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Venezuelan businessman turns thieves into employees

Alberto Vollmer's programs for poor squatters and young hoodlums seen as a model for defusing social tensions.

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Alberto Vollmer is as blue-blooded as they get – a rakishly handsome heir of one of Venezuela's richest families. It is a family that owns the fabled Santa Teresa sugar-cane hacienda and rum distillery, the one where 19th-century independence hero Simón Bolívar announced an end to slavery.

In Venezuela, where President Hugo Chávez divides his countrymen into two groups – the exploited poor and the malevolent oligarchs – Mr. Vollmer would seem to fall into the latter category.

But this US-educated businessman has founded two highly successful programs to provide the poor with land and job opportunities, and he has found a way to earn the respect of the Chávez government. The programs have so effectively defused social tensions that other countries have sought him out for advice.

How did he get started? In 2000, he was faced with what other hacienda owners here have confronted – poor squatters. "If you resort to violence or being reactive or defensive, you're at an enormous disadvantage," says Vollmer.

So when 500 poor families invaded a stretch of Vollmer's 18,300-acre hacienda, he did not fight back – he welcomed them. Vollmer entered into negotiations with their leader. Then Vollmer pitched an idea to the state government, which was and remains solidly behind Chávez.

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