Venezuela, the resource-rich South American country that is home to the largest oil reserves on the planet, has been a focal point for international journalists, pundits and human rights activists for the better part of a decade. This has been thanks to the provocative and defiant stance of the nation’s leftwing president Hugo Chávez.
Unrelenting in his criticism of western governments, the socialist president has made countless headlines the world over for everything ranging from his nationalisation of key industries to his chemotherapy-induced baldness. Scant attention has been paid, however, to some of the grittier policy initiatives that have defined Chávez’s “Bolivarian Revolution“.
Perhaps the starkest example of this neglect concerns the Venezuelan countryside – an area that has been transformed into the battleground for a conflict occurring beneath the radar of both the international human rights community and the major media for more than 10 years.
Since 2001, when the Chávez government pledged to break up the country’s vastly unequal land holdings that have stifled agricultural development for more than a century, a wave of reprisal killings have consumed rural areas as large landowners contract assassins to end the “invasions” by pro-government campesinos on their illegitimately acquired and many times fallow estates.
Many of the deaths have taken place in the Western region of the country, where paramilitary activity originating from Colombia has spilled over into the largely lawless border areas. Such was the case with Pedro Doria, a doctor and community activist who was gunned down in front of his home in 2002. Doria’s assassination, the result of his support for a local land struggle occurring in the area South of Lake Maracaibo, was followed two years later by the murder of his father as he pressed for a comprehensive investigation into his son’s death.
Currently, farmer organisations place the number killed across the country at more than 300, but a precise record of victims has been difficult to ascertain, given the circumstances of the murders and the lack of investigations carried out by the country’s bureaucracy-laden judicial system.
Indeed, for many working on the issue, more disturbing than the deaths themselves is the impunity that has accompanied the crimes. In fact, not a single landowner has been convicted in a Venezuelan court of law for contracting the murder of a campesino.
The reason for this culpa lata lies in the class-based nature of the Venezuelan justice system and the manifestation of this at a local level. The landowners and lawyers, who studied at the same private schools and attended the same universities, share a background of power and influence that has not necessarily diminished with the ascent of Chávez to the presidency in 1999.
This 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. But the situation is quite the opposite.
While powerful anti-government ranchers hire paramilitaries or hitmen to eliminate peasant leaders, the upper class judges and technocrats who dominate the local tribunals systematically impede the effective implementation of justice. This alliance of interests has robbed the impoverished families of murdered farmers of any sense of justice and has permitted the deaths to continue.
For its part, the national government has attempted to foment the creation of farmer militias to stave off the assassinations but anger at the murderers’ impunity remains. Peasant organisations, firm in their support for the Chávez administration and the government’s agrarian reform, have taken to the streets to demand action from the nation’s public attorney’s office.
Chávez himself has called for the national guard to protect farmers and in one case, in the state of Yaracuy, he assigned his personal lawyer to attend to the widow of a murdered campesino. But even this measure has found its way into the black hole of bureaucracy: no one has been prosecuted for the assassination of Hermes Escalona.
Until real reform is enacted in the Venezuelan judicial system in order to enshrine the rule of law and break up the power of local elites, the politically motivated murder of landless farmers will not end. And until the international and domestic human rights communities take notice of this issue, rather than employing all available resources to portray the democratically elected Chávez as a repressive dictator, the lives of many of the nation’s most vulnerable residents will continue to be lived in peril.
But the taking up of such an issue may prove to be imprudent for such advocates as it runs the risk of implicating leaders of Venezuela’s conservative opposition in the crimes being committed in the countryside.
By Edward Ellis, a Venezuela-based film-maker and writer.