BARINAS, VENEZUELA — BARINAS, Venezuela - Richard Padron was born under democracy and into modern-day vassalage.
"My dad worked on a cattle ranch," says the sinewy Padron, 25, wearing mud-coated, black rubber boots and with a butcher knife in a leather sheath at his side. "The owner let him use five acres to grow corn and a few other crops to eat. The wages were enough for food, but not much else. I left school and began working with him when I was 14."
Padron still lives in poverty. He and his wife and two children survive largely off corn, and they sleep in hammocks with several other families in a dilapidated concrete-block farmhouse.
But he is in high spirits. For the first time in his life, says Padron, the land he is living and working on is his own.
In February, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez granted the Padron family, along with 300 others, the right to farm more than 7,500 acres in the heart of this verdant state southwest of Caracas.
"I was going to be a worker my whole life," says Padron, as he flipped corn pancakes called cachapas with a machete. "Without land, we had no future."
In this oil-rich and largely urban nation, gaping inequalities in landownership have long been overlooked by the ruling elite. According to the National Land Institute (INTI), 60 percent of the nation's arable land belongs to 2 percent of its landowners, while hundreds of thousands of farmers remain landless or scrape by on small subsistence plots.
Now, in an effort to reduce poverty and bolster agricultural production, Venezuela's embattled president is implementing a controversial reform program that has drawn fierce resistance from landowners, business groups and opposition politicians.
By the end of this year, says Chavez, the government will have distributed 5 million acres of idle, state-owned land to as many as 100,000 families.
"Venezuela has the only serious government-administered land reform in Latin America," says Peter Rosset, co-director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, a San Francisco-based think tank. "In the U.S., Chavez is often painted as a villain or crazy, but this land reform, small and incipient as it is, shows that he is much more on the side of the poor than other presidents in the region."
Historically, land reform has been an explosive issue in Latin America, and Venezuela has been no exception.
Since Chavez passed the "land law" in November 2001, the opposition has engaged in an all-consuming drive to oust the president, including a coup, a two-month work stoppage, and, most recently, a campaign for a recall election.
But Chavez has held on, and in rural states such as Barinas, known for its large, lush estates and chronic poverty, the government has marched apace with its agrarian reform program, propelling an emboldened farm worker movement that has clashed with wealthy cattle ranchers who lay claim to the land.
The ranchers accuse the government of illegally expropriating private estates without compensating owners, instead of targeting state-owned land.
"They're going after the best ranches, not idle land," says Rogelio Pena, the former mayor of Barinas city, who has sued the government for forcing him off his $1.5 million cattle ranch. "Just like Fidel Castro in Cuba, the government wants to take control of the productive sector."
Ranchers accuse government officials and pro-Chavez politicians of encouraging farmers to occupy private ranches without official sanction.
Giovanni Scelza, president of the Barinas Ranchers' Association, says there have been 95 illegal occupations since December and that authorities have responded to only one request for eviction.
INTI officials say they have openly condemned illegal occupations, attributing them to groups of farmers, or campesinos, acting independently.
For their part, campesino leaders say dozens of peasants have been murdered by hired assassins, called sicarios, whom they link to the ranchers.
Both campesinos and ranchers are armed, and threats of violence abound.
"If they take away my ranch, I'll kill them all, one by one," says Felipe Corelli, 66, a burly rancher who claims to have lost eight bulls to campesinos squatting on his property.
Increasingly organized and combative campesinos are nonetheless pushing the government to move faster. In Barinas this month, impatient farmers awaiting land grants temporarily seized INTI offices.
According to Marino Alvarado, who is writing a report on the progress of the land law's implementation for Provea, a leading Caracas-based human rights group, the government may be moving too slowly.
"The illegal invasions are the exception, not the rule," says Alvarado. "The one criticism that could be made is that the government is not touching the big latifundios."
For now, INTI is only distributing state-owned land, with no immediate plans to expropriate private latifundios, large estates that are typically holdovers from the colonial era.
Alvarado says the land law itself is relatively bland, as it limits the definition of latifundio to large estates that are idle. Even then, the owner has a two-year grace period to initiate production and avoid expropriation.
But beyond the controversy surrounding the illegal squats and expropriations lies a deeper ideological dispute about agricultural production.
Under the law, the distributed land remains in the hands of the state, and the government must encourage the formation of peasant cooperatives and collective farms, where the state is to provide housing, health care and education. The law gives the government power to dictate the way private land can be used.
Critics say the law violates the right to private property and is a throwback to state-planned communist economies.
Government officials contend that the ban on creating new private property is an attempt to avoid the failures of past land reforms in Venezuela and elsewhere, in which small-scale farmers were eventually forced to sell their plots to large landowners because of a lack of credit and government support.
They argue that forming peasant cooperatives is the only way that campesinos can compete with large-scale agribusiness.
For his part, Chavez has defended the law in terms of social justice and by appealing to the need for "food security" mandated by the Constitution, which was passed during his first year as president in 1999.
"We have excellent conditions to supply ourselves with the good part of what we consume, so how is it that we're importing black beans?" said Chavez in a recent presidential address, referring to a staple in Venezuelan cuisine. "Venezuela will keep being an oil country for a long time, but not just oil. We must go back to being an agro-producer."
Amable Soto seems preoccupied with a more-immediate question: What price will his cooperative get for this year's red pepper harvest.
The mud-crusted campesino is overseeing production on a 3,500-acre collective farm, called Jacoa, along with 32 other campesinos and their families.
"Chavez has given us what no government has," says Soto.
Other campesinos at Jacoa are more guarded in their praise. The families, who are sleeping in leaky shelters with palm-frond roofs, say they are still waiting for Chavez to keep his promise to build housing and improve the rutted dirt road, which turns into an impassable morass when it rains.
"There are signs that the distribution of land in Venezuela is finally being democratized," says Alvarado. "But we have yet to see if the government will continue to follow through with credits, tractors and the technical support necessary to make this land reform work."