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Caruso-Cabrera: Chavez Socialism "Lands" Hard On Some

Michelle Coruso-Cabrera
Michelle Coruso-Cabrera

Alberto Vollmer owns a sugar plantation and rum factory in Venezuela. In fact--he owned thousands of acres that had been in his family for some 200 years. That was until 18 months ago when the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez took 2,500 of those acres--1/3 of Vollmer's total land--as part of his proclaimed "socialist revolution." CNBC's Michelle Caruso-Cabrera has been in Venezuela all week--reporting on the recent and some say dramatic changes in Venezuelan society. She profiled Vollmer for this story.

As Caruso-Cabrera explains, Chavez has the private sector wondering what he will "appropriate" next. In a speech earlier this month (Chavez was recently elected to a third term) Chavez promised to nationalize Venezuela's oil refineries, utilities and the nation's largest telecommunications company. He's just announced plans to require commercial banks in the country to pay some of their profits toward his social programs. And the land that Vollmer lost is part of a Chavez plan to take land that in his words, "is not properly utilized." This goes not only for land, but for homes and businesses as well.

The Vollmers did not just stand by as their land was taken. They went to court armed with deeds dating back to the 1600's. But--they were turned away. The land that was once filled with sugar cane is now a socialist worker cooperative.

If not critical of the takeover, Vollmer seems cautiously resigned to it. "Let's say there a new set of rules you have to adapt to," says Vollmer. "The idea is to stay in Venezuela and invest in Venezuela and make the best of the situation we live in."

As if to make the best of a bad situation--Vollmer has made friends with the squatters on his "fomer" land--he's also teaching them agriculture--and even become a godfather to some of the children. He's also employing some 240 former gang members as workers.

However much land he lost, the Santa Teresa Rum factory owned by Vollmer still employs 3,000 works and keeps pouring out some 18 million liters of rum a year. He says he wants his family to remain on the land--for another two hundred years if possible. And he sees a future for his country. But in the end, Vollmer says he would just like to understand the new society sweeping his country. "High risk, high gain. There are a lot of opportunities today and I think there will be more. We just have to know more about what the rules are."

Reported by Michelle Caruso-Cabrera.

FYI: Chavez was first elected in 1998 and then again in 2000--and calls the socialist movement his "Bolivian Revolution", named after South American independence hero Simon Bolivar. While critics condemn his socialist efforts, supporters say he's done much to help Venezuela's poor--which make up half the country's population. Chavez is proposing a new law that would allow him to rule by decree.

Venezuela is the U.S.'s fourth largest oil supplier-- while the U.S. is Venezuela's largest oil production buyer.