On opposite sides of the globe, a curious thing is happening. Two administrations, one a national government and one a state government, are embroiled in projects to change ownership of that ever- contentious commodity — land. In one case, the government says its land reforms are aimed at ending inequality that has put 80% of the country’s private land in the hands of just 5% of the population. In the other, the government says its land reforms are necessary to bring in investment and industry to the state. The violence is just starting in the former; it has been going on for the past 8 months in the latter. Funny thing, though, is that in the first case of Venezuela, it’s a government that follows the principles of socialism, and to a large extent probably, communism. In the second in the Indian State of West Bengal, it’s a Communist government that is now advocating in many respects the principles of capitalism. At the outset, there was certainly hope that Venezuelan president Chavez’s ambitious plan for land reform would be more Lincoln (see the Homestead Act) than Lenin (the path toward communism). But as the NYT reports, it looks more and more like a take from the rich and give to the poor scheme. There certainly is something attractive about the idea that you provide land and housing and the possibility of a new life to poor people by taking from the rich, who have more than they need and besides, they treat the poor folks…well…poorly. What’s not attractive are the killings of landowners and others in the process of takeover, the lack of compensation, and the inevitable inability to do the hard work of building a proper agricultural system that can operate successfully in today’s world. I doubt that the average Venezuelan, be it new land owner or former, believes this is an idea to improve Venezuela’s agrarian base, and to reduce dependency on food imports. It’s about the have-nots getting to have something that they didn’t previously possess, and sadly, that’s enough for most people.
Contrast these events to what has been happening in West Bengal in India. That state’s Communist-led government came to power 30 years ago on a land reform project too. It did its own version of take from teh rich and give to the poor and gave W. Bengal’s farmers their own land, out from under the thumb of landowners who had been running a feudal system in the state. In one generation, though, the worm has turned. There are too many people. The land keeps on being divided between family members, making many people subsistence farmers. Crops sometimes fail, and more often, food rots in teh fields because there’s no mechanism for preserving or selling it to the market. Prices set in international fora can determine whether you have enough money to eat. A farmer’s child wants more than just to be a farmer. Change is generally seen as a bad thing. Poverty has possibly been reduced, but the state can’t survive.
The W. Bengal government no longer believes that the state can sustain itself by agriculture alone. It is seeking to attract industry, to utilize capitalist methods, to allow W. Bengal to keep pace with the rest of burgeoning India. To do this, the government has been using Land Acquisition powers granted under British rule(!). Basically a form of eminent domain, the Land Acquisition Act allows the govt. to take land for a public purpose. Defenders of the dispossessed rightly demand compensation in the form of renumeration (cash), resettlement (a new place to live) and rehabilitation (job training). Hey, shouldn’t the wealthy Venezuelans who are losing their land be entitled, at least nominally, to the same?
This shifting of ideology has resulted in the ruling Communists (who have held themselves out historically as champions of the Left and of the people) being attacked by parties even more Leftist than they are. And now the Communists have been accused of selling out the interests of the people (could be true) and of violence and murder in the process (true) by Maoists and Marxists-Leninists. You couldn’t script a more surreal chain of events. Ultra-Leftists, Muslim groups, and the opposition parties now find themselves on the same side of the river, fighting the Communists on land acquisition for the purposes of industrialization (although they will tell you they may be on the same side of the river but they’re in different houses.)
The question is whether seizing land in this manner ever really changes anything. Most likely in Venezuela it won’t. In fact, I’ll bet that Venezuela will become more dependent on food imports and will become less efficient at production for the foreseeable future. The corruption will continue, it’s just that different people will be making money as a result. See, no matter what Chavez says, it’s never about the greater good for society. I know, some might point to Cuba and say “look, it’s been done,” but no, it hasn’t really, and besides, a new Cuba is not a possibility in today’s world. Just ask the Communists in West Bengal.