In Venezuela, just 2 percent of the population owns 60 percent of the arable land. Because of this disparity, land reform is one of President Hugo Chávez's biggest projects. When Venezuela gained its independence from Spain in the early 1800s, most landowners were of Spanish descent and were wealthy. In the disorder following independence, many were able to increase their land holdings. By the time the fledgling government got around to issuing land titles, these landowners held most of Venezuela's fertile lands, and the lower classes were left with little or nothing.
But that all is in flux with the 1998 election of Hugo Chávez, who vows to bring parity by implementing land reform, which includes giving land to peasants who want to be farmers. Chávez's new Law on Land and Agricultural Development sets limits on the size of landholdings, levies taxes on unused property as an incentive to spur agricultural growth, redistributes unused, primarily government-owned, land to peasant families, and expropriates fallow land from large, private estates for the purpose of redistribution. (Landowners are to be compensated for their land at market value.) Peasants and cooperatives who receive land must make it productive and, after three years, can obtain legal ownership. They must also receive training in modern agricultural techniques.
Few would argue with improving the welfare of the poor, but many disagree with Chávez's methods—even his supporters. According to the Democracy and Development Foundation, a recent poll shows that 83 percent of Venezuelans support the private ownership of property and disagree with Chavez's policy of taking private lands to give to the poor. However, Chávez wants to increase Venezuela's food independence (the country currently imports nearly three-fourths of its food), as well as raise the peasants out of poverty.