BY DOMINIC WIGHTMAN
There are family friends who live in Monagas State in Venezuela who, like many other Venezuelans, seized private land as their own during the Mission Zamora land grabs initiated by the late Hugo Chavez in 2001. They managed to claim a plot of eight hectares consisting of fields of maize and some woodland. They built a house on the land and connected their plot up to the main highway to the state capital, Maturin. Soon they were growing an assortment of crops from maize to peppers to aubergines which they sold or exchanged at the local mercal – a government-arranged market.
While oil was still flowing and sold at a fine price, the first years of Chavez were bountiful. Within a year or two of starting their farm, these friends – the Barazonas – were approached by red-clad Chavistas from Maturin who handed them cash signed off in the form of loans called creditos. These loans were meant to be spent on farm equipment and hoses for a waterhole but, like those of almost everyone else, most of the Barazonas’ funds were frittered away on shopping trips and paid the deposit on a shiny new pick-up truck.
By 2005 the Chavistas were regular visitors to the Barazonas’ farm. They appeared carrying paperwork which, when signed, led to yet more gifts. The only conditions now, as Government money became more selective, were that the Barazonas show more community spirit – pooling their equipment and resources into a collective while maintaining private ownership over their land and farms. They happily agreed as that same year a tractor arrived – paid for in full by the Government – which immediately increased their farm’s production and made their lives so much easier. They would attend weekly collective meetings and wear Chavista red.
In their collective there were eight new farms and none of the owners had much experience of farming let alone tractors. Nonetheless they learnt how to operate the tractor and the first couple of years were fruitful ones.
By 2007 the tractor needed some replacement parts. Luckily Señor Barazona used to work on heavy goods vehicles and so he was able to fit the parts when the Chavistas appeared with them. The tractor was only out of action for a few months that year as they waited for the parts to arrive from Georgia in the USA.
The next year the tractor was operational for only six months as once again spare parts were required. This time the Chavistas required payments from the farmers for the parts, as money from central government was now very tight.
During 2009 the tractor was still running but it was a patched-up machine. There were no more creditos. Worse, tractor parts were no longer available as the US supplier had given up on the hope of ever being paid by the Venezuelan Government on past dues (yes, the Chavez Government had centralised tractor part acquisition into a state-run department). The price of the farmers’ produce so fluctuated that they were all forced to give over some of their land to rearing pigs or chickens so they could be sure they had enough food for themselves.
By 2010 the collective had split into twenty farms, as the original eight owners were forced to sell off their land just to pay to keep what was left of their own farms running. The tractor had been stolen by another collective and one of the original farmers was killed when he tried to reclaim it using a spare set of keys.
By 2011 there was no sign of the Chavistas, who had always been so kind in spite of taking their hefty thirty percent of each credito paid. The farmers liked them because they knew they’d never be asked to pay the creditos back and they’d even become Godfathers (compadres) to some of their kids. Rumours were that of the three visiting Chavistas one was now assistant to a senior politician in Caracas while the other two had emigrated to Portugal and Colombia. All were as incommunicado as their boss Hugo Chavez was soon to be.
Today, five years on, apart from the Barazonas’ farm, which is a well-run family farm which just about provides self-sufficiency for the Barazona family, there are no farms operating in that area. The trees have been chopped down and burnt during chuletadas (barbecues) and most of the land is a dustbowl. Several hectares are used as a drugs farm and one is used as a basurero (a dump) which burns with its acrid fumes 24/7 and doubles as a place for local bandits to throw the corpses which are the direct consequence of worsening local lawlessness.
Today the locals starve, everyone has a family member who has been killed in the upsurge in violence and the murals of Hugo Chavez – a man once adored by these people – are now disfigured and portray him and his red-capped Chavistas as devils.
I passed through the Barazonas’ collective not long ago on my motorbike on the way to their daughter Jessica’s funeral. She had been killed on the highway to Maturin by a delinquent who gunned her down then stole her Vespa and her purse.
There beside the highway sits what’s left of the tractor – its tyres punctured, its lights smashed and its cab warped and shattered.
This is Socialism: price-setting, nationalisation, wealth redistributions which leave the coffers to run dry and the over-taxed and qualified to give up and emigrate.
Idealism in action.
When the money dries up, the consequences are fatal. Let us notice so these Venezuelans do not suffer and perish in vain. Let us – unlike some of our current politicians – never forget the damage Socialism causes. Socialism is a curse.
Socialists always say “ah but the next time….” when the next time just brings more pain.