Largest internal displacement in Venezuela and the Branger connection

Maria Ramona Jimenez is almost 70 years old, but she still remembers her grandmother bursting to tears over sixty years ago, crying for her beloved donkey “Maneto” who had been shot dead by one of Antonio Branger’s men. Antonio Julio Branger, was the head of the Branger clan that succeeded in displacing hundreds of families from the lands known as farm Piñero in the State of Cojedes, the gate to the savannah in Venezuela.

Maria Jimenez’ family is one of the 800 families displaced from the lands they have occupied for generations. The families were organized in what could be defined as communes where they produced meat and sugar cane, in a format catalogued as “social property”.
The 72,000 hectares known as farm “Piñero” woke the avarice of a wealthy family, the Branger, who used their power to kick out 800 families and kill nearly 100,000 heads of cattle in less than 30 years since 1951, the year when the rich family paid the mortgage on the property.
If the data is accurate, then we’re probably dealing with the largest internal displacement ever made in the history of the country since the independence wars.

A birth in fraud 
Teresa Sagarzazu survivor to husband Francisco de Sales Branger paid the mortgage filed by Antonio Rotondaro’s heirs and by doing so, adding the property to the Branger’s estate. The Brangers paid a total of Bs 1.2 million. But the Ratondaro’s themselves had acquired the property by the same means, paying for the mortgage that heirs to the previous owner, Juan Napomuceno Nieves had filed on the property.
Nieves, however, acquired the property by rather illegal actions. According to some documents on the hands of the farmers’ collectives Nieves obtained property documents through cuasi-legal purchases from 27 owners. But he also gained access to documents from three orphan kids (last named Jimenez) to whom he was serving as guardian in the end of the 19th century. Besides the land, the three orphan kids had received gold, cattle, and other values which Nieves managed without any sort of accountability whatsoever.

Given the fraud behind the acquisition of the land, the Branger’s claim over it is considered to be illegal.

Land Lords from Valencia
The consolidation of the Branger clan as a key player in the Venezuelan bourgeoisie scene took place in Valencia, capital city of the State of Carabobo in northern Venezuela.
The first Branger setting a foot in Venezuela was the French surveyor Ernesto Louis Branger who quickly made alliances with the local bourgeois, according to research made by Leonor C Barrios Arismendi who exposes the industrial development in Valencia in her work. Branger explored at first the tannery business with the help of the Ravenga family. He immediately starting his own business and set several tannery workshops in the State of Carabobo by 1910.
He then moved his investments in the food sector by processing cotton seeds to extract oil, and so Branca Oils was born.
The need for securing raw material for the oil business forced the growing Branger empire to look for new fertile lands for the cotton production. With this in mind, Francisco de Sales and Ana Cecilia Branger Parraga bought the farm “El Paraiso” in the east of Caracas during the 30s.
But the new purchase would only bring tragedy to the Branger clan according to Blanca Arbelaez who wrote about the episode in the diary Tal Cual. Here’s how the story goes: at the beginning of the 40s, Francisco de Sales, then head of the clan, used to practice bullfight with a particular calf. This happened every Sunday after lunch Francisco de Sales would bullfight with the growing calf. But one day the animal, “apparently tired of the game, pierced mortally Francisco, killing him instantly”.
Devastated, the family decided to sell the property to brothers Luis and Carlos Roche in 1943, allowing this way the construction of the Altamira borough.
Francisco de Sales was the head of the clan and he had seven children with his wife Teresa Sagarzazu, among them Antonio Julio who was in charge of farm “Piñero” until his death in 2003.
 Something curious, family researcher Barrios Arismendi reveals Antonio Branger Sagarzazu used to go to work with his father because at the age of 14 he still refused to finish primary studies.

Granma’s tears 
The official story of Hato Piñero is related to the very epic construction of a special kind of cattle with local genetic features. The process permitted the expansion of biodiversity in the area, helped in the conservation of fauna and through specialized tourism, promoted the richness of Venezuelan natural landscapes.
But for people like Maria Ramona Jimenez, born in 1946 the story is quite different. She was a little girl when she witnessed her grandmother broken in tears while Maria had to help her cousins and brothers to put off the fires started by Banger’s men aimed at destroying the animal’s food supplies
She remembers the cows’ names: Cotua, Correlagua and Galleta (cookie). And she evokes a rather funny episode that resembles magic realism: a group of attackers sent by the Branger family shot a donkey, but the bullet few back from the donkey’s body to the windshield of the car.
Among the many tactics used by the Branger clan to control the land was locking away animals for several days, and refusing to feed them to force starvation in the cattle.
Pastora Jimenez, Maria Ramona’s grandmother was owner of 500 cows when Antonio Julio Branger started harassing the population. By the time she decided to leave, only 50 heads of cattle were left.
From Piñero she moved to El Socorro, a farm owned by Ivan Dario Maldonado, the biggest fish in private land exploitation in Venezuela, who is also owner of farms like El Frio which was expropriated by late President Hugo Chávez.
While looking for a safe haven in El Socorro, Maldonado himself told her that if she didn’t pay for the grazing her cattle did, she would have to leave, and go somewhere else. That “somewhere else” did not exist, of course, because there was no more land for the displaced poor farmers. Ramona’s siblings and her grandmother moved to Zulia, western Venezuela. The oldest brother found his way as a peasant in a farm.

Asunción Matute’s case
Asuncion Matute was 16 years old when the National Guard handed eviction orders to her and her siblings forcing them to leave the lands their parents had left them as bequest after both parents died.
The eviction order established Matute had 30 days to leave the lands and sell the 900 animals in the farm at a set price. They could only sell the adult ones, calf didn’t count.
Under the threat of losing everything, Matute decided to improvise. She quickly built makeshift slums for the cattle and she practically had to sneak her cattle out the lands. In the end she and her brothers only got paid for 400 heads of cattle.
But the eviction took place anyway. Asuncion and her brothers had to look for different ways to earn a living. Asuncion ended up as a worker in the textile factory Sudamtex where she worked for thirty years. Interestingly enough, the company broke under the management of the same group of people who stole her cattle 30 years ago.

Cattle killer virus and the unforgettable stench
Luis Jimenez was born in 1953, so he has clear memories of the direct attacks that the Branger’s riding
minions executed against the local population. But he also tells an episode folded in mystery. Mister Jimenez tells about an inexplicable disease that decimated most of the flock at the beginning of the 60s.
“The Brangers  realized that one way of getting new land was by wiping the animal population, so they brought a virus with no known cure that made cattle died like flies” says Mister Jimenez. He also remembers that those who survived the pest were shot by Brangers’ men.
Florencio Jimenez, on the other hand, was born a few years later, in 1959, so his memories are not that clear. But he does remember the stench left by the pest. He was barely three or four years old, he recalls, because his mother died in 1962 and the pest came after that. The epidemic lasted a year, but the stench of death marked him for ever.

Fire in the Savanah, war on bulls and donkeys
Every single testimony coincides in pointing out three actions the Branger Clan performed to harass the local population: 1) donkeys were systematically shot dead, 2) pigs were stabbed and 3) bulls were castrated. Other stories narrate the systematic arson of the fields which had two main purposes: either destroying the crops or blaming peasants so they would be criminally processed. Some members of the community recall the Daniel Jimenez and Mamerto Perez case who were jailed for 18 months after the Branger Clan made them responsible for a fire in the Savanah.
The attacks against the animals had two purposes depending on who the Branger attacked: by killing donkys the clan destroyed the habitants’ transportation means, y by stabbing the pigs to death they severed the people’s food supply. Castrating the bulls was part of a larger picture: without calves the possibilities of renewing the cattle were practically reduced to zero.

Cemetery, vegetation destroyed, and terminated cattle
Oscar Farfar, spokesperson of the farmer’s movement José Rafael Nieves, believes the whole thing was nothing but a very well planned displacement scheme.
According to Farfar the occupation involved settlements in historic cemeteries used for centuries by the inhabitants to bury their dead.
Contrary to Branger’s self-proclaim profile as a conservationist, Farfan said it has been proved that the land lord deforested around 30,000 hectares and chopped down some trees that were more than 200 years old with the sole purpose of sucking commercial gains out of their wood.
Cattle have also been severely reduced under the Branger assault: by the arrival of the clan the region had over 100,000 heads of cattle, but when the Ministry of Land intervened in 2005 there were only 33,000.

Crossroads: run by the people, or by burocracy?
From the very beginning of the Bolivarian Revolution the inhabitants of the State of Cojedes and the descendants of the displaced population from the Piñero plantation have claimed the right of retaking the lands and have the production run by farmer’s collectives
But that idea was never materialized, or at least not yet. The lands are currently under the control of state-run corporations, a situation which, according to Farfan, has not turned out quite well.
First, the cattle steep decline went on to the point that only 12, 000 heads of cattle were left. With the change of administration in CVAL (the institution in charge of running the estate) the number has dropped to an alarming 5,000 according to Farfan.
Deforestation  and environmental damage has also increased and- just as with the Branger clan- with the purpose of commercial exploitation of wood.
Farfan warns however, that these negative results are the product of the ill decisions taken by some- and not all- managers within the state-run institutions who already had fooled late president Chávez and are now trying to do the same with President Nicolas Maduro. Because of that, Farfan proposes the incorporation of farmers’ collectives in the production cycle of the estate in areas such as meat production. He also believes the collectives should participate in the agro-industry sector.

Traducción; Bycklee Princevil

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