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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 August 2005, 21:24 GMT 22:24 UK
Revolution on Venezuela's estates

By Clive Myrie
BBC News, Washington

One of Britain's richest men, Lord Vestey, says he'll fight the Venezuelan government to stop hundreds of peasant farmers taking over land on his cattle ranches in South America.

The Vestey meat group is one of a number of big land owners affected by President Chavez's controversial reform proposals, which he says are part of a package of measures designed to help the country's poor.

Hugo Chavez
Venezuela's poor believe they have a champion in President Chavez

In Venezuela's lush pastoral interior a revolution is under way.

The El Charcote ranch is three hours drive from the capital Caracas.

It stretches as far as the eye can see, and for the best part of a century was the domain of one family.

Very handsome looking head cattle are idling in the midday sun.

The herd is 6,400 strong, the property of an English lord. But the land on which they roam is now being taken away.

Hundreds of peasant farmers have now moved onto the El Charcote ranch and are determined to keep what they say is a birthright.

'Blood, sweat, tears'

Other countries in South America experienced land reform in the 1960s with rich landowners relinquishing their big farms.

Hut on the Vesty estate
Peasant farmers have moved onto the Vestey ranch

Now Venezuela's time has come. The first peasant farmers moved here four years ago.

They say they're not squatters, or land invaders but honest hardworking people.

Jose Pena - who is 67 - spoke to me from the porch of his makeshift home on El Charcote.

"If we were in your land you would have kicked us out. We are claiming what is owed to us: the land of our ancestors."

At the 13,000-hectare ranch, 1,500 people now call El Charcote their home.

The government here unlike in Zimbabwe, says it is willing to pay compensation if the Vestey family can prove it legally owns the land.

Farm manager Tony Richards maintains this is private property bought fair and square more than a century ago, and that the squatters should leave.

"The amount of blood, sweat and tears that has been used on this farm, I mean, to see that being destroyed in front of your eyes every day - and you can't do anything about it - it's heartbreaking.

"This is private property, I think - all over the world - private property should be respected."


Respect for convention isn't in the blood of Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chavez.

The change for more leftist governments throughout Latin America has come about because for the past two decades neo-liberal economics has essentially not delivered its promise of greater economic growth
Dr Gregory Wilpert

He sees himself as a latter day Robin Hood. In a country where less than 5% of the population owns 80% of the land, it was Venezuela's poor who voted him into the Presidential palace.

Johnny Yanez is close to the president and is the state governor in charge of taking over Lord Vestey's land.

He told me that it is the poor who elected him and President Chavez and so we have a responsibility to the poor.

For too long, he said, the rich have had it all their own way - to the detriment of the majority of the people.

"We need to reshape our country, and land reform is an important part of the process."

Johnny Yanez is now a local hero. Earlier this year he handed out official papers to a number of peasant farmers giving them the right to move onto El Charcote.

The government has its eye on two more farms belonging to Lord Vestey and a number of other big landowners now have unwanted guests on their ranches.

They too have no idea if they'll ever be paid compensation.

Wretched slums

Away from the countryside, President Chavez has other big plans to shake up Venezuela.

Caracas skyline
Eighty-three per cent of Venezuelans live below the poverty line

We caught up with him at a rally for party workers in Caracas where he outlined new plans to help low income families with housing.

He sat at a large desk on a stage with advisors on either side of him.

In the audience filling the hall was a sea of people wearing white tee-shirts and red baseball caps.

His supporters call themselves Chavistas - loyal followers who hold nothing but contempt for those who attack their leader's policies, like those critics among the wealthier classes who have tried unsuccessfully to topple him.

There's also deep anger against those in the Bush administration who see Hugo Chavez as a dangerous left wing, anti-capitalist, ideologue.

But the more their leader is attacked, the more these people love him and spontaneous applause followed pretty much every statement the president made.

The Chavistas point to the wretched slum areas of the capital Caracas as proof that a president like Hugo Chavez is badly needed.

Eighty-three per cent of Venezuelans live below the poverty line, this in one of the world's biggest oil exporters.

The president says he wants to use more of the country's wealth to fund hospitals and schools.

Venezuela's poor believe they have a champion in Hugo Chavez, a man determined to transform society - and he's not alone.

Big question

Across South America, a number of other leaders are implementing controversial policies they say are designed to raise the living standards of millions.

President Chavez along with his counterparts from Argentina and Brazil for example are part of a Continent wide shift in political thought.

Dr Gregory Wilpert is an analyst and author who's just written a book looking at Hugo Chavez's reforms.

"The change for more leftist governments throughout Latin America has come about because for the past two decades neo-liberal economics has essentially not delivered its promise of greater economic growth.

"Latin America has had relatively little economic growth, and inequality has increased."

President Chavez also admires Cuba's Fidel Castro, but says Venezuela's revolution is based on a new kind of socialism, not communism.

Dr Wilpert says: "In many ways the policies resemble typical social democratic policies - social programs of feeding the poor or of providing education to the poor all directed by the state and so on...

"But the government is trying to go beyond that as well."

Old certainties are being tossed aside in a corner of the world notoriously resistant to change.

The big question is will land reform and President Chavez's other proposals, actually make society more equal or simply further divide the nation.

See the peasants move in to take Lord Vestey's land


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