also being waged against state institutions. Last year, the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional two articles of the Law on Land and Agricultural Development, Alvarez noted. Articles 89 and 90 of that bill include provisions that facilitate giving titles to peasants who occupy land and till it over a few years, and that allow the government to forego any compensation for land expropriated from landowners who are proven to have claimed land by falsifying documents.
The Supreme Court also suspended Article 211, which prohibits foreclosures on any property of peasant co-ops as long as the producers continue to work the land, Alvarez said. Peasant organizations around the country, he stated, have started a petition drive to sign up most peasants in Venezuela and then present a demand to the National Assembly to reverse these actions by the Supreme Court.
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