Venezuela: Peasants march against killings


Thousands of peasant rights' activists marched in Guarico, Venezuela on Thursday to demand an end to impunity for the killings of 220 farmer organizers since the 2001 Land Reform Law was passed. The march was sparked by two recent attacks presumed to have been planned and paid for by large estate owners against well-known land reform activists.

Just outside the state headquarters of the National Land Institute (INTI) on September 11th, two unidentified men on a motorcycle shot José Pimentel, a leader of the Simon Bolivar National Farmers Front, in the body and the head, placing Pimentel in critical condition in a hospital emergency room.

Two weeks later, eight armed men attacked a group of 28 families who had collectively occupied idle sections of a large estate and were in the process of obtaining legal land titles from INTI. The assailants beat several people, destroyed property, shot one leader of the group twice in the legs, and ordered the group to leave the estate, according to a report by the Ezequiel Zamora National Farmers Rights Front (FNCEZ), which is named after the legendary 19th Century land reform fighter.

Since 2001, the government has redistributed more than two million hectares (5 million acres) of idle or underused land to small farmers and state-owned enterprises for food cultivation, for the most part by opening up state-owned land and also by expropriating some idle privately owned land.

During this process, however, hundreds of prominent land reform organizers have been attacked, illegally detained, or killed, in what appears to be a campaign led and financed by large estate owners to exterminate those who challenge their privilege and dominion in rural areas.

Following the September attacks, the president of the Farmer Federation of Venezuela, Miguel Moreno, declared that his organization and many other national farmer organizations were in a state of emergency, and remain on 24-hour vigil to protect the lives of their comrades.

Moreno praised the government's efforts to redistribute land, but criticized the judicial system, saying only a handful of investigations of the attacks against farmers have proceeded, and there have been no convictions thus far.

"We accompany the commander and president [Hugo Chavez] in his policy against the large estates," said Moreno. "We do not want to move toward an open confrontation or war in rural zones... we firmly believe in the institutions, we believe in our government [...] But we are tired of being the ones who die."

National Assembly Legislator Braulio Alvarez, who is also a national farmers' rights organizer, connected the killings of farmers to the infiltration of paramilitary groups from Colombia into Venezuela. "We denounce with revolutionary morale the paramilitary activities and hired killings," he said in a press conference in the Foundation for Training and Innovation to Support the Agrarian Revolution (CIARA).

Alvarez also demanded that the Ministry of Justice and Internal Affairs and the Attorney General's Office open a special investigation and provide protection to farmer rights activists. "How long is the flagrant impunity going to continue?" Alvarez asked.

Officials from INTI, CIARA, the Agriculture and Land Ministry, and the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), as well as all major farmers rights fronts echoed his demand.

The Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV) also called for "an exhaustive review of the proceedings on the farmers' cases, through the agrarian courts," but warned that the "opposition sectors" which are responsible for the crimes are in some cases "embedded in the structures of the state." These culprits "utilize police functionaries from the [national investigative police] CICPC," said Eduardo Linarez, the National Secretary for Agrarian and Farmer Affairs of the PCV.

In addition to demanding action by the state, several farmer rights fronts have gradually united forces on the regional and national level. With the support of national PSUV officials, including Agriculture and Land Minister Elias Jaua and Guarico Governor William Lara, these new federations plan to hold a series of assemblies and form armed militias in order to organize and defend themselves against attacks.

"We already have our own organization. What we're going to do now is grassroots reinforcement in the communities and rural settlements," said Argimiro Berroterán, a spokesperson for the National Farmers Front in Miranda state. "The idea is to travel around the whole country to discuss the concerns expressed by different farmer groups, in addition to re-launching this front as an organizational tool in defense of our achievements and for the deepening of the revolutionary process," he added.

Minister Jaua, who is also a regional vice president of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), spoke to the crowd at Thursday's march. "We must consolidate popular strength in rural Venezuela and among the fishers... in order to prepare the conditions for the formation of a great popular and revolutionary organization in the National Fishers and Farmers Front, to concretize the deepening and construction of the Bolivarian Revolution," said Jaua.

According to Jaua, farmer militias may be formed as early as this December for the purpose of farmer self-defense in rural Venezuela. "The Bolivarian government is willing to confront the oligarchy and the large estate owners by way of the law... but if they insist on continuing to act on the fringes of the law, violating our Bolivarian Constitution and murdering farmers, then there will be an armed response," said the minister.

Many farmers' fronts, including the FNCEZ, have advocated armed self-defense for years. The invitation to Thursday's march that the FNCEZ posted on its website calls for, "THE PEOPLE IN ARMS, conscious popular power organized into farmer militias and coordinated by the National Bolivarian Militia and directed by our Bolivarian Armed Forces, in socialist patrols directed and coordinated by our PSUV... with the indisputable leadership of our partner, President Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias."

[Reprinted from