The Spanish Victims of the Chávez Revolution
By Jacobo García | Crónica – Supplement to El Mundo – Madrid
Their grain silos burned, their cattle stolen, they are driven from their lands under the threat of swinging machetes. After working in Venezuela for years, emigrants from Spain, now bankrupt, plea with Zapatero to approach his friend, the president, to intercede on their behalf.
Originally posted 13.11.2005 | (From the Venezuelan state of Yaracuy). It has been hours of travel in and among the charred sugarcane reeds and burnt hills, the destroyed storage facilities and the devastated fields. Hardly any remnants survive of what was once the flourishing and prosperous engine of the economy of the state of Yaracuy. The sugarcane fields appear to be utterly destroyed while groups of men saunter through their recently conquered lands on a landscape halfway between abandonment and plunder.
The Jeep’s wheel did not hold up, so we had to take a break from our sad journey in order to change it. Suddenly, halfway through our chore, out from the green overgrowth emerges a sour-faced individual. He shows up to remind everyone that he intends to take away all of this year’s harvest from Fátima’s land. "But what right have you?” answers Fátima, born in Portugal and who came to this country long before the birth of the young man speaking before her. “I have a permit from INTI (National Land Institute), and so I only come to say that I am bringing in a tractor to haul away the sugarcane.” The youth's unfriendly visage leaves no doubts in anybody's mind.
CRÓNICA located nine Spaniards who, like Fátima, who is from Portugal, had lost everything. President Chávez had promised that no Spaniard was going to be affected by the expropriations initiated by the Venezuelan government based on the agrarian reform. But the fact of the matter is, that for three years the Bolivarian government has been making life bitter for these nine farmers from Galicia and the Canary Islands (there are also some from Portugal and Italy), and who are being pushed to the brink of bankruptcy by the invasions and the burning of their farms.
It is no accident that in a small city of 100,000 inhabitants, such as San Felipe, the state capital, 21 kidnappings have been recorded in recent years, 16 of them directed against Spaniards or children of Spaniards. While the governments of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and Hugo Chávez declaim their idyll wherever they go, the small business owners and farmers from Spain who continue to live in Venezuela sustain an ordeal whose echo resounds with neither this nor that group.
The nationalizing initiatives and the revolutionary path taken by the Venezuelan government has caught these nine Spaniards in the twilight years of a life entirely dedicated to farming and they now see how, shielded, protected and emboldened by local politicians and by new legislation, hundreds of "genuine" Venezuelans are taking over their lands to the rhythm of slashing machetes. Provisioned with gasoline cans, the attackers burn grain silos, kill the cattle and settle onto the land, armed with the one cause, the Bolivarian cause, one that seems to resemble the one dictated by Mugabe in order to expel the British settlers from their farms in Zimbabwe.
Just in case, while the sour-face expropriator addresses us, taking advantage of the fact that the Jeep can go no further with the blown-out tire, the husband of Fátima, born in Portugal, does not lose sight of the glove compartment where he keeps his revolver. His brother-in-law was murdered a little over a year ago for having resisted extortion attempts by the new local political bosses, so everybody knows that this is very serious business and the beatings, death threats, attempts at murder and rape are the order of the day, meant to make the white people abandon their land as soon as possible.
While military agreements between Spain and Venezuela were on the increase and the countries' economic ties with each other multiplied, Spanish émigrés in Venezuela first saw how their standard of living was going into a nosedive and, afterwards, how impunity increased thus making it possible for their farms to be attacked and occupied under the abetment of the political, police and judicial powers.
Edmundo Rodríguez (age 72) and his brother Manuel (75) arrived in the year 1951 from the island of La Palma. They worked at ten or so different jobs, and today they have been working the cane fields 36 years, in work shifts of 12 hours. Edmundo sinks down in sadness as he confirms that practically nothing is left of what was once 100 hectares of rich farmland, with houses for the workers and where, during the harvest, as many as 500 persons were hired. Irrigation pipes were spread out over the area and tractors came and went as they plowed the earth. Now it is practically paralyzed after being torched over and over again. The storage facilities are totally destroyed and it is moving to see a man of Edmundo's stock break down and cry when he remembers how his daughter Marbella was almost raped and burned alive. When they had already soaked her with gasoline for having challenged those who had taken the farm, she was miraculously set free by one of the workers wielding a machete. That was the last straw. With an accent from the Canary Islands that is still alive, he says that he cannot go on any longer: "I used up my savings. I don’t even know if I can go back there to die."
The tactic has been repeating itself over and over again during the last three years. First, groups of 200 men armed with pistols and machetes violently occupy the farms claiming that they are communal land and showing documents from the turn of the century. Following the first case of intimidation, the harvest is then burned and destroyed. Then they leave. After a few weeks they return and occupy the land again, they set things on fire and then retreat again.
The episode has repeated itself over and over again during the last few years in the township of Veroes, to the point where the sugarcane growers of Yaracuy have had enough. “We can’t go on any longer.” They have grown old, and they are tired, bankrupt and humiliated. “All we want is to sell out or have them indemnify us for what was taken away from us, which is our livelihood," repeats Clodovaldo (age 69), also from the Canary Islands and a sugarcane grower of several decades. From that point on, it is easy to have the law complete the abetment of the pillaging under the pretenses that these are abandoned and non-productive lands.
Lacking property titles, the invaders have furthermore succeeded in obtaining a second instance of backing from the state and, paradoxically, they are benefiting from official lines of credit granted by FONAF (Fund for Agricultural Development). Decree 313 which is in force in the State, allows for "custody of land designated to be of agricultural use, property of the Republic, found to be in the jurisdiction of the State," which means that “occupation by organized peasant groups is authorized.”
From Galicia and in her seventies, Magdalena Fernández, originally from Ourense, the owner of more that 90 hectares, manages to overcome her fear so she can visit the sugarcane hill she lost while faced with the arrival of hundreds of persons displaying all their Bolivarian paraphernalia of the commune. She easily cries as she files past what used to be the workers' houses. And, more intensely, remembering the roads and stone walls she built together with her now-deceased husband.
“THE INVADERS” OF 1492
“We are now having to pay for the broken dishes,” says Clodovaldo, alluding to the fact that, on more than one occasion, Hugo Chávez made use of his Sunday broadcast "Hello, President” to repeat that “the real land invaders were the ones who in 1492 came into Venezuela.” Clodovaldo asks the Spanish government to help them: “Now that they are getting along so well and have so many interests in common, I have been robbed and they have burned everything and here I have been doing back-breaking work since 1956. We are lucky they haven't killed us." He still holds 90 hectares of sugarcane... all destroyed. Another person from the Canary Islands, María de Álvarez, is the owner of another 27 hectares of sugarcane in the township of Veroes. “It is not as if we are owners of large estates or 'latifundistas,’ as they call us.” After a few months and then quite suddenly María lost the plot of land that she inherited following her husband's death and has little hope of recovering it. "It is the greatest injustice in the world because I have no other income, or properties, and they have made life impossible for me.”
On her land they burned all of the existing sugarcane and they also are not allowing her any access to the property. As a matter of fact, most of the farmers try not to go anywhere near land that is their own legitimate property for fear of losing their life in a heroic act for which they are not prepared. María has hardly any money left. She had to sell her house in order to pay her debts and her son left in a hurry for the Canary Islands when they were waiting to kill him for refusing to let go of the land. When nobody listens to her she says that she wants to go away from there, where she has been living for 40 years. “May the Lord give me strength!” she repeats before she breaks down crying.
Her case is very similar to that of Manuel González (age 68), who does not want to go near his land either despite the fact that he holds several portfolios that demonstrate that he has title. With 97 hectares, also in the township of Veroes, they have stolen practically everything that was of any value from his storage facilities, they wounded the guards and managers during the invasion and it has been a while since he has set foot on the ground that, more than thirty years ago, he cleared of brush and vermin until he made it fertile.
Edmundo, Magdalena, María or Clodovaldo manage to topple at first sight the classical image of the triumphant émigré. Modest automobiles, humble houses, threadbare clothing, unpaid credit balances and many calluses on their hands all go to show that real life situation of an important group of Spaniards (the census shows the country has 147,000 and their 250,000 descendents have the right to claim [Spanish] citizenship) who received gifts from nobody, made a barren place turn productive and, suddenly, they were violently stripped of their land and without any explanation.
While this is happening, economic and political relations between Spain and Venezuela are living their best moments. Trade between both countries has multiplied thanks to the sale of Spanish civil and defense goods in the amount of 1.3 billion euros. The latest exchange included costal patrol boats and corvettes, C-295 air transports and naval patrol aircraft.
Ever since the controversial purchase of military matériel alarmed the rest of the neighbors from the southern cone, Chávez has said the Spanish aircraft and ships are not for attacking anybody, but are rather "for defending the country's sovereignty and supporting social causes."
“No person from Galicia is going to be affected by the expropriations,” said President Hugo Chávez* on his visit to Santiago de Compostela during the past month of September, shortly after the conclusion of the Ibero-American Summit in Salamanca. All the land expropriations carried out these last few years in Venezuela, besides having as their objective the country’s economic self-sufficiency, have been carried out "within the realm of the law” while offering in exchange the corresponding “indemnities to the owners affected," thus spoke Chávez before the Galician press.
In March, Zapatero visited Caracas. At that time the Spanish émigré farmers were able to hand him a letter, dated on the 30th, in which they explained that "the fully productive farms had been the object of ransack, the houses devastated, the machinery stolen and their workers kidnapped and threatened." "We twelve Spanish families have the hope that the president will recognize the grave situation that surrounds us and turns us practically into potential indigents, seeing as the threats have turned into real deeds and there are many owners of farms who cannot even go near these farms. Others have been the object of extortion, kidnappings, death threats and the rape of their women. While engaged in the defense of their land, residents of these farms have lost their lives, and at this moment the situation appears to be irreversible."
“THEY ARE GOING TO KILL ME”
“Faced with the gravity of the circumstances that threaten our lives, we only request fair compensation that would allow us to start anew and be an integral part of the system of social justice that, invoked for others, unjustly excludes those of us who bear on our backs the indelible mark of the honest work done on these lands," included the petition presented by the Spanish-born farmers.
The hot climate of the central part of the country can make its intensity felt as we traverse the cane fields that have been devastated by fire or lie abandoned. After not setting foot on his land for over a year, Edmundo knows that he is risking a lot. “They are going to kill me; they don’t let me be around here. They have shown up at my house and threatened me, and have tried to rape my daughter and burn her for my not having surrendered the farm. My workers have also quit because they are afraid."
Despite all that, his daughter Marbella, also from the Canary Islands, is the one who has taken the reins of the case despite often finding herself face to face on the street with the person who tried to end her life. The formalities she initiated reached Raúl Morodo, Spain's ambassador to Venezuela, who granted her a half hour and some good will in defense of her case.
During the last few weeks and with the participation of the military forces, the government of Hugo Chávez has seized several large estates and inactive or underutilized industrial firms. The contrast between their own case and the unspoken word lends even more annoyance to these twelve Spaniards, of weathered skin and sturdy hands, already tired of working and now, also tired of fighting.
Translation by W.K.
*Link placed by A. Boyd.
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