Chavez Walks a Housing Tightrope

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In Venezuela, a home can be hard to come by. Some of the poor in Caracas, the capital, have to make do with a poorly constructed shack on a muddy hillside overlooking the city. For others, not even that much is guaranteed. In the dense slums that blanket many hills surrounding Caracas, ramshackle homes are crammed on top of one another, and crime is rampant on the narrow, garbage-strewn streets and stairways. In many places they are vulnerable to collapse in the mudslides often triggered by frequent downpours. Some lack sufficient electricity supply and telephone access, and their water is delivered by trucks two or three days a week.

The housing problem that President Hugo Chavez inherited on taking power in 1998 has been one of the toughest challenges of government — and it is attracting more attention as he campaigns for reelection in December. Chavez, a leftist who loves to provoke the Bush administration, is a self-styled champion of the poor but has fallen short in keeping his housing promises. Although Venezuela has stepped up construction of new houses this year, it still needs a further 1.6 million new units to meet the shortfall in low-income housing needs, according to official figures. Only around one-eighth of that total has been built under Chavez's tenure, according to the Venezuelan real estate chamber.

Venezuela has funneled some of the profits from surging oil prices into social development programs and infrastructure projects aimed at helping the poor, but building new housing isn't that easy in Caracas. The overcrowded capital city is jammed into a narrow valley where decades of heavy migration from the countryside have gobbled up nearly all the land suitable for construction.

Patricia Duran, whose home is perched precariously on a hillside in Western Caracas, is one of many residents of poor barrios who often gather outside the government's housing ministry to protest their poor living conditions. "If you saw where we're living right now, there are waterfalls around the houses and the stairs are really bad," Duran said. "We're human beings, but we're [living like] animals out there."

The government has tried various non-conventional and socialist-style solutions to the housing dilemma. Earlier this year, Caracas officials began seizing apartments considered "idle" to give shelter to those who had none. They moved 51 firefighters who needed housing into one apartment building in the upper-middle class neighborhood of El Rosal. Some residents of the building said they didn't object to their new neighbors, noting that the local government paid a fair price for the units and that people needed help allaying the financial shock of skyrocketing apartment prices.

Other schemes have been more controversial: Last August, Caracas Mayor Juan Barreto declared that he planned to seize the city's two main golf courses, which he said were the preserve of the rich, and use the land to build homes for as many as 50,000 people. "This is a first step towards the democratization of land," Barreto told state television. "It's to give a new social sense to the city, so it can be enjoyed by everyone and not be a privatized city under a neo-liberal concept."

There is certainly a sharp contrast between the Congested Caracas barrios where the poor fight for the basics, and the leafy, mansion-lined streets where the rich enjoy first-world luxury. And it is the wealthy elite that maintain the Caracas Country Club on nearly 200 acres, which includes an 18-hole golf course, horse stables and grounds, and tennis courts.

The club's president Fernando Zozaya says the mayor's plan to seize the land is unrealistic because it would cause a traffic nightmare and would have a negative affect on the 11,000 club members and direct and indirect employees. He also points out, with an ironic chuckle, that the city proposes to raze an institution that the federal government last year declared as part of the national patrimony in recognition of its historic value.

"Can you imagine the chaos this would bring? How are they going to do it?" he asked.

The country club president could be right. Mayor Barreto may be a close ally of Chavez, and may have justified his claim on the golf course in terms of a federal drive to redistribute privately owned land to the poor, but it appears he did not get government approval for his plan. In a move that calmed the Caracas elite, Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel said the mayor had acted on his own and that the national government would not support the seizure of the country clubs because it violated the constitution. And the second country club named in the mayor's plan —the Valle Arriba club, near the U.S. embassy — said recently that it would fight the expropriation decree in the courts.

Venezuela is also looking abroad to alleviate its housing woes. It has struck a deal with Chinese conglomerate Citic to build 20,000 new houses within two years. Even so, Patricia Duran and her fellow protesters say the housing plight is so dire in Caracas that the Mayor needs to find land where he can — even if it means expropriating golf courses. "If we have to go to that extreme, we have to do it," she said. "I imagine the rich are angry right now, but there's nothing else we can do. It's better if they help us to find houses for our children."

But the housing quandary is unlikely to sway enough voters away from Chavez to give opposition candidate Manuel Rosales a genuine chance at beating the heavily favored incumbent in December. The protesters outside the ministry are proof that widespread popularity of the government's social development programs that provide cheap food and free health care outweigh most anger over housing. They were there to decry their hardships and to berate the housing minister for not delivering new houses. But interspersed with those chants they hollered, "Long live Chavez!"