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In Caracas, the Poor Shall Inherit the Golf Course

August 31, 2006|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

CARACAS, Venezuela — Perched in a green and forested aerie in the city's southern hills, the exclusive Valle Arriba Golf Club has long offered its members a breathtaking view and a pleasant escape from urban cacophony and congestion.

Now, a staunch ally of President Hugo Chavez wants it.

Caracas Mayor Juan Barreto announced late Tuesday that the municipal government planned to seize two elite country clubs, Valle Arriba and the Caracas Country Club, and redevelop them as low-income housing projects.

The planned seizures were justified as part of Chavez's federal policy to redistribute privately owned land to the poor. The takeovers, which have included farmland and apartment buildings, are roiling the social and political scene just as the presidential campaign is kicking off.

Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel said Wednesday that the Chavez government "does not share the decision." But the proposal, which is subject to appeals by the landowners, has drawn attention to an accelerating cycle of government takeovers, as well as squatter seizures that have thrown land tenancy law into chaos throughout Venezuela.

Backed by a land law passed in 2003, the Chavez government has targeted 4 million acres of farmland for seizure and redistribution this year to poor farm cooperatives. The moves are part of a broader social agenda to move the poor out of the cities and onto small farms.

In Caracas, Barreto's officials say the takeover is prompted by a housing shortage and is permitted under the Chavez land law, which gave the government sweeping new powers to seize property that it deemed idle, misused, illegally acquired or not contributing to "social goals."

The law, among the broadest eminent domain statutes in the hemisphere, affords the government ample discretion in applying those criteria. In a public address last week, Barreto referred to the residents living around the country clubs as "putrid."

Chavez opponents see the club seizures as a brazen campaign tactic to bolster Chavez's support among the poor before the December election. The president has made political hay by vilifying the upper classes and blames them for a crippling general strike and a failed coup earlier in his administration.

Business interests and members of the clubs reacted angrily to the announcement Wednesday.

Country club member and prominent banker Oscar Mendoza said the confiscations would amount to an illegal seizure of private property.

The Venezuelan Construction Chamber said building low-income housing on the club site would make little planning sense.

Caracas Country Club board president Fernando Zozaya said club management had not been informed of any takeover. But putting housing on the club grounds, which he described as "a lung of the city," would be an "environmental disaster with unforeseeable consequences," he said.

The announcement comes as Chavez's sweeping property reform policies are kicking into higher gear. Juan Carlos Loyo, president of the National Land Institute, said his agency is about halfway toward the target of redistributing 4 million acres to the poor.

Previous attempts at land reform never worked, he said. "According to the World Bank, Brazil and Venezuela have the worst concentration of land in the hands of a few.... There is a profound social inequality here."

This month, the government began carving up the La Vergarena ranch in southern Bolivar state, a 500,000-acre property owned by a banking family that the government said was underutilized. About 10% of the ranch has been turned over to indigenous groups who will plant crops while preserving the forests.

In Yaracuy state, 60 ranches and sugar plantations have been targeted for takeovers.

But the social revolution pushed by Chavez is having violent repercussions. More than 50 peasant squatters have been slain since the president took office.

In July, Yaracuy peasant leader Braulio Alvarez, who is also a federal deputy, narrowly escaped death when assailants shot him in the face as he left a late-night meeting. It was the third attempt on his life.

Alvarez blamed assassins hired by landowners who oppose Chavez's redistribution plan.

"There are many chameleons who say they support the president but who have not changed their souls or way of thinking," Alvarez said.

Chavez is under pressure to deliver on promises to give housing to Venezuelans who are homeless or living in substandard structures. The government estimates that the housing "deficit" amounts to 2 million units. Tenants of about 1,000 apartment buildings in Caracas have formally applied for government takeovers of their structures, hoping they will become instant owners.

But squatters elsewhere have taken over land, even where title seems secure, forcing authorities to rein in the land grab.

On Monday, police dragged 50 squatters out of an apartment building in central Caracas that they had occupied for three years.

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