She Wants The Workers Off Her Land. They Say It’s Their Socialist Right.
A standoff at the top of a hill between a once-wealthy landowner and some impoverished farmers has been going on for 10 years, and neither side is backing down.
CHIRGUA, Venezuela — The road to Monte Sacro cuts its way through dense jungle, past a cemetery, up to the top of a hill where Vivian Ruiz del Vizo has been holed up for the past 10 years, dreaming about the demise of her enemies, real and imaginary.
Legend has it that the land known as Monte Sacro — or sacred mountain — once belonged to Venezuela’s 19th-century national hero, Simón Bolívar, the man who inspired Hugo Chávez to launch a socialist revolution.
Like much of the continent, Venezuela swung dramatically between military dictatorship and democracy in the 20th century. And in the 1950s, Nelson Rockefeller, scion of America’s most famous industrialists, built a house on the 6,700-acre estate, as the US launched an anti-communism campaign in Latin America.
Del Vizo, whose father bought the estate from the Rockefellers in the early 1980s, now finds herself in a standoff with the Venezuelan government, which seized the land as part of a redistribution scheme while allowing her to stay in the main house. Each day she looks down on the once-lush fields beneath her as teams of workers approved by the state try to farm the land. They labor under the punishing sun, barely eking out a living from maize and beans as supplies of seeds, fertilizers, and water — like everything else in this country — have dwindled.
Some 130 miles west of the capital, the Monte Sacro hacienda is isolated from the political machinations in Caracas, where Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, has hung on to power despite massive protests, plummeting support among his base, and widespread defections. But the fight over who has a right to this land mirrors the fight for the future of the country, between left and right, socialism and capitalism — or at least the distorted versions of them that play out in contemporary Venezuela, which many now say is a kleptocracy far removed from the ideals that Chávez espoused.
News reaches this corner of the country very slowly. In April, the main opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, staged a failed military uprising, but by the time word reached isolated patches of the Venezuelan countryside, like Monte Sacro, it had already fizzled out.
Monte Sacro itself feels like it is trapped in a time warp. The hacienda is a constellation of single-story, white stucco buildings with fading red-tiled roofs. At the hilltop mansion, the swimming pool lies half empty, its greenish water now used to flush toilets. Its once-manicured gardens decked out with orchids are unkempt and overgrown, and an entire wing of the house is locked up because of a permanent power outage. The carcasses of broken tractors dot the barren fields.
It is a long way from Monte Sacro’s heyday in the 1950s and ’60s, when Rockefeller could frequently be seen touring the fertile potato and cattle fields in a silver Jeep. When Jorge Ruiz del Vizo bought the estate from the Rockefellers, polo horses were still trained on one of the fields, white-gloved servers laid out feasts for guests, and staffers polished the patio floors daily.
It was exactly this kind of aristocratic lifestyle that Chávez promised to do away with when he swept into power in 1999. Land rights became a cornerstone of his revolutionary socialism; Chávez seized millions of hectares of land from wealthy landowners, which he promised to transfer to the most impoverished classes in an effort to ensure “food security” for the country.
During a recent afternoon, del Vizo, 60, paced restlessly around the main patio, imagining a future without Maduro. “I’m going to use a tractor to get you out the day I get my land back,” she muttered furiously, looking down at no one in particular.
But in the fields, some of the farmers said they would never leave. The ranch is a “national heritage” because it once belonged to the family of South America’s libertador, said José Gutiérrez, a state worker who is trying, and mostly failing, to grow cherry tomatoes on one corner of the estate.
And if del Vizo tries to run them out? Gutiérrez, who like most farmers on Monte Sacro appears painfully malnourished, swallowed hard. “We’ll defend the fruits of the revolution,” he said.
“This land cannot be in the hands of oligarchs.”
A 1954 Life magazine photo spread shows Rockefeller looking self-assured while relaxing at one of the hacienda’s airy patios and touring the estate’s fields. He was every inch the “gringo in charge” down south.
But Monte Sacro was much more than simply a place to get away from it all. The Rockefellers were a spearhead in the Cold War, bringing US money, influence, and businesses to countries across Latin America as part of Washington’s fight against communism. As a special assistant to president Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s, Rockefeller was in charge of approving covert CIA operations on the continent at a time when US business interests were inevitably entwined with political ones.
Venezuela soon became Rockefeller’s second home; Monte Sacro, named after the hill in Rome where Bolívar delivered his oath to free the continent from Spanish rule, was the most prized of the three sprawling ranches he would eventually purchase there.
Some farmers who worked for Rockefeller still speak with a hint of nostalgia about the times when the “tall blonde” American would go bush clearing with them on Monte Sacro’s hills. “We earned less back then but we lived better,” said Hugo Aponte, 69, who remembered being given watches, new boots, and sharp machetes whenever he asked for them.
As Rockefeller’s visits to Monte Sacro became more regular, a revolution that would eventually change the course of Venezuela’s history started brewing across the Caribbean Sea. In 1956, Fidel Castro and dozens of guerrilla fighters made their way into Cuba’s Sierra Maestra mountain range, from where they carried out operations to destabilize Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista’s regime. American paranoia about communism, inspired by Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy, was at a fever pitch.
In January 1959, a victorious Castro strode into Havana, and an exodus of the middle and upper classes began. Among them was Vivian’s father.
Venezuela seemed like a safe haven. Then-president Rómulo Betancourt, responsible for restoring democracy to the country after a decade of military rule, had openly condemned Castro. The del Vizo family settled into Caracas quickly. A shrewd businessman, Jorge swiftly rose through top jobs at multinational companies like Bristol-Myers Squibb and Colgate and eventually opened up his own lumber business, according to his daughter.
Del Vizo remembered growing up in the lap of luxury. “Everyone back then had a Montblanc pen in their shirt pocket,” she said wistfully. As the family’s business grew, so did her father’s ambitions. When he heard that Rockefeller’s estate was up for sale in the early 1980s, he made an appointment to see it. Del Vizo remembered her parents arguing after her mother, Gladys Iglesias, complained he had already bought too many unnecessary gifts for the family, which included a yacht and properties in Caracas and Florida.
But Monte Sacro was unlike the others; Rockefeller, after all, once described it as “the most beautiful spot in the world.” A light drizzle covered the hills as the couple was led on a tour of the estate, remembered del Vizo. Soon after, the family would travel to New York for the official signing and a celebration of their new weekend home.
Jorge seemed to be making more money than the family had time to spend. The three siblings would frequently argue about where to travel to during weekends: drive to Monte Sacro or take a charter flight to their yacht in the Caribbean?
Back then it would have seemed improbable that their new estate, the crown jewel of Jorge’s acquisitions, would end up squaring them off against a revolutionary government, drain all of del Vizo’s inheritance, and consign her to a solitary existence at the top of the hill.
After Chávez was elected in 1998, families like the del Vizos knew trouble was coming. Having escaped Cuba, the family now faced losing it all again under Castro’s spiritual son, Chávez, who threatened to carry out similar policies in Venezuela.
Several years after Chávez’s rise to power, the government seized her father’s lumber business, del Vizo said. It was the first time she saw him drunk, as he lamented that he had had to fire more than 800 employees. Shortly after, he died of a heart attack, she said.
Del Vizo, who was living in Miami at the time, packed up her belongings and returned to Venezuela to spend time with her grieving mother. Eventually, she made her way to Monte Sacro, where she’s watched the country fall apart from her perch at the top of the hill. Those who haven’t already fled to neighboring countries in packed buses from Chirgua, where the hacienda is located, are left to comb the fields, with little to show for it.
Del Vizo, driven to distraction by her isolation, tries to think of new tasks for her few remaining staff members, which she writes out on the small whiteboard in the kitchen. Pluck flowers from the gardens and fill vases with them. Refill buckets of water to keep by the toilets. Trim foliage near the main house by hand. Repeat.
No task is ever urgent, but without it the little sense of purpose there is left would vanish. Leaving Monte Sacro would be the only sensible next step.
“Twice in one lifetime? It cannot be,” said del Vizo, sitting in the dining room. “Cuba is right next door. How didn’t Venezuela see it coming?”
In the spring of 2009 — although no one remembers exactly when — a crowd gathered at the gates of Monte Sacro, demanding a piece of the land. By then, more than 7 million acres of land across the country had been seized.
One local farmer, Héctor Pinto, said that he and a group of 10 others went to Monte Sacro to prevent a violent takeover — “I’m not a revolutionary,” he explained. When they got there, there were 300 or so people outside and a large group of soldiers inside, he said. Outnumbered and afraid of getting arrested, Pinto, 58, left. Since then, Pinto, who is an outspoken government critic, has had to stop working because he cannot find, or afford, seeds to plant.
A two-year legal battle ensued, and while the del Vizos were able to keep ownership of the hacienda, they could only make use of the house itself, and were forbidden from renting or selling the surrounding land. A state-operated company moved in to work the fields. “It’s ours but it’s not ours,” said del Vizo. Having previously moved back and forth between Miami and Venezuela, she was no longer free to leave, for fear of losing the house and her family’s claim to Monte Sacro. “You have a property that is hanging by a thread. You can’t let go of that thread,” she said.
It was a shock for del Vizo to suddenly find herself chained to the Venezuelan countryside. “I was living in the US, and I was living well. To suddenly find yourself in Chirgua? Shit,” she said.
The farmers put to work in the fields had a hard time adjusting too. Many had believed they would be given a parcel of land for themselves, but instead, the state handed over control of a large chunk of Monte Sacro to the company EPS Valle de los Tacarigua, a commune-based system created under Chávez as an alternative to capitalism. As is often the case with expropriated land and companies, an army colonel was put in charge. According to several current farmers, Valle de los Tacarigua hired government supporters to work small plots of land for a wage.
One farmer who had long worked in Monte Sacro, M.P., had been hoping to get a plot of land for himself. When he learned that a company had taken over, he sought an audience with its president, Col. Leonardo Raymond. That proved impossible: “It was like trying to talk to Maduro,” said M.P., who was surprised to find that farmers were just as powerless under the new regime as they had been when they had worked for the del Vizo or Rockefeller families. A farmer since his teenage years, M.P., 53, asked to go by his initials after a community leader warned him about possible repercussions for speaking to the media.
Stick-thin, with deep lines around his mouth, M.P. had supported Chávez back in 1999 but soon grew disillusioned with the military leader’s policies and never voted for him, or his successor, again. He saw Chávez’s and then Maduro’s infamously lengthy speeches change over time — at first they pitted the working class against the “bourgeoisie,” but now they’re just as likely to be a diatribe about those who support the regime and those who don’t, no matter their political beliefs. The latter have become known as escuálidos, which roughly translates as “filthy.” The workers who moved into Monte Sacro began to refer to M.P. by the same term.
A rift soon began to grow between the workers and the company too.
Aponte, the farmer who worked for Rockefeller, was one of the first to get a job with EPS Valle de los Tacarigua. For several years, he kept his head down, followed orders, and maintained a good relationship with his employers. Last year, after the company found out that Aponte had requested the rights to a small patch of land there from the Land Institute, the government agency in charge of distributing confiscated properties, he was fired. “Keep your land,” Aponte recalled his bosses telling him angrily.
Now, Aponte says he can barely produce enough to keep his family fed. A drill, needed to keep the local dam full, broke two years ago and dried out the little water well on his plot. In any case, price caps set by the government have rendered most agricultural production unprofitable. Aponte and his family have grown unpopular in Monte Sacro, where other farmers accuse them of stealing their crops.
“This is a total scam,” Aponte said, hunched over the earth. Using a rusty machete, he dug small, equidistant holes and dropped four bean seeds into each from a small plastic container strapped to his waist. If a fifth one slipped outside a pit, he’d lean back down to pick it up. “Black gold,” he called it. The shelves at Agropatria, the largest agricultural supply company in Venezuela, have emptied out since it was nationalized in 2010. And as shortages have deepened, so have people’s need for jest. “We call it Agronada,” said M.P.
M.P. said he has a cordial relationship with del Vizo, but others are resentful of her continued presence there. “Let’s see her grab a machete and work the way our women farmers do,” said Gutiérrez, who believes her family acquired Monte Sacro illegally and has no business being there. “The land belongs to those who work it.”
And yet, Maduro has been kind to people like del Vizo, said Gutiérrez, who is a member of the Francisco de Miranda Front, a powerful political organization whose members are trained in Cuba and have been put in charge of hundreds of state-run companies. Del Vizo is still allowed to live in Monte Sacro “because the state is generous,” said Gutiérrez.
Gutiérrez was sent to Monte Sacro last year, tasked with jump-starting production, but on a recent visit he was unable to produce any of the tomatoes he was supposed to have grown.
It is a far cry from Chávez’s promise to lift millions out of poverty through his socialist revolution.
For a while, Chávez’s policies produced results, with the poverty rate falling by more than half between 2003 and 2008 as oil prices soared. But by the time he won a new six-year term in 2012, oil production was slipping and crime was growing. After he died of cancer the following year, Maduro promised to continue Chávez’s vision.
Right away, Maduro, a former union leader, was hobbled both by his lack of charisma and tanking oil prices. Official corruption and defective policies have sunk the country into a crisis of record proportions: Many hospitals now open just a few days a week due to a dire lack of medical staff and essential medicine; cash has become useless with prices doubling in a matter of hours; and power outages regularly leave parts of the country incommunicado.
What’s worse: Food imports have soared, starting under Chávez and worsening under Maduro.
According to Aquiles Hopkins, president of the Confederation of Associations of Agricultural Producers of Venezuela, national production currently covers only 15%–20% of the country’s consumption needs. “Socialism is what you have in Norway, in Finland,” said Hopkins during an interview in his office in Caracas. “This is an autocracy.”
One of the few things still growing out in the countryside, farmers say, is corruption. Anger among the working class has long been brewing against the regime, and Maduro no longer faces a revolt just from the right, but also from his base. Last year, hundreds of farmers walked nearly 250 miles from Guanare, in western Venezuela, to the presidential palace in Caracas, incensed by supposed arbitrary evictions and unjustified persecution by state authorities.
As the country’s political crisis has deepened and support for Maduro weakened, top-level government officials have been seizing land in order to transfer it directly to army officials, according to Gerardo Sieveres, one of the march’s organizers. “If they don’t, [Maduro] would be overthrown,” he said.
Maduro agreed to a meeting with the farmers in August. During the televised reunion, he promised to clean out graft and finish off the remaining “bourgeois state.”
Since then, 12 farmers who participated in the march or their relatives have been killed, according to Sieveres, who rarely carries a cellphone because the state has “infiltrated” his devices, he said. Still, Sieveres said he supports Maduro, but wishes the government would fight harder to end corruption.
As the military acquires more land, the state’s economy becomes ever more dependent on trade deals and loans from a diminishing number of foreign powers. “We cannot hold out hope with the Russians, and much less with the Chinese,” he said. Instead, the government needs to start cleaning up house, starting at the top, said Sieveres.
For its part, the state blames US sanctions for many of the country’s economic problems. Financial and oil sanctions, rolled out in 2017 and meant to leave Maduro cashless, have cut off the Venezuelan government’s access to US markets.
During an interview at a farm on the outskirts of Caracas, Agriculture Minister Wilmar Castro said there were shipments of seeds bound for Venezuela left languishing in Caribbean ports because the US has restricted payment for them. “It could be lethal, even catastrophic, if they continue with this blockade, with these fascist and racist attitudes against Venezuela,” he said.
Meanwhile, some in Monte Sacro still hold onto the socialist dream — however implausible it may seem. “We are doing things that in 5, 10, 15 years will turn us into a world power,” said Gutiérrez.
Last October, del Vizo was ready to quit.
It had been four years since a trash truck stopped by Monte Sacro. Her staff couldn’t remember the last time there was running water. Night guards were now getting a small plate of rice and beans for dinner — del Vizo could no longer afford to feed them protein.
Some of Rockefeller’s belongings remain, obsolete artifacts from the mid-20th century, including a meter for measuring moisture in the air and a weighing machine. They lie unused, covered in a thick layer of dust at one of the hacienda’s houses. They are up for sale, but there aren’t any buyers.
In Carabobo, the state where Monte Sacro is located, dozens of gas stations along the highway now lie shuttered, tiny shrubs growing between the pumps. Deeper into the countryside, lines of cars extend for miles outside working stations as a gas shortage spreads throughout Venezuela, despite it having one of the world’s largest oil reserves. Going for a drive out here demands careful planning, meticulously calculating the distance and the car’s gas mileage.
Del Vizo often heats up water she collects from a plastic tank by the front door for her evening sponge bath, which she takes in near darkness. While power in Caracas came back after a series of nationwide outages that left at least 15 people dead in March, other parts of the country are still waiting. This means rotting food in the fridge, no credit card payments in a country where cash has become worthless, and spotty or null phone communication and internet access.
But it was perhaps the solitude that seems to have finally gotten to her. Like a princess confined to the tower, enemies held off by an evaporating moat, the sense of maddening isolation had become unbearable.
“I lost the best years of my life here,” del Vizo said, holding her hands up to show her arthritic knuckles.
Del Vizo’s personal life has been wrecked since her permanent move to Monte Sacro. After a brief marriage to an American musician fell apart, del Vizo said she remained open to a relationship. Once she arrived at Chirgua, however, the possibility vanished, the barrier between her and those living in Carabobo insurmountable. She’s resentful of the workers who had moved in and wants nothing to do with them, or most people in town. But it’s not as if they’re interested in fostering a close relationship with her either, del Vizo admitted.
For a while, del Vizo, almost obsessively attentive to details while serving guests and employees alike, kept herself busy, renting out the living quarters to host lavish three-day weddings. But it’s been two years since she held an event: Del Vizo, who said she had gone through all of her savings and her father’s inheritance trying to preserve Monte Sacro, can no longer afford to paint the house nor buy the replacement parts needed to get the lawn mowers working again. With limited power and no running water, it doesn’t exactly make for an attractive location for a wedding.
She now lives off of meager remittances from a nephew living abroad. Del Vizo said she counts the pennies at the supermarket, and watches reruns of ’90s movies while sipping cheap rum at night. She said it took her seven months to save up enough money — $475 — to get a broken front tooth recently fixed.
“Even $20 million wouldn’t be enough at this point. This has been house arrest,” she said, regret in her voice.
Del Vizo had lost hope that the government would fall, anyway. She said she traveled to the US on a loan last fall to figure out what her options were if she left Monte Sacro and got a fresh start elsewhere.
Then, in January, opposition leader Juan Guaidó burst onto the scene, a fresh face amid the fractured, tired opposition. He declared himself the legitimate president; shortly after, more than 50 countries, including the US, threw their support behind him.
It was the moment del Vizo had been waiting for for years. Perhaps Maduro’s days were truly, finally numbered.
For weeks, she kept tabs on political events in Caracas as much as she could. Her staffers, like many who live in the Venezuelan countryside, only had access to government channels on TV, so they frequently asked her for updates, which del Vizo got mostly from family abroad. Coverage in Monte Sacro is so spotty that she rarely tries to open Facebook anymore.
On April 30, just before she went to bed, she found out that early that morning, Guaidó had pulled his most audacious move yet: Standing outside La Carlota, a military base in Caracas, he had called on the military to turn on Maduro. A handful of soldiers and Leopoldo López, the most well-known member of the opposition, who had been under house arrest, surrounded him.
The stunt proved a failure. By midday, Lopez had taken refuge at the Spanish ambassador’s residence and the military had come out in support of Maduro. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Russia for the uprising’s failure, saying that it had dissuaded Maduro from fleeing the country.
Since then, Maduro’s government has gone after other opposition leaders, forcing them into hiding and further weakening the National Assembly, the only government institution controlled by the opposition, albeit a toothless one. Street protests have died down once again. Talks between Maduro’s administration and opposition leaders in Oslo failed to produce significant results.
Meanwhile, in Monte Sacro, the feeling of hopelessness has only deepened.
Food and money are so scarce that increasingly, residents of Chirgua ring del Vizo’s doorbell, offering her handfuls of bean seeds in exchange for the few bags of rice that she buys from the supermarket. She said many collect the seeds by crawling onto recently harvested patches of land on Monte Sacro and combing through the earth looking for leftovers.
M.P. said he recently came across around 80 people on his maize field filling large bags with corn stalks. He begged them to leave but they refused. “No, vale, people are hungry,” he said they told him. M.P. said he was so angry that his legs started shaking and he thought he might have a stroke.
He had recognized several of his friends among them.
M.P. said he dreams of joining the exodus from Venezuela, and going to Spain, where he also holds citizenship, but worries that he would find himself unemployed there.
Del Vizo, too, dreams of leaving behind Monte Sacro and making a life far from Venezuela, but she has recently tempered her expectations. Earlier this month, she said that until the hacienda is sold, she was chained to it. After all, del Vizo said, starting over would require money.
“I don’t have even the smallest of coins,” she said. “I have nothing.” ●