U.S. Rice Farmers Cash In On Venezuelan Socialism

India can learn a lesson from venezuela mistake…

By further wrecking the land holding for the sake of social justice , People will fail without ever realising the crooked plans of our vision less leaders.

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STUTTGART, Ark.—Steve Orlicek, a rice farmer here, is living the American dream. He owns a thriving business; he vacations in the Bahamas.

His good fortune springs from many roots, including an unlikely one: He is a prime beneficiary of the socialist economic policies of Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s late president and critic of what he called U.S. “imperialism.”

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Sara Schaefer Muñoz/The Wall Street Journal
A rice farm in Venezuela.

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It is a paradoxical legacy of Mr. Chávez’s self-styled socialist revolution that his policies became a moneymaker for the capitalist systems he deplored. During his 14 years in power, he nationalized large farms, redistributed land and controlled food prices as part of a strategy to help the poor.

But these policies turned Venezuela from a net exporter to a net importer of rice—from farmers like Mr. Orlicek. “The rice industry has been very good to us,” Mr. Orlicek said, sitting in his newly renovated home, appointed with a baby grand piano played by his wife, Phyllis.

It isn’t just rice. Production of steel, sugar and many other goods has fallen in Venezuela, leading to occasional shortages. Until recently, Venezuela was largely self-sufficient in beef and coffee. Now it imports both.

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Associated Press
Arkansas rice fields like this one are sending their crop to Venezuela.

In this year’s first half, the U.S. exported $94 million of rice to Venezuela, a 62% jump from a year-earlier, making Venezuela the U.S.'s fourth-largest rice market, according to the Department of Agriculture.

Overall, Venezuelan imports have quadrupled since Mr. Chávez took office, to $59.3 billion in 2012 from about $14.5 billion in 2000, according to Venezuela government figures and economists at Barclays PLC. Exports to Venezuela from the U.S. hit $12 billion in 2011, up 16% from the previous year, the latest U.S. government figures show.

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Sara Schaefer Muñoz/The Wall Street Journal
Arkansas rice farmer Steve Orlicek.

Among the winners are the American aluminum company Alcoa Inc., AA -1.54% Anglo-Swiss mining company Glencore Xstrata GLEN.LN -2.08% PLC and Brazilian firms like builder Odebrecht SA. In May, Venezuelan authorities announced they would import 50 million rolls of toilet paper. One supplier: Kimberly-Clark of the U.S.

"Chávez said, ‘We are against capitalists and we are against big oligarchs,’ " said Moisés Naím of Washington’s Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “But he left the country more beholden to foreigners and foreign companies than ever before.”

Supporters of Mr. Chávez say his fiery populism empowered the poor and fought hunger and poverty by providing subsidized food, housing and medical clinics. Yet job prospects and wages have fallen. A recent World Bank report says that 30% of people who were originally considered “not poor” in Venezuela fell into poverty between 1992 and 2006. In most other Latin American countries, the middle class grew in that time.

Venezuela’s import reliance will be a major headache for President Nicolás Maduro, Mr. Chávez’s successor. His government’s wallet is stretched. Venezuela’s budget deficit reached 12% of GDP last year, according to analysts, higher than the troubled Euro-zone economies like Greece or Spain. Its annual inflation rate rose to 42.6% in July.

Mr. Maduro, like Mr. Chávez, blames food shortages on hoarding by private companies waging “economic war” against his government, a charge that the few remaining private firms have denied.

Despite Mr. Maduro’s stance, however, he has moved to make more dollars available to importers—which could help farmers obtain supplies abroad. In May, in a hugely symbolic move, he reached out to the head of Venezuela’s largest private food company to collaborate on food issues.

Oil, the only strong export that Venezuela enjoys, accounts for about half the government’s income. If oil falls to $90 a barrel for a year, from the current $105, the government would have to slash imports, said David Rees, an emerging-markets specialist with Capital Economics in London. “That would have terrible repercussions in terms of everything, especially food,” he said.

Venezuelan officials defend the country’s record. A Ministry of Agriculture official directed questions to a recorded interview with Henry Silva, president of a state-owned food company. Mr. Silva said Mr. Chávez’s polices “made available means of production to the people that function to nourish and meet the needs of our population.”

Alongside agriculture, Venezuela’s industrial output has faltered since 2006, when Venezuela said it would pursue an “endogenous,” or self-sufficient, development model that shuns profit-making and focuses instead on cooperatives. The government took control of wide swaths of major industries including steel and cement.

“We’ve lost our national sovereignty in steel, aluminum and bauxite. It’s an embarrassment,” said Damian Prat, author of a book about Venezuelan industry. Production of bauxite, a key ingredient in making aluminum, fell 70% between 2007 and 2012, he estimates.

That loss has been others’ gain. Exports from neighboring Brazil have soared to $5.1 billion dollars in 2012, compared with $800 million 10 years ago, according to Brazil’s Foreign Trade Association. “Right now we have very little competition” from within Venezuela, said Jose Augusto de Castro, the association’s president.

Among the biggest beneficiaries of Mr. Chávez’s policies have been Mr. Orlicek and other U.S. farmers. Mr. Orlicek, who grew up farming, considered becoming a lawyer but decided he would rather be outdoors. So he went to work on the farm that had belonged to his wife’s parents.

Thanks to strong exports and rising prices, Mr. Orlicek runs his farm with the latest technology. His state-of-the-art tractors, which cost around $230,000 apiece, carry $15,000 GPS systems that can drive the tractors themselves.

A few years ago, as export profits rose, he took the expensive step of starting to level his 800 acres of rice fields using laser technology. Doing so costs him $400 per acre, but it ensures level irrigation—saving water and increasing yields by around 20%.

“I really want to take care of this land so future generations can raise rice on it,” Mr. Orlicek said recently, driving among vivid green rice fields. He hopes his daughter will someday come back and farm.

Mr. Orlicek acknowledges that he has benefited from Venezuela’s socialist policies. But he empathizes with the country’s farmers.

Mr. Chávez “really gutted” Venezuelan agriculture, he said. “I’d like to see it turn around, and I am sure the farmers there would, too.”

One is rice farmer Eloy Alvarez. Born in Spain, Mr. Alvarez came to Venezuela in the 1940s and saw the promise in Venezuela’s hot and wet central plains, land that lends itself to rice growing. He bought some land for a song, and he and his wife spent 60 years farming it.

They eventually acquired 500 acres and raised two daughters and sent them to private school. In the early 2000s, the farm was producing its maximum of seven metric tons of rice a year.

But in recent years, Mr. Alvarez’s fortunes changed. The government set prices for rice and other products. With prices fixed but inflation rising, it became harder to afford equipment. He stopped buying new tractors and instead tried to fix his old ones. Import controls, however, made even parts hard to come by.

The 2010 nationalization of Venezuela’s main farm-supply company compounded the problems. Farmers say it is now often late in delivering basics, like fertilizer. That same year, weeds choked Mr. Alvarez’s rice crop—the result, he says, of herbicide delays. He now produces about 30% less than in the past.

Recently on Mr. Alvarez’s farm, a decades-old Ford tractor stood rusting in a shed. On a flat expanse of field, under a flock of circling white birds, another timeworn machine moved slowly, struggling to reap a rice field overrun with weeds.

“You can’t get the herbicide,” said Alexi Chambuco, 63 years old, one of Mr. Alvarez’s farmhands, wiping his face with a handkerchief. “And now it’s difficult to harvest.”

Mr. Alvarez’s wife died in May, and he carries a creased picture in his pocket, taken during their earlier years on the farm. Yet despite the hassles, many farmers like him don’t quit farming. If they do, their idle land is at risk of being seized by the state.

“We have to pull out of this,” Mr. Alvarez said of Venezuela’s farming decline. “But there’s been a lot of damage done.”

Write to Sara Schaefer Muñoz at Sara.Schaefer-Munoz@wsj.com

Corrections & Amplifications
Aluminum company Alcoa Inc. was incorrectly called a steel company in an earlier version of this article.

A version of this article appeared August 19, 2013, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: U.S. Rice Farmers Cash In On Venezuelan Socialism.