Venezuela: Expropriation in Los Llanos
Los Llanos is a region of vast verdant plains to the east of the Andes, abundant in wildlife and home to hundreds of species of birds, turtles, caimans, capybaras and anacondas, to name a few. Llanero men are some of the most macho in the country, a factor I noticed as soon as we stepped foot in the region’s main hato (large ranch) covering 55000 hectares of land. I was completely ignored while my friend was greeted by one of the managers of the hato. ‘I am writing the review of your hato!” I felt like telling him.
The Los Llanos region is home to a number of hatos although many of these have been expropriated by President Hugo Chavez’s socialist government. The reason behind these expropriations is to slowly eliminate the amount of tierratenientes, or landowners, in order to hand out land to local peasants. As the hatos are so large often only a very small part ends up being used by campesinos (farmers) whilst the rest of the land is neglected and thus becomes unproductive. All three hatos mentioned in the guide have been expropriated since the last write-up, and only one remains open to tourists. It is now mostly all government owned, with only 10% still in the hands of the previous landowners.
Every Sunday Chavez runs a television programme in which he announces the reforms that will be made during the coming week. From one day to the other, he will notify that a given property will as from then be state run, and before the owners of the hato even know it, the military has taken over their land. This has happened, and continues to take place, with plenty of private properties.
The day I arrived at the hato a large group of local young men had just been trained by government authorities on how to extract water from the surrounding soil. It was their last day and in the evening there would be a celebration during which all manner of prizes and certificates would be handed out to the newly qualified. The speeches lasted for hours, and many ended with ‘We thank the socialist government of our President Chavez for giving us the opportunity to use this land that is now in good hands’, followed by toasts to the President. All were political speeches, propagandas, reinforcing how much good the government had done: the land was being used productively, the people had financial security as they were now on a state salary. They were happy and so was the government. Although nothing is said about the landowners who spent their lives building the hatos, looking after the wildlife and transforming the land into tourist destinations, those people who now have nothing, most of whom have had to flee abroad for fear of what could happen to them. Interestingly, Chavez himself is from Los Llanos region.
The 7km road leading to the main entrance of the hato is littered with capybaras or chiguire, as they are commonly known in the country. These curious rodents, which are the largest in the world and measure about one metre, are only found in South America. Each year Venezuela’s capybaras are counted and the excess number over that of the previous year is eaten, although only during Semana Santa (Easter Week). Centuries ago, when the Spanish colonizers saw these peculiar animals, they took their meat back to Europe to introduce it to the Pope. In order to preserve the meat during the lengthy voyage across the Atlantic, the Spaniards covered it in salt. When they presented the tender meat to the Pope, it had acquired a different taste – because of the salt, its taste was now very similar to that of fish. And so the Pope thought that capybaras were fish and that their meat could thus be consumed during Semana Santa, a custom that remains to this day.
Capybara males emanate a liquid from a nozzle on their noses, which they then rub into trees and the earth to attract females. When the females have chosen their partner, they head into the water to reproduce – and do so on average 30 times a day! No wonder you always see them sitting around, rolling in mud or taking a nap.
Los Llanos is also home to hundreds of thousands of cattle (the hato I visited is home to some 20.000), although not much of it goes to feeding the country’s people. No one really knows where it goes. “The government has put a fixed price on meat but as inflation gets worse and prices rise, it’s no longer worth a llanero’s time to slaughter the cattle. By the time he’s paid for the animals’ food, veterinary checks and so on, there is no incentive to sell the meat, as the selling price is set so low and inflation is so high. It’s the best meat in the country. The cattle feed on fresh grass all day, the meat is soft and tender, of prime quality. The llaneros feed their families with it, and the rest probably goes to politician’s families. Well, we don’t really know where it goes. We just don’t know.”
A couple I met at the hato and who lived in Caracas told me they could not find Venezuelan meat at the supermarket. ‘It’s all imported. It comes from Brazil.. from Argentina.. there’s no Venezuelan meat. Even the chicken comes from Brazil.’ And to think that there are hundreds of thousands of cattle in this lush land.
As you drive through most towns, you see queues and queues of people lining up at the banks. “Why are there so many people going to the bank?’ I asked J, a local guide of the Amazonas region in the south of the country. ‘Chavez’s goverment hands out becas (grants) to the poor and needy. They queue up for hours to pick up their B$400. But they have no incentive to work, they do nothing. They collect their money, and get drunk. What is the incentive to work if most people can get free money? There is none. No one works anymore. Our economy is in a dire state. We are one of the world’s richest countries in natural resources yet we have nothing. Look at the people around you – we should be living like kings and yet most can’t even feed their families.”
“The government hands out money to other countries, just like that – to Cuba, Argentina, Ecuador, but gives nothing to its people. A while back a chavista was stopped at the airport for carrying a suitcase containing US$800.000 as he was on his way to Argentina to help fund the Kirchner electoral campaign. They even gave a bunch of money to America as a gift, to donate it to poor Americans – none of the money comes here.’ Despite the animosity between Venezuela and the States, the US is the country’s number one purchaser of crude oil.
“So why does Chavez constantly reprimand the United States in all his speeches?” I asked. “It’s simple”, J. said. “To gain support from the people. It’s all rhetoric, what does he think, that the United States are scared of us, of Venezuela? It’s absurd. The problem is that the people believe him, he is full of charisma, you should see him give a speech. The way he talks, the tone of his voice, the passion he has is something quite extraordinary. It’s a shame really, because he really could do much good to the country with the ability he has to really influence everyone with his ideas.”