Courtesy Reuters

Agrarian Reform in Latin America

Just a decade ago, "agrarian reform" was anathema throughout most of the Western hemisphere. Only visionaries, revolutionaries and a few staff members of international agencies paid it any heed. Latin American governments spurned it, and the U.S. Government ignored or disapproved of it. In the two countries where it had taken place, Mexico and Bolivia, it was the product of violent revolution.

In 1960 a government of the democratic Left in Venezuela fulfilled a long- standing campaign pledge by pushing through an agrarian reform law and pressing its application. From Cuba, Fidel Castro, professing his to be a peasant movement, called upon the other hemispheric societies to follow his revolutionary lead. The United States moved to counteract his disrupting impact throughout the two continents and, at a plenipotentiary conference in 1960, the Act of Bogotá was constituted, incorporating the call for reform and the promise of U.S. funds.

Agrarian reform achieved full respectability at Punta del Este in August 1961, The delegates, many reluctantly, signed the declaration, which included a commitment "to encourage . . . programs of comprehensive agrarian reform leading to the effective transformation, where required, of unjust structures and systems of land tenure . . ."

To comply with the urgings of the United States and the letter of the Alliance for Progress-and to qualify for aid-almost all the Latin American legislatures spun out protracted and high-sounding laws, It seemed that an outmoded, tradition-bound system, unique in the world, was about to be restructured.

Callow reform enthusiasts were to learn, however, the nice difference between legal action and real action. With a plethora of new laws on the books across the hemisphere, only Venezuela pursued its resolve in a purposeful way. In Chile, a progressive government gained power in 1964 and with difficulty succeeded in replacing a flimsy 1963 law with a legal instrument adequate to effect agrarian reform. In the other countries, politically dominant elements were indifferent if not opposed to altering the tenure structure. Action was limited to tokenism, such as the distribution of peripheral

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