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."

Sport
Club legend Paul Scholes is scared United could disappear into 'the wilderness'
football
News
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
Dawkins: 'There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it's statistically too improbable'
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Sport
Malky Mackay salutes the Cardiff fans after the 3-1 defeat at Liverpool on Sunday
footballFormer Cardiff boss accused of sending homophobic, racist and messages
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Sport
Rodgers showered praise on Balotelli last week, which led to speculation he could sign the AC Milan front man
transfers
Life and Style
life – it's not, says Rachel McKinnon
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music(who aren't Arctic Monkeys)
News
Lizards, such as Iguanas (pictured), have a unique pattern of tissue growth
science
Extras
indybest
News
Anna Nicole Smith died of an accidental overdose in 2007
people
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tvReview: Bread-making skills of the Bake Off hopefuls put to the test
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Software Developer - Newcastle - £30,000 - £37,000 + benefits

£30000 - £37000 per annum + attractive benefits: Ashdown Group: .NET Developer...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

Digital Project Manager/BA

£300 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: An experienced Digital/Ecommerc...

Creative Content Executive (writer, social media, website)

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum + 25 days holiday and bonus: Clearwater People Solut...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home