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Venezuelan Landowner Makes Way For Squatters

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

And now let's go to another community where one wealthy family is creating jobs. It's in Venezuela, which has suffered its share of political turmoil. President Hugo Chavez uses revolutionary rhetoric that has incited poor squatters to invade large farms. Chavez says rich land owners care little about the poor. But one of those land owners, whose land was invaded, has welcomed the squatters. His name is Alberto Vollmer, and he is providing his polarized country with a lesson in how to get along. NPR's Juan Forero reports from Venezuela's Hacienda Santa Teresa.

JUAN FORERO: On this day, the tourists include a group of senior citizens. Among them, Hermenia Garvidia(ph).

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HERMENIA GARVIDIA: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: The Vollmer family's foray into social work might seem incompatible with their patrician roots. They're among Venezuela's wealthiest and Santa Teresa has been in the family's hands since 1885. But when dozens of families invaded in 2000, just a year after Chavez took office, Vollmer didn't fight back. He instead offered land and homebuilding expertise, working with squatters and government officials to create a community for landless people.

ALBERT VOLLMER: We said this isn't just going to be a piece of land where you're going to build improvised houses. We're going to design what the houses are going to look like.

FORERO: Jumilia Aquino(ph) is among the proud homeowners.

JUMILIA AQUINO: (Through translator) Thank God we have a dignified home that I can leave to my children. It's big. It has two bedrooms, a bathroom, living room, kitchen, and a really big patio. It seems like somebody else's house. That's my house.

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FORERO: Vollmer's willingness to work with the squatters irritated some elites, but it won him kudos from a government that's usually hostile to the wealthy. Three years later, something else happened that led Vollmer on yet another crusade.

VOLLMER: We were mugged.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FORERO: Gang members had stolen the security officer's gun. Vollmer directed his guards to capture the young delinquents. Then he made them an offer they couldn't refuse: either work for free on his hacienda for three months and accept psychological help and job training or be turned over to the local police. The gang members went for Vollmer's first offer.

VOLLMER: So I thought, wow, this is a huge opportunity. You know, they've given us the most important thing they have, which is their identity. So let's go ahead with this. Let's see what we can do.

FORERO: Soon other gang members wanted in. That gave Vollmer another idea. He told them they had to play rugby. It's not popular in baseball-crazed Venezuela, but Vollmer's fanatical about the sport. He says it teaches discipline and teamwork. The former gang members come from barrios like the one just up the hill from Santa Teresa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FORERO: Music blares from boom boxes and teenagers huddle on corners. Volcer Ieta(ph) is a former gang member and one of the first to join Vollmer's program. He now works in Santa Teresa.

VOLCER IETA: (Through translator) It's rare to find someone who believes in you, and when that happens you feel proud that someone so important and interesting shows confidence, and that's what drives you to do things the way they should be done.

FORERO: Program members continue living in barrios, where violence has claimed the lives of five in recent months. And others have dropped out. But dozens have graduated to a law-abiding life. Vollmer said a key to success has been ensuring the young men play a lead role in improving their own lives.

VOLLMER: It's not a handout (unintelligible). And it's actually bringing them up to much better standards that are much better for them.

FORERO: Juan Forero, NPR News, Hacienda Santa Teresa, Venezuela. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.