Venezuelans divided over who owns the land

Venezuela's supreme court ruled last month that one major government-sponsored land invasion was illegal.

After five years struggling to make it in the city of Barinas, the Zambrano family thought they had found an opportunity to return to their rural roots.

Manuel and Omaira Plata de Zambrano and their three children couldn't make ends meet on his salary as a van driver for schoolchildren. So back in February, they joined a cooperative of landless families who moved onto 77,000 acres designated by the government as idle, state-owned land. They planted corn, yucca, and sorghum.

But last month, armed with a court order declaring the occupation illegal, police evicted the Zambranos and other families, leaving them in limbo.

"I'll die before giving up," vows Ms. Zambrano, who is living at a neighboring military post with other evicted families.

To understand the emotional land- reform issue is to understand Venezuela's political crisis. On one side, the poor rejoice at the chance to own their own piece of workable earth, 97 percent of which is controlled by just 10 percent of the rural population, according to the government. On the other side are those who say such land grabs are just one more example of Mr. Chávez's complete disregard for the rule of law in his race to become the hemisphere's next Fidel Castro, iron-fisted ruler of communist Cuba. In this charged political environment, the country's National Electoral Council must now determine if a referendum on Chávez's presidency should go forward.

The redistribution of land is part of Chávez's "Bolivarian Revolution for the poor" - his dream of promoting both social justice and economic self-sufficiency. The government aims to reduce poverty by luring back to the countryside poor families who left for the cities during decades of the nation's oil boom, but found only more poverty in huge shantytown slums. The government also hopes to reduce Venezuela's historic dependence on imported foods, especially as it enjoys a huge amount of fertile land.

But the agrarian-reform program has become one of the most emotional issues driving Chávez's opponents, who are pushing for a referendum on his rule. Between Nov. 28 and Dec. 1, they gathered more than 2 million signatures in an effort to qualify the recall for a vote, which could be held next March or April.

In several parts of the nation, including here in Barinas, the conflict has degenerated into violence and armed attacks by both sides. At the same time, in what Chávez's opponents call a general promotion of lawlessness and disrespect for private property, poor people have also occupied vacant buildings in Venezuelan cities.

"The rule of law has disappeared in this country," says Joel Silva, who claims ownership of the 10,000-acre El Britero hacienda on which the Zambranos settled. "[Chávez's] 'revolution' has us on the road to Castro communism."

Mr. Silva says that at the time of the campesinos' arrival he had about 15 employees and 3,000 cattle on the El Britero hacienda.

But Ricaurte Leonett, president of the National Lands Institute, known as the INTI, says that his institute redistributes only idle lands belonging to the government.

"Don't get nervous," he told farmers. "If your land is productive, even if it belongs to the government, there's no danger."

The land on which the Zambranos want to farm is part of one of the nation's highest-profile disputes. Last February, the INTI issued an "agrarian letter" declaring the 77,000 acres to be idle government-owned land and giving a group of families permission to organize a farming cooperative and occupy the land. The government assisted them with tractors, combines, and seed, and provided low-interest loans.

But several local businessmen, including Silva, claimed they owned parts of the land and filed lawsuits.

In November, both a local court and the nation's supreme court issued decisions supporting the plaintiffs, and police evicted the squatting campesinos. Authorities are appealing the decisions and promise the campesinos will return to the land.

On a recent Sunday afternoon a group of soldiers escorted a reporter and a campesino leader around El Britero. While some cattle were evident, much of the land appeared unused and overgrown with brush.

In a low white building shaded by palms and mango trees, some two dozen ranch hands were spending their day off playing dominos and cards. They described El Britero as a working ranch and said that just a day earlier three of them had been shot at by invading campesinos while repairing fencing.

"They are thieves, assailants, and communists," ranch hand William Soto says of the campesinos. "We're trying to work, and they won't let us."

The soldiers searched the grounds of the ranch house and discovered four shotguns and plastic bags of shells hidden in the weeds.

The ranch hands say they need the arms for self-defense, but the unit's commander, Jose Antonio Garcia, declared the arms illegal.

"Here, everybody calls themselves victims," he says. "I also have to disarm [the campesinos]."

However, while the violence which has marred the agrarian-reform program has received the most attention, it may be more the exception than the rule. The INTI says it has distributed 4.2 million acres to nearly 70,000 campesino families, organized into cooperatives. Previous governments also redistributed land, but campesinos say those administrations did not provide the necessary farming assistance, and the land was eventually sold back to large landowners.

The irony of the current conflict is that those suffering most are the landless campesinos and the low-paid ranch hands, many of whom once worked side by side.

"This here is a fight between brothers, which should not be taking place," says "Matris," a ranch hand who gave only his nickname.

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