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Venezuelans divided over who owns the land

Venezuela's supreme court ruled last month that one major government-sponsored land invasion was illegal.

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After five years struggling to make it in the city of Barinas, the Zambrano family thought they had found an opportunity to return to their rural roots.

Manuel and Omaira Plata de Zambrano and their three children couldn't make ends meet on his salary as a van driver for schoolchildren. So back in February, they joined a cooperative of landless families who moved onto 77,000 acres designated by the government as idle, state-owned land. They planted corn, yucca, and sorghum.

But last month, armed with a court order declaring the occupation illegal, police evicted the Zambranos and other families, leaving them in limbo.

"I'll die before giving up," vows Ms. Zambrano, who is living at a neighboring military post with other evicted families.

To understand the emotional land- reform issue is to understand Venezuela's political crisis. On one side, the poor rejoice at the chance to own their own piece of workable earth, 97 percent of which is controlled by just 10 percent of the rural population, according to the government. On the other side are those who say such land grabs are just one more example of Mr. Chávez's complete disregard for the rule of law in his race to become the hemisphere's next Fidel Castro, iron-fisted ruler of communist Cuba. In this charged political environment, the country's National Electoral Council must now determine if a referendum on Chávez's presidency should go forward.

The redistribution of land is part of Chávez's "Bolivarian Revolution for the poor" - his dream of promoting both social justice and economic self-sufficiency. The government aims to reduce poverty by luring back to the countryside poor families who left for the cities during decades of the nation's oil boom, but found only more poverty in huge shantytown slums. The government also hopes to reduce Venezuela's historic dependence on imported foods, especially as it enjoys a huge amount of fertile land.


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