Original Article Here

Impunity for Venezuela's big landowners
Hundreds of Chavez supporters have been assassinated by wealthy landowners for implementing new land policies.
Joe Emersberger and Jeb Sprague

For close to a decade, Venezuela has been the focus and the target of mainstream news coverage, as the scene of a heated political struggle over control of the country's destiny.

But the parade of pundits eager to criticise the country's elected president and simplify the country's political conflict as a rule ignore the deep socio-economic inequality that propelled President Chavez to power.

The Bolivarian revolution has made significant strides in improving the conditions for the country's popular classes and promoting an alternative regional bloc, while at the same time pioneering a unique form of participatory democracy.

Still, the Bolivarian revolution is struggling both from its own contradictions and against a long history of deeply entrenched social inequality, intensified by capitalist globalisation.

This is nowhere more clear than in the rural countryside of Venezuela, where vast tracts of land remain in the hands of a tiny grouping of extremely wealthy families.

Tierras Libres, a documentary released this year, tells a story that has been virtually blacked out by the international press - the murders of hundreds of Venezuelan peasants by hired gunmen and right wing paramilitaries. The peasants have been murdered for attempting to implement the Chavez government's land reform policy. The crimes strongly implicate wealthy landowners who vehemently oppose land reform.

In one scene from the documentary, we see a middle-aged woman, Doneila, whose husband, Hermes Escalona, was murdered in 2003 by gunmen as he was beginning to work some fallow land on a huge plantation.

Speaking directly to President Chavez on his weekly Alo Presidente television programme, she looks hopeful as Chavez promises to "heat up" efforts to bring her husband's killers to justice.

No justice for the poor

In fact, as the documentary shows, Chavez ordered his personal lawyer to come to her aid. However, the film next provides an update on Doneila's story years after her appearance with Chavez on national TV. While she continues to support the Venezuelan president, she says, tearfully, that she has come to conclude that, for poor people in Venezuela, there simply is no justice.

Her son explains that, after years of effort, even with the support they received, the time and resources required to pursue justice in the case of his father is too great an emotional and financial burden for them to bear.

In other words, the justice system remains rigged in favour of the Venezuelan one per cent (to use the Occupy Wall Street terminology) who constructed it. As the filmmaker, Edward Ellis, described the situation:

"The legal system in Venezuela, despite the international media's misinterpretations, is still, in many cases, very much in the hands of the middle and upper classes. Most of these people have their roots in the power structures of Punto Fijismo - that's to say, the ancien regime.

"The majority of lawyers and judges share the same cultural background and class origins as the landowners and latifundistas. They went to the same schools and universities, visit the same clubs and drink the same whisky, regardless of whether or not they don a red hat at a rally. So what you have is a system run and controlled by money."

The peasant killings have been so completely disregarded by the international press that in August a petition was sent to the UK Guardian newspaper - widely hailed as one of the world's finest "left leaning" newspapers. The petition, signed by Noam Chomsky, John Pilger and others, asked the Guardian why, despite having a correspondent based in Caracas for years, the issue has been completely ignored.

For example, the Guardian, which has relentlessly reported criticism of the Chavez government, neither reported on the killings nor on demonstrations highlighting the issue, such as the June 8, 2011, march on the National Assembly of 10,000 people, which was organised by peasant collectives to demand justice.

Several weeks after the petition was sent, after receiving even more complaints, the Guardian allowed Edward Ellis to write a comment piece about the issue. Ellis wrote that the impunity enjoyed by wealthy landowners in Venezuela "challenges the contemporary human rights discourse, which portrays the country's judiciary as captive to the whims of a power-hungry 'strongman' bent on stamping out political dissent".

A good example of the "contemporary human rights discourse" that Ellis mentioned was a report issued in August by the International Crisis Group (ICG) about the problem of violent crime in Venezuela ("Violence and politics in Venezuela"). In its conclusion, the ICG stated: "Violence, or its threat, has become inherent to President Chavez's political project".

Assassinations by wealthy landowners

Never mind that, according to the figures provided in ICG's own report, the vast majority of people killed in political violence since 1999 have been Chavez supporters. Hundreds of peasants such as Hermes Escalona were murdered for attempting to implement a policy that is high priority for a government eager to end Venezuela's dependence on food imports. The fact that wealthy landowners have, with impunity, been able to assassinate hundreds of Chavistas speaks volumes about the power of the rich and their capacity for violence.

Chavez opponents are well positioned - as state governors, mayors, legislators, judges and police chiefs - to exacerbate violent crime in general. The former Caracas Metropolitan police, for example, openly collaborated with the short-lived coup that briefly deposed Chavez in 2002.

Despite these dramatically revealing facts, it is inconceivable that a prominent, well-funded NGO such as the ICG would ever write: "Violence, or its threat, has become inherent to the elite opposition's political project in Venezuela" even though it would be far closer to the truth.

Ignoring key facts and the unequal social relations that underpin the political conflict in Venezuela, media and NGO professionals invariably reduce a diverse and broad movement from below to the alleged machinations of the country's president.

In US embassy cables leaked by WikiLeaks, US officials have stated how important it is to them that NGOs take up their propaganda war against the Chavez government. It would appear that various NGOs and institutions - Human Rights Watch, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the ICG - require no prodding from the US government to write voluminously about Venezuela in a way that whitewashes the US-funded political opposition or the role of other local and transnational elites.

Many among the international press and prominent NGOs appear to share the assumptions of some in the often-corrupted Venezuelan legal system about whose lives matter and whose don't.

While it has become normal to read media reports critical of Venezuela's elected authorities, little is said of the murky world of elite networks and the violence they propel.

Less is said of inequality or of the brave efforts made to slowly eradicate it. For these stories we must go to the Venezuelan poor and hear their testimonials - as Edward Ellis did to make his vivid documentary.

Original Interview here

“Tierras Libres” – A Documentary About the Struggle For Land Reform in Venezuela
Filmmaker, Edward Ellis, interviewed by Joe Emersberger

Q: I notice your film is far from "soft" on the Chavez government. It shows Chavez meeting with the widow of a murdered peasant during his TV show (Alo Presidente) and promising action on her behalf. Then we skip ahead a few years and learn that her family has been worn out by a legal process clearly stacked against them. While the credits to your film role, you show Chavez calling on his movement to be more tolerant of dissent - and stating that he shouldn’t have to read opposition sources to find strong criticism of his government from regular citizens.

Ellis: I think the film is neither soft nor hard on the Venezuelan government but rather fair. For more than half the film, the viewer is presented with a very positive view of the government and its agrarian reform. We went to great measures to show the need for change in the countryside as well as exhibit the opportunities that such reforms have provided for the rural poor. I think we're at a point now with respect to the situation in Venezuela where we don't need to resort to being propagandistic but rather seek a more nuanced view of things. Constructive criticism is a good thing and needs to be accepted, especially here. It's for this reason, I believe, that the film has been very well received by pro-Chavez campesino movements on the ground. I'm essentially making the same criticisms and arguments that they have been making for years - defend the government's initiatives and the president in the face of right-wing attacks and push for greater justice in the countryside in the face of continued impunity.

Q: As your film reveals, about 250 peasant activists have been assassinated since 2001. In your view, what has been the reason the Chavez government has been unable to deliver justice or effective protection to the peasants?

Ellis: The legal system in Venezuela, despite the international media's misinterpretations, is still, in many cases, very much in the hands of the middle and upper classes. Most of these people have their roots in the power structures of Punto Fijismo - that's to say, the ancien regime. The majority of lawyers and judges share the same cultural background and class origins as the landowners and latifundistas. They went to the same schools and universities, visit the same clubs and drink the same whisky regardless of whether or not they don a red hat at a rally. So what you have is a system run and controlled by money. If you have the resources to pay private lawyers who know how to manipulate the system, you have a much greater chance of walking free. And when it comes to the Attorney's General Office or Public Attorney's Office, they are notoriously ineffective and bureaucratic - many times filled with the same players. In my opinion, the lack of accountability in the nation's Public Attorney's Office (Ministerio Publico) is the greatest obstacle to ending impunity in the countryside, if not the entire country. Specific policies need to be implemented to ensure the follow-up and investigation of cases but until we have people from the lower classes graduating as lawyers and becoming judges, I fear not much will change.

Q: Your film shows that there is clearly corruption within the National Guard in some rural areas. At one level, is the problem simply that Venezuela is a democracy - and that Chavez cannot trample independent and opposition controlled branches of government (as the international press likes to claim he does)?

Ellis: I think corruption should be stamped out wherever its found, whether it's being carried out by pro or anti Chavez sectors. I don't think its a question of democracy or escualido/chavista as much as a question of rule of law. Venezuela is one of the freest countries I have ever been in. In fact, I would say there is too much freedom as people pretty much do whatever they want here without fear of repression. The "Law" is not as visible here as it is in many countries and corruption is an historic problem whether it be at local level with pro-Chavez members of the national guard or at higher levels with opposition governors.

Q: Is a problem fear of creating splits within Chavez allies by really getting tough with corrupt opportunists within Chavista ranks?

Ellis: Surely political considerations have to play a role. To exactly what extent, I couldn't say.

Q: Is land reform a high enough priority - rhetoric aside - for the Chavez government? Does the impunity the assassins have enjoyed suggest that perhaps it isn’t?

Ellis: Venezuela's land redistribution has been one of the top priorities of the Chavez government and continues to be, alongside its wider agricultural reform policies. This is not the problem. The problem, in my view, is the judicial system and the corruption therein. Of course, one could be cynical and say that since the political support of the farmers is pretty much guaranteed due to the benefits that they have received via government programs, there doesn't exist the pressure necessary to ensure an end to the impunity and the assassinations. I'm not prepared to make that assertion as I believe the problem lies in visibility of the issue, which is why I made the film. Hopefully it will provoke some kind of action.

Q: Do you think the relentless drumbeat of international distortions – in particular, the accusation that Chavez has the judiciary under his thumb - has significantly deterred his government from doing more to eliminate class bias in the judiciary?

Not really. I think the Chavez administration is much more concerned with public opinion within Venezuela than with what Washington and the international press have to say.

Q: In 2010, I read reports of Chavez establishing peasant militias to improve their capacity for self-defense. Have these shown any promise at all to reduce future assassinations?

Ellis: To be completely honest, I'm not sold on the idea of the militias. Firstly, because the assassinations that are occurring are targeted attacks against leaders and usually occur in circumstances where a militia would be of little help. Secondly, it doesn't seem to me that the government has the capacity to arm and train every campesino group taking part in remote land occupations. I think the way to prevent further murders is to prosecute those responsible for past homicides.

Q Thanks to the corporate press, we all know that Venezuelan cities, especially Caracas, are plagued by very high homicide rates. However, in these rural areas where the "sicarios" have targeted peasants, I assume that murders are rare - making these assassinations stand out much more (and at least in theory making the crimes easier to solve). Is that correct?

Ellis: Not necessarily. Many rural areas of Venezuela, especially border areas with Colombia, are plagued with paramilitary activity. Although violence has found its greatest expression in the cities, it has not been limited to urban areas and given the corruption that many times derails justice at the local level, crimes are rarely solved.

Q: There are some very powerful images in your film of the vast tracts of unused land that the big land owners have hoarded. Do you have any data on the extent to which land reform under Chavez has increased production and lessened Venezuela's dependence on food imports?

Ellis: Production has increased in important key crops including corn, black beans and rice. Milk and meat production has also shown notable increases but dependence on imports continues to be a major challenge for the government as demand continues to rise in the country.

Q: How long did it take you to make the film and when was it first shown?

Ellis: It took about three years from the very beginning to the very end. It was made with very few resources in the spirit of Latin America's revolutionary documentary tradition. It was first screened in Buffalo, NY in March 2011 and I'm currently in the process of submitting it to a variety of festivals in Latin America and elsewhere. The Frente Nacional Campesino Ezequiel Zamora has been distributing it to farmer collectives around Venezuela.

Q: Has the response been what you expected?

Ellis:More or less. Those who are close to the issues certainly take away greater meaning while those who have no previous knowledge generally learn a good deal. The important thing for me was to make the film compelling and accessible to everyone and I think we achieved that.