Chavez Land Crusade Eyes UK-Owned Venezuelan Ranch
CARACAS, Venezuela A cattle ranch in Venezuela owned by one of Britain's richest families may become a test case in President Hugo Chavez's crusade to redistribute land to the poor as part of his leftist revolution.
El Charcote, a 32,000-acre cattle ranch in Cojedes state that belongs to the British Vestey Group, was one of several private country estates earmarked for "intervention" this month by pro-Chavez state Gov. Jhonny Yanez.
Yanez's decree followed orders from Chavez for local governors and military commanders to apply a 2001 land law that gives the government the power to take over and redistribute privately owned estates judged to be idle or unproductive.
Authorities in Cojedes said the recent decree did not mean instant expropriation, but rather a formal investigation to see whether owners had legal title or were using lands properly.
Other state governors meeting in Cojedes on Wednesday said they would also seek to enforce the land reform.
Private farmers say the president's publicly declared war against "latifundios" -- as huge rural estates in Latin America are known -- could threaten property rights and frighten off foreign investors in oil-rich Venezuela.
"Anyone with a 'latifundio' is like someone with a stolen car, even if he's bought it," Chavez, who won a referendum on his presidency in August, told state governors recently. Chavez has increasingly complained the application of the 2001 land law is too slow and called for it to be speeded up.
The populist president, who is reviled by critics as a Communist-inspired autocrat and praised by supporters as a champion of the poor, says many rural estates are left idle by absentee owners while landless peasants live in poverty.
For Agroflora, the Vestey subsidiary that operates the El Charcote property and a dozen other big ranches in Venezuela, the Cojedes decree was a bombshell.
The Vesteys, one of Britain's wealthiest business dynasties whose members rub shoulders with the royal family, have operated in Venezuela since the last century, raising cattle on the country's lush tropical plains.
"We are the country's best beef producers. Vesteys has been in Venezuela for 100 years and we want to be here for 100 years more," Agroflora President Diana Dos Santos said.
Company lawyers were studying the Cojedes decree, which targets several local properties -- including an internationally famous eco-tourism ranch, Hato Pinero.
Farmers and diplomats are at a loss to explain why Chavez's government, which says it welcomes foreign capital, should want to tamper with one of the biggest overseas investors in the badly underdeveloped farming sector.
The decree followed a 4-year-old invasion of much of El Charcote's lands by hundreds of poor squatters. Britain has repeatedly asked Chavez's administration to resolve this problem, a request that has fallen on deaf ears so far.
"The invasion has been an issue on the bilateral agenda between the two governments. The British government is sure to follow the latest developments very closely," a British diplomat in Caracas told Reuters.
The "English Company," as Vestey is known locally, is a big regional employer.
But Yanez, the state governor, defended the move toward redistributing the land to the needy and using it for food production and a new sugar mill.
He said it was inspired by Ezequiel Zamora, a crusading 19th century Venezuelan federalist general -- often quoted by Chavez -- who led his men against rich landowners with the cry "Oligarchs tremble ... Free land and free men!"