Squatters demand rights to 'English company' ranch as Chávez launches socialist revolution

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On a ragged patch of the sprawling El Charcote ranch, deep in the Venezuelan plains, Humberto Delgado is holding court. "The English are the invaders," he tells the few dozen landless peasants who have squatted for four years on this land, owned by the British Vestey group. On a nearby fence, a battered banner proclaims: "Mr President - the people of El Charcote need to talk to you."

On a ragged patch of the sprawling El Charcote ranch, deep in the Venezuelan plains, Humberto Delgado is holding court. "The English are the invaders," he tells the few dozen landless peasants who have squatted for four years on this land, owned by the British Vestey group. On a nearby fence, a battered banner proclaims: "Mr President - the people of El Charcote need to talk to you."

It is rare, these days, to come across a part of the globe where machete-wielding peasants campaign for land rights and popular sovereignty to the cry of "English out". But these are exciting times for peasant firebrands such as Mr Delgado, also known as "Yellowhair".

This week, the left-wing Venezuelan President, Hugo Chávez, said President George Bush was plotting to assassinate him to put a stop to the socialist "revolution" his government has embarked on. The squatters of El Charcote are in the vanguard of that struggle.

Amid slogans that hark back to 1960s Cuba, President Chávez has "declared war" on large, and allegedly unproductive, farms. El Charcote, among 14 ranches in Venezuela owned by Agropecuaria Flora, a Vestey subsidiary and the biggest meat producer in the country, is one of the first targets. Known locally as "the English company", Flora is widely, if falsely, believed to be merely a front for the British crown. Many locals are even convinced the Queen not only owns El Charcote but consumes the beef it produces.

More plausibly, Chávez officials also say much of the ranch-land is almost unused. Fewer than 5 per cent of landowners hold three quarters of the country's agricultural land. Of that, more than 22 million acres could be legally reclaimed by the state.

Now the President has given the peasants a legal route through which to channel their resentment. Four months ago, Mr Chávez challenged state governors to speed land reform. He told them: "Make a list, of the big haciendas in your state. I'll expect recommendations from each governor; let's see who gets them in first."

That race was won by Jhonny Yánez, governor of the small, rural state of Cojedes, where El Charcote is. Like Mr Chávez, Mr Yánez is a former lieutenant-colonel, anxious to prove his revolutionary credentials. His plan called for the military-backed "intervention" in a score of large estates to determine whether their owners had legal title and what proportion of the land was idle.

Under a controversial 2001 decree-law, the state is empowered to "rescue" lands from owners who cannot demonstrate clear title going back to the mid-19th century, not an easy task amid the bureaucratic chaos of Latin America. Vesteys has an association with Venezuela going back at least 100 years. The government can also expropriate farmland deemed to be idle and hand it to poor peasants or town-dwellers, regardless of their agricultural skills.

The law was among 49 that helped trigger a massive opposition movement which, in April 2002, briefly toppled Mr Chávez in a bungled coup. But after a mid-term recall referendum last August also failed to remove him, the President announced a new, more radical phase of his revolution, now openly declared to be socialist-inspired and "anti-imperialist".

In a speech to mark the 13th anniversary of his own failed coup attempt, Mr Chávez said thousands of peasant co-operative members would be armed and trained as "popular defence units", to protect not only their land but the revolution. "This will create a lot of jobs," he said. "The popular defence unit will have to work, sow crops, raise cattle, fix roads and carry out defence training."

In El Charcote, the peasants are organised and expectant. Last month, accompanied by soldiers and state police, Governor Yánez, boyish-looking and bespectacled, told a crowd of supporters in a field in the heart of the ranch. "Social justice is unstoppable," adding: "We have not come here as communists to put an end to private property." Property, he said, was "a right, but not an absolute right".

Diana dos Santos, Flora's company president, challenges the notion that any part of El Charcote could be regarded as idle land. "We have 90,000 head of cattle, divided among our 14 ranches," Ms dos Santos said. "On average, we send 22,000 head for slaughter each year, and produce 120,000 calves."

But 90 per cent of El Charcote's fields have now been invaded by squatters, who burn the pastures, cut down trees and kill the wildlife. Beef production has slumped to less than a third of its 1999 level, the company says. The invaders have built ramshackle huts and planted a variety of crops, from yams and tomatoes to rice and watermelon. But they say their fences are cut in the night and the cattle trample their plots.

A devotee of Che Guevara T-shirts, the bearded Alexis Ortiz is among the radical promoters of the land decrees, and a key member of the "high-level commission" that is studying the "intervened" ranches. He has already announced to the press that land studies have already determined more than a third of El Charcote really belonged not to Vesteys but to the Venezuelan state.

Diana dos Santos told The Independent that the commission had yet to inform the company about these findings. "We prefer not to make any statements until the commission finishes its work," she said. That verdict, expected within weeks, is unlikely to favour Ms Dos Santos. The government is insisting large landowners must play their part in Mr Chávez's plan to end poverty.

The British embassy has called for the law to be applied "impartially and transparently", and the President has given assurances that the Vestey Group's legal rights will be respected. Lord Vestey himself said recently that he intended the group's association with Venezuela to continue.

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