The Book: Land Expropriations in Barinas, Venezuela….
R and I arrive in Barinas City from Merida, a quiet mountain city high in the Andes and are surprised by the heat. Garbage is burned on the outskirts of the city and the smell wafts through the center. Tiny pieces of ash picked up by the wind sprinkle down upon our heads.
I immediately go the governor’s palace and request an interview with Hugo de los Reyes Chavez, President Chavez’s father and the governor of Barinas State.
Not surprisingly, I am told to seek information elsewhere.
During a year off from school before going to Venezuela I began photographing news and working with photo agencies. My interest in Venezuela is not purely academic.
Either way the governor Hugo Chavez, a former school teacher know locally as El Maestro (the teacher), will not educated me.
The attitude at the Barinas National Institute for Education Cooperation, a government agency tasked with giving young people vocational training, however, is different.
After a cup of coffee and a bit of talking, the director sends Juan de Dios Arias, the head of the agricultural department, to show me land expropriated for campesinos from wealthy landowners. A former campesino himself, Arias looks me up and down and nods. “We will show him,” he says.
The institute must not have experienced many of the hundreds of foreigners arriving in Venezuela to learn about Chavez and his revolution if they are willing to show around a drop-in. R and I met many of these self-proclaimed “revolutionaries” in Merida and Caracas. They are often more vocal supporters of Chavez than Chavistas themselves and hold onto idyllic visions of socialism and communism that I’d thought to be proven out of touch with much of human nature.
The next morning Arias and a driver pick me up in a white pickup truck and we speed off into the countryside. Bumping over the rocky dirt roads with dust streaming behind us, Arias and the driver point out houses built with money from the Chavez government. They want to prove how wealth is being redistributed in Venezuela, so the “lies about Chavez will stop.”
“Chavez,” Arias tells me. “Is for the wealthy. He is for the middle class. He is for the poor. But he is more for the poor. The rich are together and have money. The middle class can eat. The poor need help.”
New housing and healthcare are inarguably good things. Why is Chavez so controversial?
“For the people helped by this revolution,” Arias says. “Nothing is controversial.”
According to Arias, before a land expropriation begins the landowner is asked to show the deed to the property that they claim. Often the deed shows the landowner is claiming more land than they legally own. This extra land is immediately expropriated. If the government decides to expropriate the rest, soldiers are sent in and after some negotiations the land is redistributed to local campesinos.
An hour’s drive along indistinguishable dirt roads brings us to the land Arias wants to show me. We get out of the truck, duck under a barbed wire fence, and walk across some fields to reach a group of men who are arranging the sprouts of bean plants to hang on strings suspended between tall wooden stakes.
These poor campesinos survive by working the land. Like campesinos throughout Latin America, that survival is just barely happening. Unlike so many others however, they have their own land to work.
“This land was given to them by Chavez,” Arias says. “These plants were given to them by Chavez.”
The campesinos confirm that the Venezuelan government expropriated this land from a wealthy family and gave them the plants, along with fish that are kept in small artificial ponds. The campesinos were also educated about more effective farming techniques. One man holds up a handful of orange fish pellets. “From Chavez,” he says proudly.
Arias nods as the men show me around the land and pose for pictures. “Is this good?” he says. “Good? Good. Let’s have lunch.”
He is happy to have introduced the campesinos and shown an example of what the Chavez government is doing to alleviate their poverty. “It’s all very good what is happening here,” he says. “It is very good.”
At a roadside restaurant he and the driver order a massive fish soup, chicken, rice, and vegetable lunch and talk with members of another government bureau working with the campesinos.
Then they change the subject to convincing me to visit a local whorehouse.
“You’ll find a girl there,” Arias says.
“I have a girlfriend.”
“You can have another.”
“I went there last Friday,” the driver says. “There was this girl only eighteen years old from Trujillo…”
“I’ll pay for my own food,” I say.
“Save it for the girl,” Arias says.
For the rest of the day Arias is not concerned with showing any other lands expropriated by Chavez. Instead he and the driver decide to visit a farm owned by a friend, admire a herd of massive pigs, eat watermelon, and drive around in the government truck guessing at the value of land not yet expropriated.
These two revolutionaries love being outside. The truck and my vague request have given them the chance to admire the land.
Returning to Barinas City in the late afternoon, Arias says, “We didn’t show you enough today. We must meet again tomorrow and show you La Marquesena.”
He nods some more, practically.