Taking On Venezuela’s Latifundios

August 16, 2011

287Tierras Libres: Venezuela’s War in the Countryside, a documentary film by Edward Ellis (Cooperativa Primeras Voces), 2011, 70 mins.


In late 2001, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez established a new agrarian reform law. Designed to reorganize rural land tenancy by redistributing abandoned and underused farmland to landless peasants, the Land Law was one of the most controversial presidential decrees enacted under Venezuela’s “enabling law,” authorized by the National Assembly in an effort to accelerate the Chávez administration’s process of social, economic, and political transformation. The aim of the Land Law was to alleviate rural poverty, stimulate domestic agricultural production, and break up the system of latifundios, or large estates, that has long reigned in the countryside.

The program of agrarian reform initiated under the law is known as Mission Zamora, named for the 19th-century Venezuelan peasant leader Ezequiel Zamora. It has encouraged landless peasants to form agricultural cooperatives, appropriate idle farmland through state-sanctioned occupations, and apply for legal title to the land based on a proven ability to sustain agricultural production. The process began with the reallocation of publicly held land, but since 2005, the new government agency created to oversee land tenancy has increasingly targeted large private estates owned by some of Venezuela’s most powerful families. Although the law stipulates that the state must compensate landowners at market value for any land expropriated for redistribution, the program nonetheless represents a concerted effort to dismantle the concentrated economic power of the latifundistas. As a result, the Land Law has had a polarizing effect on rural society and has emerged as a major bone of contention for the most radical sectors of the anti-Chávez opposition.

Tierras Libres, a new documentary film by Edward Ellis, tells the story of Venezuela’s land reform and the violent backlash unleashed upon the landless peasants who have successfully “recuperated” unproductive farmland. Ellis, who has lived in Venezuela since 2005, begins with a sweeping historical overview of the land question in Latin America and its significance as a focal point of revolutionary struggle. The latifundio, he explains, is a legacy of the colonial era, when Spanish conquistadors appropriated indigenous lands and consolidated land ownership among a privileged few. 

As a consequence, land reform and redistribution has comprised a central axis of progressive change throughout the region’s history. When Chávez was elected in 1998, according to the film, 70% of Venezuela’s arable land was controlled by 5% of the population. Such a high level of land concentration, however, did not translate into a particularly efficient system of domestic agricultural production. Despite Venezuela’s abundance of agricultural land, at the time the country imported nearly 70% of the food it consumed. Ellis attributes this lack of a dynamic agricultural sector to Venezuela’s overwhelming reliance on revenue from oil exports. 

This is essential context for understanding the broader significance of Chávez’s agrarian reform program, which aims not only to remedy the inequalities of land distribution but to increase agricultural output, diversify the economy, and strengthen the country’s food security. The documentary does not offer any comprehensive statistical evidence of the extent to which the Land Law has succeeded in transforming Venezuela’s agricultural sector on a national scale. But it does provide compelling anecdotal accounts of how agrarian reform has made an impact on its intended beneficiaries and aroused the wrath of conservative elites.

Ellis first takes the viewer on a tour of the Fundo Zamorano Andrés Bello, an agricultural cooperative south of Lake Maracaibo, where campesinos attest to the difference that land reform has made in their lives. In the words of one cooperative member, “Before, when there was no land, you had to move around, but now, with this, we’re starting to grow roots and we have a steady income to live on.” The film soon shifts focus to the town of Chivacoa in the state of Yaracuy, home to a large sugar plantation and mill know as Central Matilde. Central Matilde was established by the Azquetas, a Cuban family that appropriated some 247,000 acres of farmland throughout the Yaracuy river valley in 1949. In carrying out this land grab, the Azquetas violently dispossessed peasant communities, but they nonetheless garnered the support of national and local government officials. Now an underused portion of the plantation has been taken over and is cultivated by the Fundo Zamorano Santa Lucía, which was granted a carta agraria, or legal authorization, from the National Land Institute in 2003. 

The film cuts back and forth between members of the Santa Lucía cooperative, elected officials, and government and NGO representatives, as well as several proprietors of large estates. According to Braulio Álvarez, a member of the National Assembly and campesino leader from Yaracuy, the Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce and the National Ranchers Association are the primary organized forces of reaction against the agrarian reform program. In an interview with the filmmaker, Fhandor Quiroga, who has served as president for both organizations in Yaracuy, appears to confirm as much. He denounces the Land Law as socialist and communist, an attempt on the part of a kleptocratic state to eliminate private property and destroy democracy.

Another landowner, an attorney named Miguel Soto, conjures the specter of Bolshevism with a bizarre recap of the film Doctor Zhivago, concluding: “I think the government wants to take us down that path. So we’re talking about the violation of human rights.” Meanwhile, Marino Alvarado of PROVEA—one of Venezuela’s leading human rights organizations, with a reputation for political nonpartisanship—suggests that this notion has been propagated by a radical wing of the opposition and assures viewers that there is in fact no threat to private property in Venezuela. 

One can assume a certain degree of justifiable bias on the part of the filmmaker, who effectively contrasts elite discourse with images of everyday life in Venezuela. For example, when one landowner complains of the serious problems caused by the government’s interventionist policies, Ellis cuts back to Santa Lucía, where cooperative member Alonso Zapata describes the benefits the community has received with help from government programs: 58 new homes, eight irrigation wells, a subsidized food market, administrative offices for the cooperative, a seed laboratory, and a new elementary school and preschool. 

In another of Ellis’s contrasts, Manuel Cipriano, identified as the president of the National Ranchers Association, makes an astounding claim during an interview: “We don’t have racial differences,” he says. “We don’t have class differences. We don’t have problems with color, races, or political differences . . . we’re simply accustomed to live in coexistence.” Ellis then provides evidence of Venezuela’s vast income disparities with alternating shots of wealthy neighborhoods, high-end shopping malls, five-star hotels, and private clubs alongside urban slums and grinding rural poverty. Such denial as Cipriano’s might strike the viewer as laughable were it not for the seriousness with which Ellis treats the ongoing retaliation against the land reform’s beneficiaries.

The second half of the film centers on the widespread violence that campesinos have suffered at the hands of thugs contracted by large landowners. Back in Chivacoa, we are introduced to Santa Lucía cooperative member Doneila D’vies, whose husband, Hermes Escalona, was killed in 2003 by a group of hired assassins from Central Matilde, according to D’vies and other family members. Despite the presence of several witnesses and evidence that the killing was orchestrated by company management, the family maintains, the investigation has been continually stonewalled by the prosecutor’s office. Ellis includes footage of D’vies’s appearance on Chávez’s weekly TV program, Aló Presidente, where she appeals directly to the president for help with her case. On the air, Chávez pledges the assistance of his legal adviser, but D’vies later laments that there was never any follow-up on the matter. In the end, she mournfully concludes that “there is no justice for the poor” and leaves the matter in God’s hands.

The film also covers the killing of Nelson López, a campesino leader whose family encountered similar obstacles in their attempt to prosecute his killers. After the trial was suspended nine times, two suspects were finally convicted in October, while the person who contracted the gunman was acquitted. Meanwhile, the landowner who ordered the murder remains a fugitive. 

As the viewer learns, these cases are not isolated incidents. According to human rights activists interviewed for the film, paramilitarism is a growing problem among the most extreme wing of the anti-Chávez opposition, and the Public Attorney’s office is largely responsible for the ongoing impunity. Moreover, in many instances, security forces have been implicated in conflicts between campesinos and landowners. When Ellis and his crew attempt to arrange an interview with the management at Central Matilde, they are turned away, but not before discovering National Guard troops stationed inside the company’s installation.

The landowners who do appear on camera categorically deny any involvement in attacks against campesinos. “We are not an army,” Quiroga says. “What we do is work, produce jobs, produce social well-being, generate wealth.” Quiroga and his colleagues are not portrayed as perpetrators of any specific acts of violence, but as representative voices of an entire class of people for whom land reform represents a socio-economic and political threat. The films shows that the repression exacted upon campesinos like Hermes Escalona and Nelson López is part of the oligarchy’s strategic repertoire in this new class war, but Ellis does not suggest that any of the individuals he interviewed are directly implicated in these attacks. 

He does, however, expose the scale and brutality of the violence that has befallen the Venezuelan countryside, leaving the viewer with a grim impression of the wealthy few who have benefited for so long from the exclusion and repression of the poor majority. Ultimately, it is almost impossible not to sympathize with the long-oppressed peasants trying to eke out a humble existence.

For this and other reasons, Tierras Libres stands out as a documentary on contemporary Venezuela. Perhaps most importantly, it focuses on the rural poor, a sector of Venezuelan society that is often neglected. The vast majority of Venezuela’s population, after all, is urban. It is the urban poor who have benefited most from the Chávez government’s social programs, and it is they who comprise the largest base of the Bolivarian movement. As the documentary makes clear, however, the question of land remains unresolved—and this is perhaps one of the most significant and persistent contradictions of the revolutionary process. 

Ellis has a keen regard for the profound complexity of the political and socio-economic transformations under way in Venezuela. Chávez is portrayed neither as a savior nor as a demon. If the government’s land-reform initiative has provided an unprecedented opportunity to change the country’s highly unequal system of land tenure, it also appears unable to contain the forces of reaction unleashed on campesinos as a result. Chávez’s power is not absolute, and many local governments and state institutions remain in the hands of conservative elite factions. The plight of landless peasants has, unfortunately, thus far remained a relatively marginal concern for the urban-based revolutionary movement in Venezuela. Ellis has done them a great service by giving voice to their struggle and exposing the problems of impunity, violence, and inequality that plague the Venezuelan countryside.



Emma Kreyche is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis, Program in American Studies, at New York University. The website for the film can be found at tierraslibres.blogspot.com.


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