By Jeremy Morgan
Latin American Herald Tribune staff
CARACAS – A prominent member of the Venezuelan business community was arrested by the National Guard and kept in custody overnight Friday after government officials stormed into an estate he owns in Lara state.
Eduardo Gómez Sigala, who recently stepped down as president of Conindustria, which represents small and medium-sized companies, many of them in the hard-pressed manufacturing sector, was alleged to have been “aggressive” towards the officials.
However, reports reaching Caracas after the raid – by which time Gómez Sigala was already being held, apparently at a local police station – quoted the executive as having claimed he had been the only person to have been the object of any aggression as he tried to approach a group of journalists. Just why the press happened to be there at the time was one of several loose ends about this case.
On Saturday, Gómez Sigala’s attorney, Jaime González, said it still wasn’t clear just what charges were to be brought against his client. Prosecutors had 36 hours in which to prepare and present their case for charges, after which a judge would have a further 48 hours in which to reach a ruling, he added.
It began to look like Gómez Sigala was set to spend the weekend in the slammer at the very least.
González claimed that the circumstances of the Gómez Sigala arrest had been “arbitrary” and “should not have occurred.” Gómez Sigala had “not committed any penal offence,” he added, but was not reported to have named anybody who might have done so.
However, the lawyer was said to have gone to question the motives behind the raid, which was said elsewhere to have been led by officials from the National Land Institute. The intention of the official was said to have been to “recover” the estate on the grounds that it was not being put to productive use.
President Hugo Chávez has pursued a policy of taking over land that his officials deem is either lying fallow or, even more subjectively, not being used to its full capability. He has presented this policy in unashamedly populist David and Goliath terms, with the government going up against the big guys from an “oligarchy” which he claims has always kept Venezuela and its people from achieving their full potential in the past.
González said that the estate had been seized even though no judge had ruled on whether or not the estate was actually eligible to being taken over under the terms of the land expropriation law.
This statement was taken to imply that the raid may have actually been illegal even within the broad remit of that very same law, which was approved by the National Assembly earlier this decade.
In the wake of the raid, there was talk of converting the estate into a “social production” unit under the joint management of the state and the workers. The views of the employees, and even whether there were any, were unclear.
Like many business leaders, Gómez Sigala has been critical of the government’s economic policies, above all of state controls on prices and foreign exchange. Critics deem the measures to be counter-productive to efficiency and productivity to the point where companies are unable to turn a profit.
Conindustria’s member companies, who include several big names in the food industry, were particularly hard-hit during the last recession early this decade. Industrial companies closed down, never to reopen for business, went to the wall during the severest slump on modern record in Venezuela.
The number of manufacturing companies to have emerged from the recession was about half of the previous total of about 10,000 such firms, according to unofficial estimates.
Today, critics claim that price controls and difficulties in obtaining permits from the Foreign Exchange Administration Commission (Cadivi) are fuelling inflationary pressures and prompting sporadic shortages of staple foods.
Venezuela is estimated to import at least half of its food needs. Just why this should be the case in a country blessed with a benign climate, rich arable land and a relatively small population remains a mystery to outside observers.