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martes, marzo 15, 2005

COHA on land reform: "More like Lincoln than Lenin"

I don't know much about the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, but I've been impressed by their analyses of Venezuela; they seem to have deep understanding and a balance that is lacking in most articles I see. A couple weeks ago COHA came out with a piece on Venezuela's land reform by Seth R. DeLong.

Land reform poses perhaps the greatest challenge yet to Chavez's stormy presidency, as it historically has been the Achilles' heel of left-of-center regimes. Chavez's daunting task is twofold: first, he will have to overcome problems that doomed past attempts at land reform throughout the region by other reformist governments . . . So far, he appears to have learned from his predecessors' mistakes by implementing a host of cautionary institutional measures in order to avoid them. Although the rightwing wrongly considers land reform to be a carte blanche attack on private property, the opposition and business interests, such as the Vestey cattle ranch, do have some legitimate concerns that need to be addressed.

The article goes on to lay out the goals and methods of land reform in Venezuela, and explain the differences between this and previous land reform projects in Latin America.

They've also come up with an analogy which I find quite helpful in trying to understand the current situation of land in Venezuela:

Imagine if in this country [the U.S.] a handful of families owned the entire state of California. There is no California Coastal Commission, no limits on the amount of land that may be purchased, no zoning laws, no government oversight of any kind, nothing of the sort. But none of this really matters to the average citizen because California, as a conglomeration of large, privately owned estates, will never be seen by most US residents (excepting itinerant laborers). In other words, try to think of one of the most beautiful state in the union as one giant gated community. Meanwhile, the country's landed oligarchy owns the vast majority of the land, most of which lies fallow because they prefer to sit on it for the purpose of land speculation rather than use it for agricultural production. With most of its arable land unused, your country is the only net importer of food on the continent and is forced to purchase more than two-thirds of its foodstuffs abroad. Though this analogy may help one to empathize with the land situation in Venezuela, it is still woefully inadequate for conveying an adequate grasp on the levels of inequality in that country, as California only makes up 4% of the U.S. land mass [while in Venezuela 75-80% of privately held land is owned by just a few families.]

Finally, the article looks for historical and political-economic parallels to Venezuela's current project, and finds the closest is not Southern nations' land reform plans, but the U.S. Homestead Act of 1862:

In the history of land reform, the most accurate analogy to illustrate what is transpiring in Venezuela is not Zimbabwe or Cuba - Chavez officials have repeatedly emphasized that they are not emulating the Cuban model of land reform - but the U.S.' own Homestead Act. Signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862, the measure declared that any U.S. or intended citizen of at least 21 years of age could claim up to 160 acres of government land. Like Chavez's Vuelta al Campo, there were many restrictions in the Act which benefited the recipients by ensuring that the new reform could not be manipulated by entrenched, moneyed interests. Under Lincoln's legislation, the land could not be sold to speculators or used as debt collateral, and only after five years of "actual settlement and cultivation," according to Section 2, could the homesteader submit an application for a land patent. Similarly, in Chavez's plan, only after three years may the peasants obtain legal ownership of the land, and only then after they have rendered it productive. The Homestead Act was one of the most progressive and far-reaching government initiatives in U.S. history insofar as it helped to develop and secure an agrarian-based middle class, which had an epic impact on the future democratization of the nation.

Of course, in lauding the Homestead Act, the authors neglect to mention that the land given to the settlers was already occupied at the time by Native Americans (those who remained after the genocidal wars against them), and that de facto only U.S. citizens of European descent could participate; in fact, the Homestead Act was a very effective measure towards entrenching the white working-class population as a bulwark against the poor and non-owning nonwhites with whom they otherwise might eventually have made common cause against the upper class.

But those conditions do not obtain in Venezuela. So perhaps, as DeLong says, "Chavez can establish his program as a rare success story."

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