The Law as Talisman

Quico says: Megan, my co-everything on Law of the Land, and the person who really put the film together, promised to send in a post discussing her experience on the project. But I wanted to write one more thing about it before I hand off to her. If you haven’t seen the documentary yet, have a look:

http://video.google.com/googleplayer.swf?docId=-6609621822464357951&hl=en-GB

When we went out to Barinas, in December 2001, our goal was to document the impact of a new law on regular people’s lives. Chávez had approved the new Ley de Tierras by decree, as part of his package of 47 decree-laws in November 2001, just days before we got there. I wanted to show how a leftist government could take the procedural mechanisms of bourgeois democracy and turn them on their head: using laws to overturn elite property rights rather than to uphold them.

Nothing could really have prepared me for the situation we found. Government officials talked about the new law all the time. Street hawkers were selling the little book all over Barinas City. It was the hot topic on local radio, and in everyone’s conversation. But the more we looked for it, the more evanescent the new law became, the harder to pin down.

The two farm takeovers we show in the film flesh that out.

In the first farm, Campo Alegre, the initial land occupation happened before Chávez was even elected, and long before the Ley de Tierras had been conceived. Land reform here was happening “spontaneously,” backed by the government’s influence but not by any kind of legal sanction.

Nicolas Orta, the landowner, was especially flustered by this: he’d taken his case through the courts, and he’d won! He had a court ruling – a sentencia firme - ordering the police and the national guard to give him back his land. But he had no way of enforcing it. The pro-Chavez authorities would just laugh at him if he showed up with a piece of paper and told them they had to do what it said.

At the same time, the new Land Law really had no provisions aimed at regularizing the situation of the squatters who’d taken over his land. They could count on de facto support from the pro-Chavez authorities, but they had no way of getting a legal claim to the land they were farming. Juridically, they were in limbo. Only power kept them where they were.

But the more striking case is in the second half of the film. Santa Rita farm was exactly the kind of property the Land Law was supposed to target: large, devoted to ranching rather than farming, generating few jobs, and surrounded by landless and land-poor campesinos. If ever there was a chance to showcase the Ley de Tierras in action, this was it.

And yet, that’s not how the government went about it. The takeover of Santa Rita farm was carried out entirely outside the procedures set out by the new law. Rogelio Peña tells us that the first indication he had that his farm was being targeted came when a bunch of soldiers showed up one day and seized it. It’s not that the government cut corners on the due process clauses carefully set out in the new law, it’s that they skipped the process altogether.

Rogelio knew that going to the courts to seek redress was a waste of time: all that courts can issue is an order, a piece of paper. And, in Barinas, the authorities reserved the same contempt for official papers as Gallegos’s Doña Bárbara, a sort of outraged revulsion at the idea that “este papel, este pedazo de papel que yo puedo arrugar y volver trizas con mis manos” could overrule her will. The authorities in Barinas could not be compelled by tree pulp any more than Doña Bárbara could.

And here we come to the irony at the heart of the film: what really hurt opposition land owners, in the end, was not the Land Law itself, but rather its systematic violation by the government. What really greased the mechanism of land distribution was not the law that had been created expressly for that purpose, but rather the power to ignore it whenever it proved inconvenient.

In that light, the title Megan chose for the film is deeply ambivalent. What was the Law of this land? Certainly, there was one. There were norms in Obispos that everyone understood and nobody could break. But those norms were diffuse, tacit, evanescent. They resided in the will of the people with the uniforms and the guns, not in the little pamphlet you could buy for Bs.300 on the streets of Barinas.

And here we stare down a deep cultural chasm between the two sides, a kind of discursive abyss that divides them at the most fundamental level. For chavismo, authority never resides on paper. The whole notion of written law, of rules that are set down in the realm of official paper (“el mundo del papel sellado” in Teodoro Petkoff’s evocative phrase) yet which have the power to constrain powerful men’s actions, is abhorrent, deeply alien, simply Other.

The government understands power differently, as something that emanates from the barrel of a gun, from the loyalty of underlings, from diffuse norms of discipline or political kinship or primary identification that bind Chávez’s supporters to their leader. Power, for chavismo, lives out in the open air of the spoken word, not in an artificial sphere constructed by writing.

The opposition, socialized in an entirely different worldview, had real trouble grasping this. Nicolas Orta, though dimly aware of the futility of it all, kept trudging down to the official institutions’ offices in Barinas city, documents in tow, hanging on to the evanescent hope that rights set down in documents could be actualized. On Santa Rita farm, we see José Luis Betancourt pleading with an army officer clutching a stack of documents about the farm’s legal status. Useless, of course, but revealing: something deep in the opposition psyche refuses to accept that the locus of power has shifted inexorably away from the written page.

The real mystery is that, despite all that, chavismo keeps on writing laws and constitutions and decrees and regulations, pushing them out in batches so large we barely have time to read them before they start ignoring them. This is a dynamic that has always mystified me. Even now I can’t really say I quite grasp it. But if I’m forced to hazard a guess, it would go something like this:

What chavismo understands by law is radically detached from anything you might learn in law school. They don’t see laws as compendia of binding rules; they see them as magical objects, able to bring about politically-desired outcomes independently of what they actually say.

In a sense, what interests them is the physicality of law, its incarnation in an object, a tiny little book that can be waved around, shown to the cameras, invoked rhetorically without ever needing to be opened or read, much less interpreted by an impartial judge. The law, in this mindset, is a talisman.

It bears stopping to consider the kind of language Chávez uses to speak about the constitution – or used to use, back when he carried it in his shirt pocket. “La bicha,” “el librito azul,” are tags that refer specifically to the constitution as thing, to the little book, to law as object, rather than to its content. It’s the constitution’s existence in the realm of things that chavismo constantly refers back to, never to its content.

Understood in that way, “law” isn’t really law at all. Unenforceable, actualized only through the political leanings of the powerful and therefore endlessly malleable, the concept off law is deeply disfigured. It becomes an entelechy, a magical justification for the arbitrary exercise of state power rather than a safeguard against it.

Under Chávez, law has become its opposite.