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Venezuelan businessman turns thieves into employees

Alberto Vollmer's programs for poor squatters and young hoodlums seen as a model for defusing social tensions.

By Juan ForeroWashington Post / August 8, 2008



El Consejo, Venezuela

Alberto Vollmer is as blue-blooded as they get – a rakishly handsome heir of one of Venezuela's richest families. It is a family that owns the fabled Santa Teresa sugar-cane hacienda and rum distillery, the one where 19th-century independence hero Simón Bolívar announced an end to slavery.

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In Venezuela, where President Hugo Chávez divides his countrymen into two groups – the exploited poor and the malevolent oligarchs – Mr. Vollmer would seem to fall into the latter category.

But this US-educated businessman has founded two highly successful programs to provide the poor with land and job opportunities, and he has found a way to earn the respect of the Chávez government. The programs have so effectively defused social tensions that other countries have sought him out for advice.

How did he get started? In 2000, he was faced with what other hacienda owners here have confronted – poor squatters. "If you resort to violence or being reactive or defensive, you're at an enormous disadvantage," says Vollmer.

So when 500 poor families invaded a stretch of Vollmer's 18,300-acre hacienda, he did not fight back – he welcomed them. Vollmer entered into negotiations with their leader. Then Vollmer pitched an idea to the state government, which was and remains solidly behind Chávez.

Vollmer would provide the land and design houses for 100 of the families; the rest would receive homes somewhere else, with the state's help. Officials would provide mortgages. The families would also participate in job-training programs sponsored by Vollmer's distillery.

Today, the Royal Way neighborhood, with its colorful homes and gaggles of children, is a success. "We fought to have a home, and thanks to God we have a dignified home that I can leave for my children," said Yumila Aquino, who was among the first squatters.

Three years later, another problem presented Vollmer with another opportunity.

The shantytowns outside the hacienda had always bred violence and crime. One day, local hoods stole a guard's gun, and Vollmer's security staff went out and nabbed the young criminals.

"They were handcuffed, and I said, 'Take the handcuffs off them,' and we start having a civilized conversation," Vollmer recounts. He offered them two options: get turned over to the police, or agree to live on the hacienda for three months. They would earn nothing, but receive free meals and placement in job-training programs.

"We had to be much more ambitious and think, 'How are you going to change the reality of these people, so they're productive for themselves?' " Vollmer said. "It's not a handout. It's to give something sustainable."

Vollmer agreed to expand the program, and was astonished to see 22 show up.

Though some of those who have participated have become victims of the violence in the nearby shantytowns, dozens of others have hold down jobs. Seventy-five remain in the program, young men who are required to do schoolwork, learn job skills, and play organized rugby, Vollmer's passion.