The Struggle for Land in Present Day Venezuela

By Eduardo Viloria Daboín

I

The year 2018 was, among the recent ones, the hardest for those in Venezuela fighting for the democratization of land. Paradoxically, it is the year following the celebration of the bicentennial of the birth of Ezequiel Zamora, historical leader of the struggle for land in our country, to whom President Nicolás Maduro claimed in the Official Gazette as the “undoubted guide for the construction of a fairer society”. No wonder Zamora, together with Bolívar and Simón Rodríguez, forms the triad of the three roots of Bolivarianism as a project.

However, violent evictions, violation of human rights, administrative delay and bureaucracy, unfulfilled institutional commitments, threats from armed groups, hired killers were, specifically, what the men and women who are part of the Venezuelan peasant movement faced during 2018

The movement’s response to this complex reality was to fight back, with organization, training, productive work, mobilization and communication work. As opposed to this combativeness, during the conflicts, in its most critical moments, when evictions, threats and even murders of peasants were reported, the public (government) media, the Bolivarian revolution outlets, which are supposed to be spokespersons of popular feelings and clamor, were silent.

The authorities also remained silent at all levels: Minister Castro Soteldo, Inti’s president Luis Soteldo, other ministers, police and FANB authorities, mayors, governors, public authorities of justice and human rights. It is worth mentioning the exception of the prosecutor Tarek William Saab, who announced the same request for capture against Ricardo Mora, although since then the thing has not moved forward.

However, despite this wall of silence, the peasant struggle, with its problems and demands, managed to transcend the siege and become the subject of national debate. This required boldness, articulation of peasant forces, articulation of alternative media and key journalists, sacrifice, organization and mobilization.

To break through these barriers, an effort was made to denounce and make visible the illegal detention of 32 peasants in El Vigía, Mérida state, among whom was a woman, Angelica, with her three-month-old nursing daughter. Finally, the case reached the ears of President Maduro and the outrage was met nationally, thanks to the pronouncement that the president made on the radio and television, condemning the event, demanding the immediate release of the detainees, ordering the investigation and punishment of the officials responsible for the outrage and the expeditious advance of land rescue processes in the country. In addition, it expressly prohibited the evictions of peasants and the reversal of agrarian instruments handed over to peasants by the Bolivarian revolution.

Following this address by President Maduro, some actions were taken and the practice of arbitrary evictions in which different public security forces were used to execute them was halted. But other practices remained intact: the administrative delay in the INTI, the realization of technical reports rigged to favor the landowners, the issuance of protection measures for livestock or virtually nonexistent crops in favor of landowners, judicial harassment of peasant leaders and criminalization. The president’s instructions, in that sense, were not fulfilled.

In this regard, the act that in June 2018 was headed by the president of the Inti, Luis Soteldo, in Tucaní, Mérida state, in which the expeditious delivery of eight lots to the peasants of the “Sur del Lago” area was announced, is emblematic: to date, only one of all those properties, the El Carmen property, has been formally delivered, with its corresponding Socialist Agrarian Charter; all the others, and ten others that were not mentioned by Soteldo, are still pending.

Over the months, faced with the failure of the officials to whom President Maduro entrusted with the responsibility of guaranteeing the satisfaction of the peasant demands, the conflict intensified, and a series of actions and mobilizations took place, to put pressure in this respect, which also achieved the necessary national repercussions, the breaching of barriers. Some of these actions were unitary, such as the taking of the INTI of Barinas on June 26. Others, such as the Admirable Peasant March, in which a group of peasants marched on foot from Portuguesa to Caracas to be received by President Maduro himself, the president of the National Constituent Assembly, Diosdado Cabello and vice president Delcy Rodríguez on August the 2nd. Another action, aimed to build and reunify the peasant movement, was the public launch of the National Productive Alliance, in a large assembly in Yaracuy on August 11 with more than 250 peasant leaders from different states of the country.

As a counter to this dynamic and powerful action of the peasant movement, the dark forces of the landowners and the agrarian mafias also acted. The use of armed groups to threaten and intimidate the peasants and the practice of hiring killers again gained strength in the country. These were multiple, for example, the specific denunciations of threats and aggressions against peasants by heavily armed men in the “Sur del Lago” area, complaints all made openly, with uncovered faces, called out, using first and last names, the presence, during the armed actions, of landowners such as Rogelio Artega, Eduardo Celis or Ramón Meza. The same day that President Maduro made the public observance with the members of The Admirable Peasant March, almost simultaneously, was cruelly murdered in the state of Barinas, with the most horrific manifestations of the worst of paramilitary violence, Orlando Reyes Parra, peasant leader of the La Escondida property, who had repeatedly made public the threats of the landowner Ricardo Mora.

A couple of weeks later, 16-year-old Kendri Márquez was killed by an accurate shot to the heart while riding his motorcycle on the Pan-American highway in Mérida state. To these assassinations are added that of Guillermo Toledo and Jesús León in Barinas, Luis Fajardo in Mérida and José Aguilar in Barinas, the latter during the same assassination operation in which Reyes Parra was murdered in La Escondida.

The year ended with a massive mobilization in San Cristóbal, Táchira, on November 20, organized by the National Productive Alliance, in which 1,500 campesinos(as) arrived at the MAT (Ministry of Agriculture and Land) with a set of proposals that included a series of idle properties to rescue. That day established the institutional commitment to move in that direction and to this day these advances have not materialized.

II

So far in 2019 the reality does not seem different: the peasant struggle continues to intensify, the lack of institutional response and the effective action of the agrarian mafias continues to set the tone. The murder, on January 10, of José de La Cruz Márquez, peasant leader of the Buena Esperanza property in Zulia, was already an announcement of the battles that the peasant movement was due to have this year for the democratization of the land.

The first battle is already daily: it is the one that is carried out against the agrarian institutions that dilate to the infinite the technical and administrative procedures to advance in the issuing of Socialist Agrarian Charters to the peasants, in an action that clearly favors the landowners: they allow the lapses established in the law to pass so that, on the one hand, the inspections that certify the necessary unproductivity to authorize the rescue can be modified in a fraudulent way for the alleged landowners, and on the other, give them time to get and articulate the “favors” of agrarian judges who dictate measures of eviction and protection of their land and their supposed “production”, or that of public prosecutors who open investigations and judicial harassment of peasant leaders.

If the INTI proceeded with speed and efficiency in the technical and administrative processes that are required after a property is reported as idle, it would be inspected to authorize the rescue and a measure of assurance dictated in favor of the farmers, none of the complications mentioned before would occur.

Now, why authorize a rescue, dictate warranties in favor of peasants, notify the presumed owner of the rescue, if in the end what is happens is a delay of the process and not to solve it expeditiously in favor of the peasant public? Could it be that the business starts there? Could it be that the Land Law is used as an instrument of extortion in which those who fight for land are trapped and used only for the profit of corrupt officials and agrarian mafias? Undoubtedly, this is an issue that needs to be sounded and in which there should be a serious and thorough investigation, because the excessive number of land rescue processes is striking, in which, after the rescue began, everything remains in an infinite stagnation.

Another battle is the fight against evictions and against the reversion of land rescue processes. There it suffices to mention three cases that in recent weeks have become emblematic : the Hato las Mercedes, in Barinas, the Montecarlo estate, in Mérida, and the Los Tramojos estate, in Guárico.

In Las Mercedes , it’s a matter of a process that has taken more than 7 years. On May 23, following an order from the judge of the Socopó agrarian court, Orlando Contreras, an attempt was made to evict the peasant councils that are fighting the rescue of 7,777 hectares of land, out of a total of 14,812 hectares of the entire farm. In this case there is already a resolution of the INTI from March of last year, which establishes the rescue in favor of the peasants(as). However: How did Inversiones Rizsa SA, represented by Ignacio Riera, alleged owner of the herd, achieve the eviction order issued by Judge Contreras? How did the Riera Zubillaga family manage that 15 vehicles of security forces between GNB and Barinas police appeared on the property and managed to evict two of the eight Peasant Councils that occupy and work the land? It is worth mentioning that the name of Judge Orlando Contreras also appears to be involved in similar cases such as the La Primavera and Palo Quemao plots, where, incidentally, the campesinos Guillermo Toledo and Jesús León were murdered as part of the land conflict on May 12, 2018

The eviction managed to be stopped, thanks to the intervention of the constituent Pedro Alvarado and the deputy to the legislative council Juan Carlos Pinto, both militants of the Bolivar Revolutionary Current and Zamora, to the rapid mobilization of the peasants, to the solidity of their organizational spaces and to the activation of alternative communication springs. Working tables were set up with the presence of the agrarian authorities to work on the case and move forward on a solution. However, the days pass and the answers do not arrive. On the contrary, the eviction threats appear again and information is rolled about the preparation of a decision behind closed doors, without the participation of the peasant councils, who for their part have not stopped being active. They came to Caracas to directly denounce the case in the Vice Presidency of the Republic, in the INTI and in the Supreme Court of Justice. The uncertainty continues, the anguish, which does not prevent the spaces of the property occupied by the peasants from being fully productive, as evidenced by the multiplicity of videos and photographs that have circulated on social networks.

In the case of the Montecarlo property, in the municipality of Alberto Adriani in the “Sur del Lago de Maracaibo”, it is necessary to mention that it is the property where 16-year-old Kendri Márquez was murdered, after repeated threats by spokespersons of the landowner Mirella Vega. To date, justice has not been done. Kendri’s death remains totally unpunished. In the case of this property, the Peasant Council “Land, Free Men and Women” is fighting for the rescue of the land for 10 months, after the farm remained abandoned for more than eight years. The administrative advances before the INTI, in this case, are minimal, despite the fact that a murder has already taken place.

On May 15 of this year a commission said to be acting on behalf of the Vice Presidency of the Republic (which has not been denied by the institution), composed of the representative of the ombudsman, Alejandro Mora, the judge of agrarian courts in the first instance of El Vigía, Carmen Rosales, the first lieutenant of the FANB in that area, surnamed Contreras, and the prosecutor of the 6th Prosecutor’s Office, Jesús Leonardo Ojeda Coronel, in addition to the lawyer Marlin Sosa, appeared on the site with the purpose of notifying the peasant council that they must vacate the premises as soon as possible. Then, on June 14, a visit was repeated with the same purpose, this time with the presence of the Agrarian Judge of “El Vigía” Carmen Rosales, the Attorney General Camilo Bastos, the lawyer of INTI, Luis Rangel, and members of the Bolivarian National Guard. Here the same questions arise as in the case of La Mercedes. How did the landowner Mirella Vega achieve such institutional articulation against the peasants? How have you managed to ensure that justice has not investigated you this year and much less punished for the murder of Kendri Márquez? Some authority should answer these questions, right? In this case, it also seeks to criminalize the peasant council for the death of livestock, when farmers have shown that the little livestock left there by the landowner lacks food because the farm’s own employees removed the grass precisely to criminalize the peasant council.

The third case is that of the Los Tramojos property, in the Guárico state. These are lands that in 2010 were declared as idle lands, legitimately adjudicated and ratified in 2017 by the Ministry of Productive Agriculture and Lands. For 7 years, the more than 40 families that make up this rescue stayed on the farm, working the land, planting and investing in bienechurías. At the end of 2016 a series of abuses began that ended with arbitrary eviction, which involved the loss of homes, equipment, animals and plants. They were criminalized, some deprived of liberty and accused of disobedience to authority and / or irregular occupation. On June 18, after deciding to resume the struggle for those lands, the peasants of the Zamorano Peasant Council, articulated with the Peasant Struggle Platform, tried to enter the premises again, and were mistreated and intimidated by the Guárico police and the FAES, a conflict in which two popular communicators had their equipment confiscated (although it was returned later on, after erasing the material that had been recorded).

Peasant spokesmen involved in the events report that the INTI, the Agrarian Court, the Ombudsman’s Office were not present, but the General Manager of the Los Tramojos Farming Company, José Elías Chirimelli, accompanied by his lawyer and the aforementioned law enforcement agencies. They also denounced the irregular retention by the FAES of the leader Jesús Osorio. Again the same questions arise: How did Chirimelli manage the reversion of the land given by the Bolivarian revolution to the peasants? How achieved such a deployment of the Guárico police (responding to the state governor José Vásquez) and bodies like the FAES? Again, the answers from the authorities are needed.

III

It is an unquestionable fact that the democratization of the earth is one of the central flags of the Bolivarian revolution, one of the fundamental achievements of our people and one of the main aspects of the agrarian model defined by Hugo Chávez in the Land and Agrarian Development Law. That is why the extremely adverse reality is so serious that the peasant movement must confront to defend the gains made with this law and advance in the struggle for the definitive realization of that historical aspiration: to eradicate the latifundium because it is contrary to the public interest, as our constitution reads, and because it is a basic impediment to advancing the productive development of the Venezuelan countryside, which in turn is an inescapable premise to achieve social justice and the good living of the peasant people.

In addition to this, in the current context of US foreign aggression, with the financial and commercial coercive measures implemented illegally by that country against Venezuela, which prevent the commercialization of our wealth and the importation of food for our people, it is more than strategic that the progress be made in a forceful and sustained manner in the democratization of the land and the eradication of the latifundio. Added to this is the increasing complexity of the lives of our people in the countryside as a result of the economic crisis, uncontrolled hyperinflation, the precariousness of work and the pulverization of wages: in the countryside the only alternative that our people have is to sow and raise food, which is why it is an act of supreme injustice that, before the eyes of the people, there remain thousands and thousands of hectares of unproductive land in the hands of rich people who do not even live in the countryside and often do not even live in the country.

However, the country still does not have a clear policy on the matter, in which plans, goals, deadlines, priorities are defined: how many hectares will we save a year from the clutches of the latifundio? In which states, as a priority? What kind of soil will be democratized in the first instance? How many people still remain without land? Such a policy should begin by making clear the status of the procedures that are currently open and advancing their solution; it should begin by investigating and punishing any judge, prosecutor, officer of the INTI, police and military that has participated or been involved in administrative delays, authorization and execution of eviction, writing rigged reports. But for all this there is a prerequisite: the participation and power in agrarian institutionality should be opened to the peasants who fight for land, the Regional Land Offices should be managed by the peasant people and there should be a greater balance of these sectors in the national directory of INTI.

How will we achieve, if not, the strategic goal of productive development and food sovereignty that allows us to resist with dignity the foreign aggression (the current one and those to come) and push ahead with freedom the project of society that we draw as a people in the Bolivarian constitution? There’s no other way. This is the cornerstone of any development project that seeks to meet the high goals of equality, equity and social justice of our constitution. And it is not enough for the isolated announcement of lands given here and others there after years of struggle, sacrifice and death even, the delivery of some seeds delivered here and others there is not enough. It requires the construction of a serious, comprehensive and coherent policy, with the participation of the people, and political will is required to move in that direction.

It is clear that this implies conflicts of power and pressures of factors of factual power, it is clear that there are interests at stake on the part of forces that from inside and outside the revolution push in the opposite direction. We are not naive. That is why we say that what is lacking is the will to move in that direction, because the people to push are there, the vocation for work is there, the disposition of struggle is there. Is it that there is no force in the institutionality of power to advance on a route like this? Or is it that the plan from the upper echelons of institutional power is another?

Source URL: 15 y Ultimo

Translated by JRE/EF

Eduardo Viloria Daboin
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Filmmaker. Director and screenwriter of "Is there someone there?" (Feature film about autism). He was a contributor to the cultural magazine Sujeto Almado. Member of the team of the alternative newspaper Proceso, as well as the Audiovisual Cooperative "La Célula". Books published: En trance de sonar (2004); Silence sung towards the abyss (2008).

Eduardo Viloria Daboin

Filmmaker. Director and screenwriter of "Is there someone there?" (Feature film about autism). He was a contributor to the cultural magazine Sujeto Almado. Member of the team of the alternative newspaper Proceso, as well as the Audiovisual Cooperative "La Célula". Books published: En trance de sonar (2004); Silence sung towards the abyss (2008).