Chavez’s de­struc­tive agenda

The Washington Times Weekly - - Editorials -

“We’re head­ing to­ward so­cial­ism, and noth­ing and no one can pre­vent it,” said Venezuela’s strong­man pres­i­dent, Hugo Chavez, in a tele­vised ad­dress in Jan­uary. Mr. Chavez had won re­elec­tion the month be­fore af­ter a cam­paign in which he promised to more ag­gres­sively ad­vance so­cial­ism in Venezuela. In­cluded in this push is what Mr. Chavez calls land re­form: the re­dis­tri­bu­tion of Venezuela’s arable land from large farms to co­op­er­a­tives, of­ten noth­ing more than squat­ter homesteads. The Chavez gov­ern­ment en­cour­ages the prac­tice by of­fer­ing loans — de facto grants, as they are reg­u­larly not re­paid — to co-ops. Mr. Chavez ar­gues for land re­dis­tri­bu­tion in his usual Marx­ist rhetoric of so­cial equal­ity and class strug­gle, but the Venezue­lan gov­ern­ment also hails the prac­tice as an es­sen­tial step to­ward agri­cul­tural self-suf­fi­ciency.

The irony, if his­tory is any guide, is that this kind of land re­form prom­ises to make Venezuela even more de­pen­dent on im­ported food. Mr. Chavez’s brand of land re­form is a proven fail­ure, and in some cases, has led to dis­as­ter. One ex­am­ple that the Venezue­lan leader is quite familiar with is Cuba, where the col­lec­tive farm­ing that Fidel Cas­tro in­tro­duced proved ru­inous.

Land re­dis­tri­bu­tion has been on­go­ing since 2005, and the re­sults are start­ing to emerge al­ready. By some es­ti­mates, Venezue­lan farm­ers pro­duced 8 per­cent less food in 2006 than in 2005. Sugar cane pro­duc­tion in par­tic­u­lar is down, in one north­west­ern state by 40 per­cent. Landown­ers are try­ing to sell their prop­erty, know­ing that if the land is taken over by one of the co­op­er­a­tives fi­nanced by the Chavez gov­ern­ment, they will not be com­pen­sated. Also for fear of los­ing their prop­erty, large landown­ers are no longer in­vest­ing any more than they need to in their farms. Even if they wanted to, farm­ers who own more than 100 acres are cat­e­gor­i­cally de­nied loans by Venezuela’s state banks, ac­cord­ing to one farmer in­ter­viewed by the Wall Street Jour­nal.

Last year, the Chavez gov­ern­ment be­gan “rene­go­ti­at­ing” its con­tracts with for­eign oil com­pa­nies in or­der to hand a greater share of own­er­ship in lu­cra­tive oil fields over to the state-con­trolled oil com­pany, promis­ing to kick out any firm that re­fused. This year he na­tion­al­ized elec­tri­cal and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pa­nies, and promised to do the same to banks.

Mr. Chavez may think that oil rev­enue will buoy his so­cial agenda, as it does his diplo­matic one. De­spite high oil prices, how­ever, Mr. Chavez has done lit­tle to re­duce poverty in Venezuela. Land re­dis­tri­bu­tion will be yet an­other failed pol­icy, and a re­minder that Latin Amer­i­can’s ret­ro­grade Marx­ist left stub­bornly re­fuses to learn from past mis­takes.

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