I’m with my aunt Isabel, only she’s twenty years younger and considerably taller than me, odd ’cause she’s five-foot-three. The sky is the color of plums. We’re walking from one friend’s house to the next when we fall into a puddle, only it’s not a puddle, it’s an enormous pool of mud.
There is mud everywhere but my aunt Isabel is smiling and telling a charming story that I can’t quite make out. I try and warn her that we’re sinking, but she seems oblivious to the goo that surrounds us. All of the sudden, I grab her arm …
Beep-beep … Beep-beep …
I open my eyes and my cell phone light illuminates the corner of my bedroom with an artificial shade of blue. I slowly wake up. Beep-beep… Beep-beep… Is it time to get up? So soon? But no, it’s not my phone’s alarm.
Someone is texting me. Someone is texting me? What time is it?
I look at my phone and I can’t understand the number. I look at the clock and it’s 4:00. Yes, as in AM – I’ve gotten used to that obnoxious habit in this country where 4 PM is 16:00. My clock says 4:00, so it’s AM for sure.
I press the green button and read: “I’m stuck at Inti and I’ve been here since noon.”
My dream made more sense than this. I go back to sleep.
The following morning, I text the number back. “Who is this?” I write as soon as I wake up, not sure if the message had been part of my dream or not. I face the morning traffic, drive the girls to school, and as I plunk down on my computer, I see I have an email message from my friend Roger. It says “I just spent 16 hours at INTI, call me in the afternoon and I’ll tell you about it. I’m off to sleep now.” It was sent at 4:45 in the morning.
Roger’s wife is the daughter of a Puerto La Cruz restaurant owner. Fifty years ago, he bought 100 hectares between Puerto La Cruz and Cumaná. The land is made of cliffs and beaches and the sole reason for buying it was to, someday, take advantage of the area’s unique natural beauty and open it up for tourism.
Forty-five years ago, the adecos fostered the invasion of the land. A group of thirty families settled in a small area of his property, and the town of Ocoa was born. Most of Ocoa’s new residents lived off of subsistence agriculture and handouts from the government, since there were no other sources of income.
Luckily, Ocoa was not founded on the beach but rather on a steep valley about 3 kilometers away from the shore. This meant that most of the shoreline on the property was untouched by squatters and the ubiquitous piles of garbage that mysteriously appear any time our landscape and our citizens collide.
Thirty-five years ago, the government created Mochima National Park. When they created the park, the government did not compensate the owners of the land, nor did they establish clear property rights. Part of Roger’s property fell within the boundaries of the park, but a large chunk of it (including Ocoa) did not. Ocoa’s population grew to 150 families and they cleared away even more of Roger’s land for cattle grazing.
Five years ago, Roger’s father-in-law had a crazy idea: to take a piece of his seaside property and construct a group of cabins, a posada where tourists could come, relax, feel welcomed and enjoy the breathtaking scenery. He decided he would only employ Ocoans, something they welcomed with open arms since, after all these years, they still had no jobs. The posada began doing brisk business, and the townspeople were mostly grateful and excited to be part of a nascent project in their hometown.
One day Roger’s father-in-law walks in and asks Roger to help him: he wants to give the people of Ocoa the titles to their land. So off they go and set up a foundation that would receive the titles to the land, only to distribute them among the townspeople, according to the informal property rights that currently exist.
Townspeople were thrilled. 124 of the 150 families signed up, and attendance to town meetings generally exceeded 75%. Only one group wasn’t happy: communal councils.
Roger’s father-in-law began to receive strange visits. One day, the Environment Ministry came and shut them down because they had no working sewer system, only a septic tank. The next week, construction of the pool was stopped per order of the state government. Finally, the maitre’d of the restaurant confided that communal councils were pissed because “his Foundation is spreading capitalist values on the population.”
The day after this conversation, Roger’s father-in-law got a visit from INTI, Venezuela’s state regulator of land ownership. He was told he was being investigated for hoarding land, and that he had to prove ownership of the land going all the way back to the war of Independence if he had any chance of keeping it.
Luckily, the records were intact. With a bit of hard work and a side-order of bribes for local officials, Roger was able to prove ownership of the land going all the way back to 1796, a remarkable feat. He called INTI and set up an appointment in Caracas last Wednesday, at 12 noon.
Roger and his father-in-law met downtown and went together. They arrived at 12 sharp. They were told to wait. The hours went by. They did not move, for fear that a trip to go grab a bite would mean losing their hearing. Finally, at 3:30 in the morning, they were invited in.
The official, the same one who had visited him a few weeks earlier, looked remarkably alert given the time. “INTI is run by a shift of vampires during the evening hours,” he told me, “in charge of harassing honest landowners and sucking them dry of their rights and their dreams.”
The vampire asked to see the papers. Proudly, trying to contain his urge to smack him over the head with the folders, he handed them over. The vampire looked at them, and brushed them aside.
“Tenemos un problema.”
OK, here it comes. As it turns out, the vampire told them that during Venezuela’s Second Republic, the government issued land decrees that certified that land ownership acknowledged by the colonial authorities was going to be respected by the newly independent nation. Apparently, Roger and his father-in-law did not have this certificate.
Roger informed him that, yes, he had heard of that, but that was only in the case when land was transferred or sold during that period. Since the land had been in the same hands until its first sale in 1872, he was OK, right?
No. He had to come up with the certificate from the Second Republic, or else he runs the risk of losing his land on account that it is idle agricultural land. Never mind that it’s a nature preserve, 80% of which is cliffs and shoreline not apt for agriculture.
Roger’s father-in-law offered to grant the government part of the land in exchange for them leaving him the piece where the posada is. The vampire said they would consider that option, but that it was likely that if they could not find the paper from the Second Republic, they would lose it all. The piece of land Roger’s father-in-law offered the government is the part that lies within the National Park – the part that the government took forty years ago without compensation.
In the meantime, the posada continues to do well. The people of Ocoa are in legal limbo, and the Communal Council continues to pressure the government to take it all away.
I suddenly remember my aunt Isabel and my dream. If only someone had told Roger’s father-in-law not to invest. If only someone had shook his arm and warned him of the dangers of investing in Venezuela. Now, he’s sinking, and he still harbors hope that things will work themselves out. If only …
(Note: the above is based on a true story. Names and places have been changed for obvious reasons)
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