Venezuela: ‘New offensive’ on land reform

The United Socialist Party of Venezuela has significant support in Venezuela’s rural districts. Photo:

On his TV show Alo Presidente on October 3, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez drove tractors and inspected corn crops as he pledged to accelerate land reform and increase the government’s share of food production and distribution.

Chavez announced the nationalisation of the agricultural supplies company Agroislena and the Venezuelan properties of the British Vestey Group.

The show took place in Guarico state, where Chavez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) won most of the state seats in the September 26 National Assembly elections.

The PSUV won in most of Venezuela’s rural districts, which have received substantial public investment as part of the Chavez government’s efforts to achieve “food sovereignty”.

Chavez inspected the progress of the “Tiznados River Socialist Agrarian Project”, a state-owned “social production company”. It is part of the government’s attempt to build a model of food production based on worker participation in decisions, responsibility to the local community and satisfaction of needs rather than profit.

Chavez announced plans to quadruple the extent of the project’s irrigation system to 32,000 hectares by 2015; expand production of rice, soy, legumes, and vegetables; build a vegetable and fruit dehydration plant, an agricultural machinery factory, processing plants for soy and cow milk, and an animal fodder factory; and build a “communal city” for farmers to live.

To improve the infrastructure needed for the expanded food production, Chavez announced plans to build 20 kilometres of canals, two silos for animal fodder, improve six important highways, upgrade communications infrastructure and extend electricity to all of the state’s farmhouses.

The public investments will be made by state-owned banks and financed by a recent US$5 billion credit line from China, which is the first installment of a US$20 billion credit line promised by China in April.

Venezuela is reliant on food imports, which it is seeking to change by promoting national agricultural development. Food production has risen as a result of the Chavez government’s increase in financing to the agricultural sector from less than half a billion bolivars in 1998 to 20 billion bolivars in 2009.

However, demand for food has risen even more than production due to the government’s anti-poverty programs that have drastically raised the nation’s nutritional levels.

Malnutrition has been reduced from 21% to 6% in the same period.

Chavez said Venezuela’s goal was to reduce its dependence on multinational food companies and reduce its susceptibility to global food crises.

Venezuela also plans to integrate the state-owned food production companies with a growing state-owned network of food distributors and local food markets that sell the food at regulated prices up to 40% below market prices.

Chavez said: “We cannot hand the food over to the usury of the capitalist model; now we have to continue building the socialist system of distribution and marketing.

“We must pick up the pace, because the future of Venezuela depends on it. We must turn Venezuela into an agro-industrial power.”

As part of a “new offensive” in the process of land reform, Chavez announced the nationalisation of 200,000 hectares of land owned Compania Inglesa, a Venezuelan subsidiary of the Vestey Group.

Agriculture minister Juan Carlos Loyo has confirmed plans to nationalise 250,000 hectares of farmland in October and twice that amount in November.

Chavez said: “We are going to accelerate the agrarian revolution …We must liberate the land from the hands of the large estate owners.”

The Vestey Group is a big meat producer based in Britain that has been owned for four generations by the Vestey family, one of Britain’s wealthiest. It began operating in Venezuela in the early 1900s with the aim of providing meat to Britain’s growing population.

When the Venezuelan government stepped up its land reform effort in 2005, it bought tens of thousands of hectares from the Vestey Group and handed them over to landless peasants.

Peasant organisations accused the Vestey Group and its subsidiary, Agroflora, of hiring assassins to attack and intimidate them.

On October 4, during a phone call to a nighttime TV program, Chavez said his government had reached a “friendly agreement” with Vestey for the sale of its Venezuelan land holdings and for 130,000 cattle.

“The English company is ready for a barbecue”, Chavez added.

Agroislena is a Spanish-controlled company that has operated in Venezuela for 52 years. It operates a chain of silos, stores, and branch offices and controls a large part of the national market in agricultural supplies.

In an October 4 statement, Agroislena said it had not received any information directly from the government about the nationalisation. It said: “The company absolutely and categorically rejects an expropriation measure.”

The statement said the company provides loans and supplies to 18,000 food producers in the country and that part of the company’s mission is “to contribute to the achievement of the food sovereignty and independence of our country”.

In response, Chavez said the nationalisation order would not be rescinded. He accused the company of selling fertiliser and seeds at artificially high prices.

“Let them protest, they have the right, but they are expropriated”, Chavez said. “I gave them a chance. We are going to regulate the prices of seeds and the rest.”

Opposition groups have harshly criticised the president’s announcements, accusing the government of becoming a large estate owner itself.

However, peasant organisations and the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV), which is allied to the PSUV, applauded the government’s decsion.

Earlier this year, the National Assembly passed a reform to the land law that made it easier for landless farmers and the state to acquire privately owned land.

Between 2001 and 2009, the government took over 2.5 million hectares of land from private owners and turned it over to landless farmers, cooperatives, or state-owned agricultural projects.

[Reprinted from]