Caracas, January 4, 2005—Several state governors of Venezuela have either recently passed or are in the process of drafting decrees to accelerate the country's land reform process. The decrees are meant to eliminate large landed estates (latifundios) and to clarify ownership and usage of agricultural land in Venezuela.

In late 2001 the Chavez government had passed a controversial land reform law, which was aimed at redistributing land holdings of over 100 to 5,000 hectares (250-12,500 acres), depending on its quality, to landless peasants. So far the government has redistributed state-owned land to over 130,000 peasant families, of about 10 hectares (25 acres) each. Except for disputes over which land belongs to the state and which to private landowners, no privately owned land has yet been officially redistributed.

Venezuela's land reform law specifies that large landed estates, especially if they are not being cultivated, are to be redistributed. In response to the decrees being passed in several states, Venezuela's Vice-President, José Vicente Rangel, said, "The struggle against the latifundio makes social and economic sense, which is why it is of the highest interest to the state." The Chavez government hopes to increase both social justice and "food sovereignty" via the land reform program. Venezuela currently imports 60-70 of its food stuffs and agricultural production makes up merely 6% of the country's GDP.

In Cojedes state, in Venezuela's North West, the recently reelected pro-Chavez governor Jhonny Yánez Rangel, passed a decree that called for the "intervention" of uncultivated private land. The decree does not specify what it means by intervention, but says that the state government will intervene in "all lands, urban and rural land, public and private, that presumably is uncultivated or classified as part of the latifundio regime..."

Other pro-Chavez state governors, such as in Monagas, Yaracuy, Apure, Barinas, and Portugesa, have either passed similar decrees or are in the process of drafting them. While they vary in how they would be applied, they all involve the creation of technical commissions for identifying and redistributing the land.

Meanwhile, Vice-President Rangel has convened a special meeting to coordinate the efforts taking place in the different states. Also involved in this meeting was Eliecer Otaiza, the director of the National Land Institute (INTI), which is responsible for the land reform. Otaiza said that his institute recently conducted a study and now estimates that there are about 500 estates with uncultivated agricultural land, of which 56 would be classified as latifundios, the large landed estates that used to dominate Latin American societies. In Venezuela latifundios are defined as estates of over 20,000 hectares (50,000 acres). "We hope to issue 100,000 land grants within the next six months," said Otaiza.

Land owners whose land is expropriated under the 2001 Land Law would receive market value compensation. Despite this, opposition leaders have criticized the law as being "communist" and as a violation of private property rights.

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Just two days before George Bush's second electoral victory, someone Bush and his administration apparently cannot stand, Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez, celebrated his ninth consecutive electoral victory in six years. The vote was for state governors and city mayors and Chavez's allies swept the vote, winning 20 out of the 22 contested state capitals and 270 of the 337 city halls. Altogether, pro-Chavez factions won the same percentage of the vote, about 60%, in these elections as Chavez himself did two and a half months earlier, when he defeated a recall referendum.

In contrast to Bush, Chavez's ninth electoral victory (including various referenda on the new constitution) has once again confirmed that he does indeed have a mandate to remake Venezuelan society, to continue his "Bolivarian Revolution"—which is named after South American independence hero Simon Bolivar. More than that, Chavez can now accelerate the implementation of his program, as his allies now control nearly all levels and branches of government. The main domestic obstacles that remain to his program, now that the political opposition has been decisively crushed for the time being, are within the government itself, such as saboteurs, corruption, inefficiency, and cronyism. It is well known, for example, that much of the government bureaucracy is staffed with oppositional civil servants who, if not actively prevent the implementation of programs, often do much to slow them down. To complicate matters further, many public servants who actively support the government do not have adequate training and experience, which also contributes to inefficiency.

Chavez is aware that he must accelerate the pace of reform, now that he has reached the height of his political power. The 75% of the population that lives in poverty and that has overwhelmingly supported him are clamoring for more and faster government action. They support Chavez because they believe that much has been done and because they hope that much more will be done soon. Realizing that the above mentioned internal obstacles to his political program represent a significant problem in responding to the hopes of his supporters, Chavez has promised to crack down on corruption, inefficiency, and bureaucratism within his government.

Shortly after the regional elections, Chavez gathered the entire leadership of his movement in an intense strategy session and outlined points for "deepening the revolution." However, the concrete plan for how the government intends to fight inefficiency and corruption still has to be presented. The government's other objectives, though, such as increasing social justice in Venezuela, implementing a non-neo-liberal economic development path, and working towards Latin American unification, are receiving more attention, especially now that oil revenues are at their highest point of the past 20 years (even if, due to population increases and higher production costs, the state's per-capita oil income is still only a quarter of what it was in the late 1970's).

These plans, though, continue to unfold against the backdrop of strong criticism from the media, some human rights groups, and the U.S. government. These opponents say that Chavez is preparing to turn Venezuela into a dictatorship via measures that Chavez and his allies say are designed to outlaw many forms of intervention and sabotage that have been used in the past to prevent the government's proper functioning. Two of the more frequently mentioned examples of the supposedly repressive new measures are the case against the U.S.-funded opposition organization Súmate and a new law to regulate broadcasters.

Súmate is one of the main organizations behind the August 15 recall referendum against President Chavez. They organized the logistics of collecting the 2.4 million required signatures, audited the voter registry for this purpose, and handled many of the legal issues that arose around the recall referendum. According to recently obtained documents, Súmate received $54,000 from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and another $85,000 from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) for this work. According to Súmate and its U.S. government funders, this was supposed to be non-partisan democracy-building work. To anyone in Venezuela, though, it is obvious that Súmate is part of the opposition that is dedicated to removing Chávez from office.

On the surface of it, it is blatantly wrong for a foreign government to fund efforts to have the president of another country recalled from office. The Attorney General's office is thus accusing Súmate not only of organizing a political campaign with foreign financial support, but also of setting up a parallel institution to that of the National Electoral Council (CNE), which is illegal according to Venezuelan law. For those opposed to the Chávez government, these accusations are a blatant attempt to harass legitimate opposition activity. For Chavistas, though, it is a legitimate effort to prevent foreign interference in Venezuelan affairs.

The other example of supposedly repressive measures is the law to regulate broadcasters: the Law on Social Responsibility in Radio and Television. This law introduces many provisions that exist in most countries in the world, regulating such things as the scheduling of sex and violence on television—so as to protect children—, the prohibition of alcohol and tobacco advertisements, and stipulations for the proportion of domestically and independently produced content—so as to maintain diversity and Venezuelan culture. Many of these provisions have been relatively uncontroversial for most people. What the opposition objects to most is the setting up of media boards to enforce the regulations because they fear that the boards would be dominated by Chavez supporters. That is, according to the opposition, any minor infraction could be used to politically sanction the broadcast media, which are essentially part of the opposition and do not respect the traditional norms of journalistic objectivity or even factual accuracy in their efforts to get rid of the government.

For pro-Chávez lawmakers, however, the law fills an important gap in Venezuelan media law. According to them, there are sufficient checks and balances to ensure that the law is not applied as a political instrument to censor the opposition. As evidence for Chavista restraint, a pro-Chavez former Supreme Court judge, Carlos Escarrá, recently pointed out that there is a presidential decree still on the books, written by President Jaime Lusinchi (1984-1989), that is much more restrictive than the new media regulation law. In theory, Chavez could have applied this decree for political purposes on numerous occasions (as did Lusinchi when he temporarily closed two TV channels), but has not done so, even though the media has violated this decree repeatedly, often going so far as to distort and falsify the news, as happened during the April 2002 coup attempt.

While the Chavez government's domestic and international opposition loves to present these supposedly authoritarian tendencies of the government in the most one-sided manner possible, it generally completely leaves out the more positive developments in Venezuela under Chávez. Most important of these are the so-called "missions," which are designed to provide literacy programs to Venezuela's illiterate, free community health care, especially in the remotest and poorest neighborhoods, large-scale financial aid for the poor to attend a university, subsidized supermarkets in poor neighborhoods, and employment for graduates from the educational missions. Also very important in the Chávez government's efforts to institute greater social justice are the rural land reform program, which has redistributed land to over 100,000 families, and the urban land reform program, which is providing barrio inhabitants with titles to their self-built homes and terrain.

The opposition looks down upon these programs, arguing that they constitute nothing more than "populism," "vote-buying," and "patronage." Whatever the government's motivation, the fact is that these programs represent a significant investment in the country's human capital. That is, while previous administrations sunk the country's oil income into expensive investments outside of the country, such as the purchase of refineries and gas station chains (e.g., Citgo in the U.S. and Veba Öl in Germany), now the government is investing the oil income directly in the Venezuelan people, by improving their health and education and by reversing some of the country's grossly unequal distribution of wealth. It should thus come as no surprise that in almost every one of the nine elections since Chávez was first elected in 1998, he and his supporters have won about 60% of the vote.

Of course, the Chavez government still has to confront the U.S. government's low intensity intervention, perhaps even more than before, given the probable triumphalism of the recently reelected Bush administration. While both sides have said that they hope that relations will improve, it is likely that Bush will continue to covertly support Chavez's opposition, while at the same time take a more pragmatic approach of overtly engaging the country that is one of the U.S.'s largest oil suppliers with the largest oil reserves in the Western Hemisphere. This strategy has recently become public, as documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (available at www.venezuelafoia.info) prove that the U.S. government, via the National Endowment for Democracy and USAID, has been funding Venezuelan opposition organizations to the tune of $5 million per year. Also, the recent discovery of CIA documents that show that the CIA knew of the planning for the April 2002 coup, even while the Bush administration pretended that it was no coup, demonstrate a clear pattern of U.S. intervention in Venezuelan affairs.

The U.S. government's aid to the opposition is more important than the cash implies, and that is perhaps why the Bush administration has been loathe to give it up, despite the obvious illegitimacy of such efforts and the fact that they have backfired by helping Chavez to paint his opposition as agents of a foreign government. While the opposition has plenty of money (including billionaire Venezuelans like Cisneros) to finance its own activities, U.S. agencies are able to draw on decades of experience in destabilizing, discrediting, and even overthrowing various governments. This is a knowledge base that exists probably nowhere else in the world, and its importance in situations like Venezuela's should not be underestimated.

Meanwhile, despite this low-intensity intervention, the Chavez government is focusing on moving beyond the reform of Venezuela's appalling levels of inequality by transforming the country into a more democratic society. Its first steps in this direction have been the support for the creation of tens of thousands of cooperatives, community organizations, and community media outlets. Now the government must finds ways to institutionalize the gains in democratization, by developing more and better institutional ways in which these organizations can participate in both the polity and the economy. Also, Chavez and his supporters must find better ways to institutionalize the Bolivarian movement so that it is less dependent on Chavez. In this new phase of the Bolivarian project there appears to be an interest in both of these forms of institutionalization—of democratic participation and of the movement—but it is still to early to say whether they will actually be pursued.

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CARACAS: Shortly after he appeared on national television in October 2001 holding aloft bloody photographs of children killed by the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan, President Hugo Chavez Frias of Venezuela received a visit from Donna Hrinak, then Washington's Ambassador to the oil-rich South American country.

Recalling his meeting with the U.S. envoy at an international conference here last week, Mr. Chavez said his televised message had simply been that one could not fight terrorism with terrorism. "But the Ambassador came to me and demanded, `You must rectify your position.' I replied: `You are talking to the President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. You are dismissed. When you learn what the job of an Ambassador is, you may come back'."

"As for our position," he thundered before an audience of artists and intellectuals from around the world, "we did not rectify it. We ratified it. We condemn 9/11 and the Madrid train bombing, but also the bombing of cities like Fallujah and the assassination of children." The "anti-terrorism" of the U.S.-led `war on terror,' he said in reply to a question, "is simply terrorism. Justice is the only road to peace."

At a time when most countries are vying with each other for a place under Pax Americana, the Venezuela of Mr. Chavez is an aberration, a rude and insistent interruption in the otherwise triumphant march towards the End of History. From the war on terror to free market economics, privatisation, cutbacks on social expenditure and the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, Mr. Chavez opposes the Washington orthodoxy on just about everything. He has embraced the Cuba of Fidel Castro, supplying the socialist island petrol in exchange for doctors, which the urban and rural poor in Venezuela never had access to despite their country's vast oil wealth. "When Aznar (the former Spanish Prime Minister) told me not to be friendly with Castro," herecalled: "I said you have forgotten you are not Ferdinand VII."

But if Mr. Chavez and his supporters — he handily won a recall referendum earlier this year with a plurality of 60 per cent — speak out against the new imperialism of Washington, the Bush administration too considers the Venezuelan leader an implacable foe. The U.S. resents his efforts to get Latin America to unite and is afraid his subversive social and political experiments might prove contagious in a region that has been impoverished by more than two decades of neo-liberal economic policies. "In order to defend humanity," Mr. Chavez declared last week, "we have to go on the offensive. And now is the time to say that another world is possible."

More than anything else, of course, the U.S. does not like the fact that an independent-minded leader such as Mr. Chavez is sitting astride one of the largest oil reservoirs in the world. Indeed, at 2.6 million barrels a day, Venezuela is currently OPEC's (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) third largest producer of crude, behind only Saudi Arabia and Iran. And the U.S. is its biggest customer.

In 2002, the U.S. supported a short-lived military coup against Mr. Chavez, a former paratrooper who was elected President in 2000. The putsch was defeated by a combination of people's power — with thousands of poor Venezuelans taking to the streets to defend their leader — and infighting within the traditional elites of the country.

Central Intelligence Agency documents recently released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that Washington knew of the coup plot well before it was carried out. And once the coup failed, the U.S. used the bipartisan Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy to funnel money to the recall referendum campaign against Mr. Chavez.

Even his bitterest critics concede that Mr. Chavez's `Bolivarian revolution' — which combines elements of Marxism and Christianity with the military populism so unique to the region — makes him virtually unbeatable politically without intervention from outside. "That's assuming, of course, that the money he's pouring into unproductive social programmes doesn't bankrupt the `revolution' first," a businessman told The Hindu .

For Mr. Chavez, however, it is these social programmes — in education, health and food support — which provide the main line of defence against U.S. intervention.

At the graduation ceremony for Mission Robinson, the country's new adult literacy programme on which several million dollars are being spent, he handed out certificates and chatted animatedly with dozens of graduates for several minutes each.

Many of the men and women were in their 60s and 70s and had just learnt how to read and write.

"Some people say, hey Chavez, why are we spending so much on adult literacy and not on physical infrastructure," he said later. "My answer is that before buildings and highways, we have to build a sovereign people who can live with dignity."

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Caracas, Dec 29 (Prensa Latina) The Venezuelan state of Monagas decreed the expropriation of idle lands in its territory and issued a release against large estates, affecting near 50,000 hectares, 45,000 in private hands.

The decree issued by Governor Jose Gregorio Briceño said the regulations are effective on all arable lands within large estates in conflict of property or distribution to foment development and food safety in accordance with domestic need.

The statement has given an ad hoc high level technical commission 90 days to advise the Governor on land estates, illegal occupation and establishing the legal status of properties.

Monagas becomes the second state to adopt such measures following Cojedes that affected 25 large estates, some of them in the hands of politicians and private businessmen.

President Hugo Chavez stated his public support to the decision adding that the ad hoc commissions will hold talks with the owners to reach an agreement if possible.
When President Chanvez took office, 75 per cent of the arable land was private property while much of the country"s farmland remained idle. These will be the target of the new agrarian reform to rid the country from the unjust traditional landowning system.

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Venezuela will no longer tolerate USA interference; draws the line at oil supply cuts

Venezuela's Foreign Minister (MRE) Ali Rodriguez Araque has warned that Venezuela will no longer tolerate any interference in its sovereign domestic political affairs by the United States of America.

Rodriguez Araque told reporters in Caracas that as far as Washington D.C. is concerned "it is intolerable that any foreign country should interfere in matters which are the exclusive responsibility of the government of Venezuela ... we want to have the best possible (commercial and diplomatic) relations the United States but when they make aggressive declarations against our country there will be consequences."

As far as crude oil supplies are concerned, former OPEC Secretary General Rodriguez Araque says Venezuela is diversifying to reach a greater number of clients "but this does not signify that we are reducing oil supplies to the United States."

The Foreign Minister maintains that Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) is increasing its production of crude oil and is looking ahead to a point where the state-owned oil conglomerate will produce as much as 5 million barrels per day (bpd) to supply "other markets."

In other news, the Foreign Minister says that he has received no explanation from Colombia with regard to the recent detention (allegedly in Caracas) of Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) international representative Rodrigo Granda. "As far as I am aware, we have received no observations from the Colombian government in this matter ... I do not have any more information (unconfirmed) reports that have appeared in the media."

Venezuela's opposition media has been cock-a-hoop over reports in Colombian newspapers Granda has been "intercepted" in Caracas and clandestinely removed to Colombia. Granda, Alias Ricardo Gonzalez or El Mago (The Magician), Granda is considered by Colombian authorities to be a member of an international committee of the FARC guerrilla which has waged war with Bogota for four decades and is seen as being the Foreign Minister of a Revolutionary Colombian government aiming to replace that of current President Alvaro Uribe Velez.

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