Chávez Revving Up Revolution with Land Takeovers

(IPS) – Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez announced the expropriation of a subsidiary of the British Vestey Group, and of Agroisleña, a major agricultural firm founded by Spaniards half a century ago, indicating that he is radicalising his Bolivarian revolution in spite of a drop in support for him in the recent parliamentary elections.

In a nationally televised telephone interview late Monday, Chávez said Venezuela would take complete control of hundreds of thousands of hectares of land, including some 130,000 head of cattle, owned by La Compañía Inglesa (The English Company), which is controlled by the Vestey Group. 

Vestey has owned property in the country since 1909. The president said compensation had been negotiated with the company. 

Since 2001, the government has expropriated, with compensation, some three million hectares of land that were in private hands, and has issued permits to tens of thousands of families to work a total of two million hectares. 

Chávez announced the expropriation of Agroisleña on his television show “Alo Presidente” on Sunday Oct. 3, a week after the elections, when he also said the state would take over a further 250,000 hectares of land in coming weeks. 

During the broadcast, he also called on the armed forces to train armed militia among the populace. “Whoever saw an unarmed militia? We need territorial militias made up of producers, workers, farmers, the people in arms,” he said, addressing military commanders. 

Militias are opposed by anti-Chávez groups, because they are perceived as the “armed wing” of the leftwing political parties they oppose. 

The president “understood domestic and, above all, international interpretations of the September election results as a reverse for his political project, and felt compelled to prove that his revolution is making headway,” political analyst Manuel Felipe Sierra told IPS. 

In the new single-chamber legislature elected on Sept. 26, 98 of the 165 seats will be occupied by lawmakers of the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and its ally, the small Communist Party; two lawmakers will be former Chávez supporters belonging to the leftwing Patria Para Todos (PPT, Fatherland for All) party, and 65 will be from the opposition Coalition for Democratic Unity (MUD). 

The current parliament is composed almost exclusively of Chávez supporters, as it has been since 2005, when the opposition boycotted the parliamentary elections alleging distrust of the electoral authorities (although international observers found no evidence of fraud). 

The only opposition representatives at present are less than a score of lawmakers belonging to the breakaway PPT. 

In September, 5.4 million voters cast their ballots for the pro-Chávez parties, while MUD received 5.3 million votes, and the PPT and small centrist opposition groups collected another 600,000 votes. The popular vote is not proportionally reflected in the new parliament because of the complex electoral laws, which combine first-past-the-post and closed-party-list voting systems. 

Leopoldo Puchi, former family minister (1999-2000) during Chávez’s first term, told IPS: “The result was a protest vote reflecting disapproval of the government’s mistakes, but the government’s revolutionary plans for property seizure continue apace, although here the error is the failure to clarify exactly what sectors and what size companies will be affected.” 

Agroisleña, scheduled for takeover, was founded in 1958 by migrants from Spain’s Canary Islands. It provides farming credits and sells seeds, fertilisers and other agricultural inputs. 

“The magnitude of this company, which sells half the seed sown in 20 of the country’s 24 states, and finances 18,000 producers, means that the state will consolidate its control over the entire agricultural sector,” Sierra said. 

Chávez accused Agroisleña of overpricing its seeds and speculating with the prices of its seeds and fertilisers. “That’s enough, it is over. Now it will be the property of the people, the property of the nation,” he said. When he was told that the firm’s workers were asking for the measure to be revoked, he said: “They can protest, it is their right, but they are still expropriated.” 

Meanwhile the company “absolutely and categorically” rejected the state takeover. “We find it hard to believe that a company like Agroisleña could come to be expropriated and the only explanation we can imagine is that the president of the republic has been inadequately informed,” it said in a communiqué Monday. 

The owners of Agroisleña, heirs of the Spanish founders, have initiated contacts with Madrid, requesting the good offices of the Spanish government to protect their interests. 

Along with the nationalisation of the remaining land owned by the Vestey Group beef firm, four of whose farms were taken over by the state in 2005, Chávez called for redoubling the “struggle against huge estates (latifundios)” in lowland areas like those around lake Maracaibo in the northwest, a region that voted overwhelmingly in favour of the opposition in the parliamentary elections. 

Eduardo Gómez and José Manuel Pérez, agribusinessmen elected lawmakers for MUD, criticised “the expropriation of companies that make national production possible” Monday, saying the move “favours companies in countries where we purchase food,” such as Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Nicaragua and Uruguay. 

According to private sector statistics, Venezuela imports close to 70 percent of the food consumed by the population. 

A company can be expropriated for the public good, admitted Pérez, but he asked, “what is the plan for Agroisleña?” 

The latest expropriations were accompanied by announcements by the president of new housing programmes, to address the housing shortage, still a major concern among Venezuelans. Chávez also repeated calls to “banish bureaucracy and inefficiency” in the state apparatus. 

PSUV leaders ruled out the idea of seeking dialogue with the opposition once the new parliament is seated in early January. Instead, they indicated that outgoing lawmakers will pass new “revolutionary laws” in the next few weeks. 

According to Puchi, “it was never really on the cards that Chávez would change course, even if the opposition had won more seats in parliament.” “His government plan is still in force, however surprising or improvised its measures, like the state takeovers of land and companies, may appear,” he added. 

Sierra, for his part, said “Chávez’s approach is one of confrontation, which is why he antagonises political and economic sectors that oppose him…Revolutions cannot be halted, and he believes that he is leading a revolution.” 

The other side of the coin in Venezuela’s seemingly endless political conflict is that, according to Sierra, anti-Chávez sectors believe “they achieved a political victory Sept. 26, although it is not reflected in the number of their lawmakers in parliament. 

“With the relative success it enjoyed Sept. 26, the opposition is clearing its own pathway towards challenging and trying to beat Chávez in December 2012,” when presidential elections will be held for the 2013-2019 six-year term, he said. 

Puchi does not rule out the possibility of circumscribed agreements on specific matters in parliament, “but what we will most probably see will be politicians confronting each other in parliament while, outside, social protests by disgruntled sectors of the population will continue if they are dissatisfied by the government’s actions, as they have been dissatisfied over the last two years.”