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Venezuela's Land Reform Law Sparks Controversy - 2001-12-18

Venezuela's Land Reform Law is one of the most controversial measures in a package of economic decrees that President Hugo Chavez plans to implement, despite strong private sector opposition. Supporters of the land reform measure say it is needed to redress decades of injustice, while opponents say it is unworkable and violates the principle of private property.

"Get the new land law" - calls out a vendor holding up a tiny yellow booklet, as he stands at a corner on Plaza Bolivar in downtown Caracas. The vendor, whose name is Ernesto, says he sells about 20 of the tiny yellow booklets a day. He says: "I sell them to city people and country people, anyone who wants land."

The new land reform law is among 49 decrees issued by President Chavez last month under special powers granted to him by the Congress, which is controlled by his party. The law allows for the confiscation and redistribution of idle land and is meant to increase land ownership in a country where one percent of the population owns 60 percent of the arable land.

But this measure is at the heart of a dispute between Mr. Chavez and Venezuela's business sector, which organized a general strike on December 10. The shutdown, which paralyzed the South American nation, was called to protest the land law and the other decrees.

Strike leader Pedro Carmona, who heads the country's largest business association, Fedecamaras, told VOA the new land reform law violates the concept of private property. "We don't object to agrarian reform in Venezuela, as long as certain rights are respected," he said, "such as just compensation for lands that are expropriated." Instead, he said, the law seems aimed at promoting outright confiscation.

Robert Bottome, editor of a Caracas-based business publication Veneconomia, agrees. He said the law gives too much power to the government, and, at the same time, does not give the farmer title to the land. "You're going to grow the crops that the state tells you that the land is appropriate for growing," he said. "You're going to sell it at the price the state sets, and you cannot mortgage it, and you cannot sell it. Now, anyone who understands the first thing about private property will understand that the person who is working that land has no incentive to drill a new well, to put in drainage, to build a new fence or whatever, because the more he improves it the more likely it is they will take it way from him. So you've got the whole notion of private property, which has been the key to growth in almost all countries, isn't there."

President Chavez rejects these criticisms. At a Caracas rally on December 10, he told a cheering crowd his government will press ahead with land reforms. "I'm not only going to sign the land law," he said. "This law will go into effect as of today, and there will be no need to wait for even one second for it to be carried out." Among those at the rally, farmer Armando Araya from the state of Miranda, said he hopes his children will benefit from the new law. "Maybe I won't get land," he said, "but my children and grandchildren will." He went on to say that they would use the land to produce the food they need.

Proponents of the land law say it is not as radical as its opponents make out. Congressman Tarek William Saab, who is a member of the president's party, told VOA many of the concepts were borrowed from other countries. "Our goal is to create a mixed economy, so we have taken our ideas for the land reform law, for example, from countries like Germany and Italy," he said. "We did not use as references the land laws of countries like Vietnam." He went on to say that the objective is to confiscate unproductive land, which he said makes up 60 percent of Venezuelan territory.

But for editor Robert Bottome, the Chavez government is moving far beyond the concept of a mixed economy. For him, the land law harkens back to the collectivized agricultural system of the former Soviet Union. "You have to think like a Soviet-trained communist of the '30's to understand it," he said. "That's the problem. We're living in a time warp…, because this is something which was left behind. Even in the socialist countries, they understand the importance of private property now."

The dispute over the Land Law is likely to generate further conflict in the weeks ahead, as the Chavez government begins to implement the measure. The business sector and opposition-led labor unions have promised to hold more general strikes, if President Chavez does not agree to modify the land law and half a dozen other of his controversial economic decrees.