This Land Was Your Land

In Venezuela, land redistribution is not just an ideological imperative — it’s how the regime rewards its friends and punishes its enemies.

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Historically, land reform has been a showcase of authoritarian regimes seeking to consolidate their power. Autocrats in countries such as China, Egypt, Mexico, Peru, and Zimbabwe have burnished their revolutionary credentials and defanged their reactionary foes by redistributing land from powerful landowners to the rural poor. Such class-based authoritarian land reforms are often broad in nature, granting swathes of land from large landowners directly to the laborers that work it.

In Venezuela, however, the government of Hugo Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro, has given land reform an additional, polarizing dimension — it has used it to selectively dispense patronage to its supporters and punish its enemies. Two important tactics undergird this strategy. First, the regime has undermined private property rights, making a vast pool of land available for redistribution. Secondly, it has created an environment of deliberate legal ambiguity, enabling bureaucrats to pick and choose winners and losers for political rather than technical reasons.

Take the case of the El Maizal farm, which the regime wrested in 2009 from a private owner. The farm was fashioned into a peasant-run agricultural commune that staunchly supports the regime. And when a lower chamber of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice revoked El Maizal’s communal title in November 2014, arguing that the private farm had been improperly seized, President Nicolás Maduro stepped in to overrule the judgment. Arguing that the judgment was “anti-revolutionary,” the regime asked the President of the Tribunal to restore the constitutionality of El Maizal’s land title. This July, eager to please the president, the Supreme Tribunal’s highest chamber affirmed the legality of the expropriation. This model commune — meant to be a poster child of the mass reorganization of rural life in Venezuela — was safe.

In Venezuela, as in much of the rest of Latin America, land ownership has historically been tightly concentrated among a small, privileged elite. Chávez seized on this early in his presidency to pave the way for what has become the most radical land reform currently going on in the Western Hemisphere. A 2001 land law, revised and strengthened in 2005, stipulates that landowners must demonstrate a consistent chain of property title back to 1848 if they are to enjoy full property rights — otherwise they face expropriation. Estimates suggest that less than 10 percent of owners can do so. Even owners that can prove longstanding title may still suffer expropriation if they have especially large landholdings or if their agricultural production is sufficiently low. This uncertainty about property rights has set off widespread squatting and land grabs by both the government and private citizens. This provides grist for the bureaucratic mill to sift through as it seeks to reward its friends and punish the political opposition.

The government, for its part, has sent in the National Guard — often during the dead of night — to seize large private properties. Not coincidentally, many of the seized properties have been linked to members of the opposition. Perhaps the most high-profile case was the occupation and seizure of land belonging to Manuel Rosales, a former governor and chief opposition candidate to Chávez in the 2006 presidential election.

Private citizens, on the other hand, can legally squat on and apply for a piece of anyone’s land who they suspect cannot prove definitive ownership under the restrictive new laws. While this process began with a trickle in the mid-late 2000s, it is now operating in full force. Some rural inhabitants have organized to occupy extensive properties, and the ensuing disorder and legal battle drains resources and reduces productivity on an estate, which is then subsequently declared noncompliant with the productivity clause of the land law, and becomes eligible for redistribution to those who invaded the property.

According to data I have collected, there were nearly 150,000 applications for various land grants between mid-2007 and 2009. And these applications have only ballooned since then. Indeed, the government claims to have expropriated nearly four million hectares of land and has processed land claims for several hundred thousand individuals.

These data challenge the commonly held notion that the regime is bumbling or incompetent. Instead, Chávez and Maduro have been pinpointing winners and losers by harnessing detailed individual-level information collected through local political operatives. There is even a massive database, leaked in 2004, of which registered Venezuelan voters signed a petition to recall Chávez or opposition politicians from office. I was able to match these data to the pool of all rural applicants for land grants — and the patterns make for depressing reading.

Pro-regime individuals (chavistas in local parlance) in states with pro-regime governors are substantially more likely to receive land grants from the National Land Institute than opposition or politically unaffiliated individuals. Opposition individuals are much less likely to have their land applications received favorably. But two can play this game. Because of the federalized nature of the land reform program, opposition governors have also had success in denying benefits to chavistas in their states.

The result is Latin America’s biggest ongoing turf war. A checkerboard of overlapping property rights regimes now dots the countryside. Private landholdings, de facto squatting, cooperatives, and a new state-owned farm sector co-exist alongside one another.

Landowners trying to navigate these shifting sands are frequently caught up in catch-22s. The government has mandated that large corn producers sell their products at below production cost to meet insatiable public demand for corn-based products such as the ubiquitous arepas. Those that do so go broke; those that do not are expropriated. Several years ago, the government implemented a “one cow per hectare” rule of thumb which it used to evaluate efficient land use. Cattle ranchers with fewer than one cow per hectare in the plains states were encouraged to either increase the size of their herds, partition their land and sell parts of it, or face expropriation. Yet the government then turned around and targeted ranches with more than one cow per hectare on the grounds that these ranchers were mishandling natural land resources by depleting the quality of the soil.

While such rules sound nonsensical on the surface, they reflect a shrewd political logic by making nearly everyone legally vulnerable. This legal limbo allows the regime to pick and choose winners and losers for political rather than technical reasons. Venezuela’s land reform chaos is therefore not the result of a struggling regime incapable of ruling its subjects. It is a calculated gamble that exchanges uncertainty and disinvestment for a set of politically reliable clients — those it favors through land grants — that the regime turns to during elections in order to perpetuate itself in power.

Recipients of land are not simply trusted to carry out their part of the political bargain. The land grants are made provisionally, and can be revoked if recipients do not follow agreed-upon production plans. The government has dragged its feet on handing out definitive property titles in order to retain leverage over how their potential recipients behave at election time.

The December elections are now approaching, and the silencing and jailing of prominent opposition politicians suggest that President Maduro is already worrying about how to engineer enough votes to forestall an opposition win. There is one constituency he is not losing sleep over, thanks to the land reform: rural voters.

In the photo, a woman holds a sign reading ‘We sow peace, we harvest homeland’ during a farmers’ rally in support of the Venezuelan government in Caracas on February 26, 2014.

Photo credit: RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images

Michael Albertus is an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He is author, most recently, of Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy.

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