Venezuela to nationalise 300,000 hectares of Vestey-owned land

MarkiB mark at
Tue Oct 5 22:37:28 BST 2010

After recent elections in Venezuela, President Hugo Chanvez announces
plans to nationalise 300,000 hectares of Vestey-owned land Venezuelan
estates (see article from today's Independent newspaper copied below). 

This was mooted 5 years ago by Venezuela's president Chavez, when at a
mass rally of 10,000 people on Monday January 10th 2005, Hugo Chavez
announced a new decree aimed at speeding up land reform 
> see:

Since the Land Act was passed in December 2001, by the start of 2005,
Venezuela's National Land Institute had distributed 5.5 million acres of
land (2.2 million hectares) to peasant cooperatives. Up until then, all the
land distributed had been state-owned land and there had been no
expropriations. Then, 5 years ago, Venezuelan authorities backed by troops
entered the Charcote estate belonging to UK-multinational Vestey Group Ltd,
some 33,600 acres of grazing land owned by the Vesteys to the south of
Caracas with a 13,000 head of cattle, making it one of the country's top 10
beef producers. The government eventually paid $4.2m (£2.65m) for the

However, echoing the problems which were encountered to dramatic and
devastating effect in Zimbabwe under the rule of Robery Mugabe and Zanu PF,
as the article below describes, the El Charcote ranch which once turned out
some 1.5 million kilos of beef a year now produces next to nothing.

Is this latest episode in anti-imperialist gesture politics by Hugo Chavez
ingenious or inane?  The answer depends on how rigourous and detailed the
plan has been to work this land in the national interest.


Chavez goes to war against Uncle Sam

Plans to nationalise the Vestey meat empire's Venezuelan estates are a
blow to one of the UK's richest families

By Cahal Milmo
The Independent (UK)
Tuesday, 5 October 2010


In 1903, two entrepreneurial Liverpudlian brothers arrived in Caracas
determined to add to their burgeoning empire of foreign food producers by
buying Venezuelan cattle ranches. Over the next decade, William and Edmund
Vestey added 11 ranches covering thousands of hectares of prime pasture to
a list of holdings that ranged from egg processing plants in China to beef
herds in Madagascar.

The Vestey brothers and their descendants came to epitomise British
mercantile power, feeding the industrial heartlands of the UK with their
refrigerated ships, transporting meats and foodstuffs from far-flung
corners of the world in the name of Empire and considerable profit.

How times have changed. The Vesteys' once ubiquitous Dewhurst butchers'
shop chain is history, their long-standing – and completely legal – tax
avoidance scheme has ended, and now a pugnacious Venezuelan born in a mud
hut to two schoolteachers has launched a land grab on one of their most
prized assets.

Doubtless with an eye on the Vesteys imperial heritage, and the fact that
his target is ultimately controlled by the 3rd Baron Vestey (a man so close
to the heart of the British establishment that he nominally looks after the
Queen's horses), President Hugo Chavez announced on Sunday that he was
nationalising the land controlled by the Compaia Inglesa, the Venezuelan
arm of the Vestey Group Ltd.

With the sort of revolutionary appeal that has sustained him in power for
11 years, Chavez, the firebrand of South American socialism, used his first
televised address since an electoral setback a week ago to try to restore
his radical credentials by declaring his intention to take back 300,000
hectares of Vestey-owned land.

Speaking on his weekly Alo Presidente programme, Chavez demanded the
"acceleration of the agrarian revolution" and said: "All of the lands of
the so-called Compania Inglesa will be nationalised now. I don't want to
waste another day... Free the land, free the slave labour."

There is no evidence that Agroflora, the subsidiary of Compania Inglesa
that owns the Vestey ranches, uses slave labour, but the Venezuelan
President-cum-showman knows how to pick his pantomime villains and produce
a showdown between, as he sees it, the model of a redistributive economy
and the hugely-wealthy embodiment of British aristocratic capitalism.

In the red corner stands the self-declared leader of Venezuela's
Bolivarian revolution, whose government has taken over some 2.5 million
hectares of land since 1999.

His chosen opponent is Lord Sam "Spam" Vestey, the chairman of Vestey
Group Ltd, one of the longest-standing friends of Prince Charles, owner of
a fortune estimated at £750m and whose titles include Master of the Horse
and third Great Officer of the Royal Household, a ceremonial role which
entails him riding behind the sovereign for occasions such as the state
opening of Parliament.

His second wife, Celia, is Prince Harry's godmother, while Nina Clarkin,
Lord Vesty's niece, is rated the best female polo player in the world after
a childhood spent playing the sport with Princes Harry and William.

The resulting tussle is a battle between one of the most publicity-hungry
politicians around and one of Britain's more illustrious yet publicity-shy
dynasties. The Vestey Group, which remains a privately-owned global
conglomerate with business interests from Macau to Manchester, today issued
a diplomatic response to the Venezuelan president's pronouncement. George
Vestey, executive vice chairman of the Vestey Group Ltd told The
Independent: "Regarding Agroflora, our subsidiary company in Venezuela, I
would make the point that we have been in constructive discussions with the
Venezuelan government for some time now and we continue in that vein in
order to find a friendly agreement with them. I would add that the
government have issued all Agroflora farms with productivity certificates."

But it is a reasonable bet that in private the family is slightly less
than delighted at being offered the opportunity to join Chavez's socialist
revolution by being relieved of their landholdings in return for a
substantial cheque.

When the President first drew up his 2001 law threatening to expropriate
privately-owned agricultural land that had been declared "idle", Lord
Vestey staged a one-man protest outside the Venezuelan embassy in London.

Five years ago, Venezuelan authorities backed by troops entered the
Charcote estate, some 33,600 acres of grazing land owned by the Vesteys to
the south of Caracas with 13,000 head of cattle, making it one of the
country's top 10 beef producers.

The government eventually paid $4.2m (£2.65m) for the estate. In a rare
pronouncement on the issue at the time, Lord Vestey told the Financial
Times: "We've been in Venezuela for just over 100 years and we hope to be
there for some time yet."

Experts on Venezuelan affairs were yesterday equivocal about the chances
of that vow being maintained for much longer, at a time when opponents of
Chavez feel they have a chance of unseating him in the next presidential
elections in 2012.

One London-based analyst said: "Chavez has a habit of making these
pronouncements but then not going quite as far as he makes out. Having said
that, land ownership is such an emotive issue in Venezuela, particularly
with the small farmers that make up his support base, he may well feel he
has to push it all the way."

Critics of Chavez point to the poor performance of land once it is handed
over to smallholders. Despite the President's avowed objective of securing
"food sovereignty" by reducing dependence on imports, there has been a
six-fold increase in the inward flow of foodstuffs in the decade since
Chavez took power.

El Charcote once turned out some 1.5 million kilos of beef a year but now
produces next to nothing. The Venezuelan authorities say the demand for
imports is the result of increased wealth in the country and point to a net
increase in the amount of land under cultivation.

Even if Vestey Group Ltd is forced to cede its Venezuelan holdings it is
likely to prove only a minor setback for a dynasty that has a knack for
maintaining a fortune built on the discovery by William and Edmund Vestey
that they could ship vast supplies of beef from the Americas to Britain in
their fleet of refrigerated vessels at a handsome profit.

Diversification brought even greater rewards, and, by the outbreak of the
Second World War, the company was the largest importer of powdered egg to
the UK. It also benefited from a tax avoidance scheme which kept Inland
Revenue accountants busy for about 60 years and netted the family £88m in
legally avoided tax until the loophole was closed in 1991.

The company retains a vast array of assets from ranches in Brazil to
canning companies in South-east Asia, and despite some hiccups along the
way, generations of astutely invested financial success will not be easily

As Phillip Knightley, author of the family history The Rise and Fall of
the House of Vestey, put it: "They did not live on the income; they did not
live on the interest from their investments; they lived on the interest on
the interest." 

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