Friday, July 1, 2011


In 2001, the Venezuelan government led by left-wing president Hugo Chavez passes a radical new land reform law that ignites a wave of violence in the countryside, leading to the death of large numbers of small farmers.  Unable to defend themselves against attacks perpetrated by wealthy elites, impoverished agricultural workers seek justice in the bureaucracy laden offices of the nation’s ineffective and unresponsive legal system.

Long Synopsis
On November 6, 2003, Hermes Escalona, a poor and landless farmer from outside the city of Chivacoa in Central Venezuela, was clearing a previously neglected piece of land in one of the most fertile agricultural regions of his country.  With his fellow workers, he was preparing the land for the cultivation of oyama, a gourd-like squash popular in Venezuela.  One moment he was sweating as he swung his machete in the oppressive lowland heat.  Moments later, he was dead.  Hermes, a husband and a father, was fatally shot by a mercenary contracted by a local landowner to eliminate the encroachment of landless peasants onto his massive, yet largely fallow, plantation.

The murder of Hermes Escalona did not come as a shock.  In fact, Hermes has been just one of more than 230 farmer activists who have been killed in a similar fashion in Venezuela over the past 9 years.  Although news of peasant deaths rarely reaches the public and not a single landowner has been prosecuted for these crimes, they are, nevertheless, the fallen soldiers in a silent war that is currently taking place in this country, a war referred to in official discourse as the “war against the latifundio”.  Armed with machetes and the promise of land as guaranteed by the newly instituted Ley de Tierras, or Land Law, farmers with the legal-institutional backing of the ‘”revolutionary” government of President Hugo Ch├ívez and its growing state bureaucracy are settling on both public and private farmlands as part of Venezuela’s shift away from market-oriented development strategies.  

Tierras Libres is a documentary about how Venezuelan farmers, while being provided with land, homes and education by the government, are falling victim to reprisal killings perpetrated by wealthy elites as an ineffective and unresponsive legal system allows impunity to reign in the countryside.  Through the use of ethnographic and expository techniques, the film documents the testimony of the small famers, their hope for a better future  and their struggle against a powerful and well-connected adversary. 

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