Chavez goes to war against Uncle Sam

Plans to nationalise the Vestey meat empire's Venezuelan estates are a blow to one of the UK's richest families

In 1903, two entrepreneurial Liverpudlian brothers arrived in Caracas determined to add to their burgeoning empire of foreign food producers by buying Venezuelan cattle ranches. Over the next decade, William and Edmund Vestey added 11 ranches covering thousands of hectares of prime pasture to a list of holdings that ranged from egg processing plants in China to beef herds in Madagascar.

The Vestey brothers and their descendants came to epitomise British mercantile power, feeding the industrial heartlands of the UK with their refrigerated ships, transporting meats and foodstuffs from far-flung corners of the world in the name of Empire and considerable profit.

How times have changed. The Vesteys' once ubiquitous Dewhurst butchers' shop chain is history, their long-standing – and completely legal – tax avoidance scheme has ended, and now a pugnacious Venezuelan born in a mud hut to two schoolteachers has launched a land grab on one of their most prized assets.

Doubtless with an eye on the Vesteys imperial heritage, and the fact that his target is ultimately controlled by the 3rd Baron Vestey (a man so close to the heart of the British establishment that he nominally looks after the Queen's horses), President Hugo Chavez announced on Sunday that he was nationalising the land controlled by the Compaia Inglesa, the Venezuelan arm of the Vestey Group Ltd.

With the sort of revolutionary appeal that has sustained him in power for 11 years, Chavez, the firebrand of South American socialism, used his first televised address since an electoral setback a week ago to try to restore his radical credentials by declaring his intention to take back 300,000 hectares of Vestey-owned land.

Speaking on his weekly Alo Presidente programme, Chavez demanded the "acceleration of the agrarian revolution" and said: "All of the lands of the so-called Compania Inglesa will be nationalised now. I don't want to waste another day... Free the land, free the slave labour."

There is no evidence that Agroflora, the subsidiary of Compania Inglesa that owns the Vestey ranches, uses slave labour, but the Venezuelan President-cum-showman knows how to pick his pantomime villains and produce a showdown between, as he sees it, the model of a redistributive economy and the hugely-wealthy embodiment of British aristocratic capitalism.

In the red corner stands the self-declared leader of Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution, whose government has taken over some 2.5 million hectares of land since 1999.

His chosen opponent is Lord Sam "Spam" Vestey, the chairman of Vestey Group Ltd, one of the longest-standing friends of Prince Charles, owner of a fortune estimated at £750m and whose titles include Master of the Horse and third Great Officer of the Royal Household, a ceremonial role which entails him riding behind the sovereign for occasions such as the state opening of Parliament.

His second wife, Celia, is Prince Harry's godmother, while Nina Clarkin, Lord Vesty's niece, is rated the best female polo player in the world after a childhood spent playing the sport with Princes Harry and William.

The resulting tussle is a battle between one of the most publicity-hungry politicians around and one of Britain's more illustrious yet publicity-shy dynasties. The Vestey Group, which remains a privately-owned global conglomerate with business interests from Macau to Manchester, today issued a diplomatic response to the Venezuelan president's pronouncement. George Vestey, executive vice chairman of the Vestey Group Ltd told The Independent: "Regarding Agroflora, our subsidiary company in Venezuela, I would make the point that we have been in constructive discussions with the Venezuelan government for some time now and we continue in that vein in order to find a friendly agreement with them. I would add that the government have issued all Agroflora farms with productivity certificates."

But it is a reasonable bet that in private the family is slightly less than delighted at being offered the opportunity to join Chavez's socialist revolution by being relieved of their landholdings in return for a substantial cheque.



When the President first drew up his 2001 law threatening to expropriate privately-owned agricultural land that had been declared "idle", Lord Vestey staged a one-man protest outside the Venezuelan embassy in London.

Five years ago, Venezuelan authorities backed by troops entered the Charcote estate, some 33,600 acres of grazing land owned by the Vesteys to the south of Caracas with 13,000 head of cattle, making it one of the country's top 10 beef producers.

The government eventually paid $4.2m (£2.65m) for the estate. In a rare pronouncement on the issue at the time, Lord Vestey told the Financial Times: "We've been in Venezuela for just over 100 years and we hope to be there for some time yet."

Experts on Venezuelan affairs were yesterday equivocal about the chances of that vow being maintained for much longer, at a time when opponents of Chavez feel they have a chance of unseating him in the next presidential elections in 2012.

One London-based analyst said: "Chavez has a habit of making these pronouncements but then not going quite as far as he makes out. Having said that, land ownership is such an emotive issue in Venezuela, particularly with the small farmers that make up his support base, he may well feel he has to push it all the way."

Critics of Chavez point to the poor performance of land once it is handed over to smallholders. Despite the President's avowed objective of securing "food sovereignty" by reducing dependence on imports, there has been a six-fold increase in the inward flow of foodstuffs in the decade since Chavez took power.

El Charcote once turned out some 1.5 million kilos of beef a year but now produces next to nothing. The Venezuelan authorities say the demand for imports is the result of increased wealth in the country and point to a net increase in the amount of land under cultivation.

Even if Vestey Group Ltd is forced to cede its Venezuelan holdings it is likely to prove only a minor setback for a dynasty that has a knack for maintaining a fortune built on the discovery by William and Edmund Vestey that they could ship vast supplies of beef from the Americas to Britain in their fleet of refrigerated vessels at a handsome profit.

Diversification brought even greater rewards, and, by the outbreak of the Second World War, the company was the largest importer of powdered egg to the UK. It also benefited from a tax avoidance scheme which kept Inland Revenue accountants busy for about 60 years and netted the family £88m in legally avoided tax until the loophole was closed in 1991.

The company retains a vast array of assets from ranches in Brazil to canning companies in South-east Asia, and despite some hiccups along the way, generations of astutely invested financial success will not be easily dismantled.

As Phillip Knightley, author of the family history The Rise and Fall of the House of Vestey, put it: "They did not live on the income; they did not live on the interest from their investments; they lived on the interest on the interest."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
tvStrictly presenter returns to screens after Halloween accident
News
peopleFormer civil rights activist who was jailed for smoking crack cocaine has died aged 78
News
i100
News
Boxing promoter Kellie Maloney, formerly known as Frank Maloney, entered the 2014 Celebrity Big Brother house
people
Sport
Dwight Gayle (left) celebrates making it 1-1 with Crystal Palace captain Mile Jedinak
premier leagueReds falter to humbling defeat
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Solicitor NQ+ Oxford

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: CORPORATE - Corporate Solicitor NQ+ An excelle...

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Day In a Page

Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin