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(photo credit: Associated Press)
As Venezuela's ambassador to the United Nations, Diego Arria dealt with major conflicts on the Security Council, participating in efforts to bring peace to places like Bosnia and Somalia.
Now he is consumed in a personal conflict: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's government has seized Arria's 914-acre (370-hectare) farm after accusing him of not holding proper legal title.
Arria plans to challenge the takeover of his farm, which has about 250 milk-producing cows, orange and lime orchards and an organic coffee plantation.
"This is not an agricultural issue. This is a political vendetta," he said in a telephone interview Saturday from his home in New York.
The 70-year-old Arria was a diplomat for Venezuela before Chavez was elected president in 1998 campaigning against the country's political establishment. Arria has been a vocal critic of Chavez internationally and is now forming a group to advocate for the rights of people whose lands have been seized by the government.
"I'm creating an association of people like me who have been abused so that we can defend ourselves nationally and internationally," Arria said. "I already have 350 people who have joined the organization, and I'm going to make a national case of this."
Chavez, a close ally of Cuba and other leftist-led nations in the region, says he is leading Venezuela toward socialism and has taken over private farms in spots throughout the country while also nationalizing companies in businesses from electricity to cement.
Over the past eight years, his government says, it has seized more than 5 million acres (2 million hectares) of farmland, targeting property that officials contend was either fallow, underused or whose ownership could not be proven through documents.
Chavez called Arria corrupt during a televised speech Friday night. Holding up a photo of Arria's colonial ranch house, the president said, "This is now in the hands of the people, of the revolution!"
"It looked like 'Falcon Crest,' do you remember that?" Chavez added, alluding to the former US television soap opera.
He held up a photo with an aerial view of the farm in a river valley, then another of a swimming pool under palm trees.
"Tremendous pool. That's the bourgeoisie," Chavez said. "Now he's going around squealing that he's going to get it back. Well, he'll have to topple Chavez to get this back, because it belongs to the revolution now."
Arria vowed to present documents to prove he rightfully owns the land in northwestern Yaracuy state. He said he bought La Carolina farm, which is flanked by a mountain, in 1988 for the equivalent of about $300,000.
Its colonial house, originally built in 1852, was remodeled by Arria's family and was featured in Architectural Digest in 1993.
The farm has about three dozen employees, and two of them met the group of armed government officials who took over the property May 1, Arria said.
Vice President Elias Jaua, who is also Chavez's agriculture minister, inspected the farm Thursday and said that Arria has 23 days to show his documents and that officials are looking into the sources of money used to buy the property. The government plans to turn it into a state farm, Jaua said.
Arria, a former governor of Caracas in the 1970s, was ambassador to the United Nations from 1991 to 1993 and represented Venezuela on the Security Council, including a monthlong stint in its rotating presidency in 1992. He was later an assistant UN secretary general under then Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Arria said his three daughters, who frequented the farm while growing
up, have been upset about losing a place where they frolicked among
horses, rabbits and chickens. The farm also produces vegetables and has a
restaurant and a country store, which sells marmalade made from its
fruit and cheese made from its milk.
Outspoken in criticizing a
government he calls corrupt and authoritarian, Arria said he thinks some
of his recent barbs must have irked Chavez. He noted that the
government seized his farm just a few days after he spoke at the Oslo
Freedom Forum and suggested that Chavez could eventually face justice
for crimes in Venezuela.
Arria said he plans to return to
Venezuela this week to make his case before the National Lands Institute
and to protest what he calls "a complete mockery of the judicial