On May 2nd, the Venezuelan Supreme Court motioned to uphold the November 2003 ruling in favor of landowner Rogelio Peña Aly, economist and former mayor of Barinas state, who claims his land has been illegally occupied since February of 2003. The peasant communities currently inhabiting the vast “Hato Santa Rita” estate believe they are within their rights under the Land Law, a position which late president Hugo Chavez publicly supported.
The peasants, or campesinos, claim that Peña Aly acquired the 3,600 hectares through corruption and intimidation. Their argument for lawful occupation is based on the anti-latifundio policies which Chavez incorporated into the Land Law, known as Mission Zamora.
The objective of Mission Zamora was “to establish roots for sustainable rural development, with the understanding that they are fundamental for human and economic growth… within the framework of equitable distribution of wealth and strategic, democratic, participative planning, to eliminate the latifundio and unjust subcontracting [which in this context, is similar to tenant farming]….”
Since the early 2000s, the National Land Institute (INTi) has carried out this objective by helping campesinos turn idle land into productive farmland. Among the many beneficiaries of the INTi’s work were the current occupants of the Hato Santa Rita.
Community leader Jose Tapia Coiran told reporters last month that on the land in question, campesinos are “producing 30,000 litres of milk a day, our number of livestock is over 25,000. We have 14 schools, four electoral centers, we have built over 230 km of agricultural roadways.
“Our production is for the people, for the state, for the institutions. These lands were rescued,” he stated.
However, according to official reports, agribusiness conglomerate Fedenagas gave testimony in support of Peña Aly’s case, claiming the Hato Santa Rita was currently unproductive.
For many, the Supreme Court decision demonstrates the differences of opinion within the governing bodies, especially in regard to property rights. Whether the INTi will be able to provide legal support for the peasants of Hato Santa Rita remains to be seen, but in the mean time, the peasants have made it clear to numerous reporters that they plan to stay put and continue production.
Edith Arena, a campesina and resident of Santa Rita told reporters last month, “Before we rescued these lands we would go hungry….we were beggars…. now my daughter has an education and her daily bread…. Now they want to make us leave? Only God can make us leave.”
In a solidarity statement released yesterday by independent news source Aporrea Tvi, a reporter wrote, “It doesn’t make any sense, in the middle of a crisis of [scarcity] basic food stuffs, this group of family farmers will be evicted from recuperated land, setting an ominous precedent and representing a change in the land laws that have so far characterized the Bolivarian Revolution.”
On Sunday, Aldemaro Sanoja of the Barinas State Workers Federation demanded the government make known their position regarding the Supreme Court decision, saying, “until now no government figure has raised their voice over this case, only silence, even though land tenancy is intimately tied to the revolutionary and socialist character of our process.”
In sharp contrast to the Supreme Court ruling, on Monday INTi presented communes in Merida and Anzoategui states with land titles of former latifundio estates. Resisting pressure from Fedenagas and others, over 30,000 hectares of land have been retitled by INTi as communal property, and are expected to be put into immediate production for the good of the surrounding community.
Paramilitaries in Sur de Lago
In an area near Maracaibo, Zulia state, unidentified armed men, allegedly sent by neighboring ranchers, used brute force to remove 200 peasants, mostly Wayuu indigenous from their places of residence over the weekend.
This is not the first time paramilitary forces have been detected in the region. In 2013, the National Guard investigated claims of unusually cruel attacks, leading to the arrest of seven mercenaries and the confiscation of numerous automatic firearms. According to official reports, those arrested had been part of a “peasant massacre” plot, with the intention of scaring people off the land that ranchers wish to control.
United Socialist Party house deputy Orlando Zambrano declared Saturday that what occurred in Sur de Lago is an urgent matter of human rights, and should be investigated accordingly by the federal government.