Whose Land is this Land?
The Epoch Times, October 2008
CARACAS, Venezuela –For the past four years, Anayibe Sánchez has been building her home on vacant public land, breaking the law brick by brick.
At first she let the mountain grasses grow tall to hide the construction from the police. Later she fought con artists who tried to take her money and her house.
But her biggest battle has been with the leftist government of President Hugo Chávez, which seems knotted in policy paralysis over whether to oust squatters like Sánchez –decried by the media as “invaders” –or to legitimize them. While the president claims to be making Herculean efforts to address what housing experts call a two million-unit public housing shortage, very few houses seem to ever get built. Meanwhile, middle class Caraqueños are demanding that the government bulldoze the burgeoning squatters’ settlements forthwith.
Squatters’ settlements are a common phenomenon around Latin America. Hundreds of thousands of rural people migrate to the capitals in search of opportunity, often finding jobs, of a sort, but not houses they can afford. So they build their own, anywhere they find a bit of space: on vacant public lands, inside abandoned buildings, and sometimes on earthquake and mudslide-prone ground.
Even Chávez supporters are divided over how the government should deal with squatters. It’s a hot issue in the runup to this November’s local and regional elections.
“I live on stable ground, but don’t have a place to sit. They have all the space they want,” complained city official and Chávez backer Hector Tovar, gesturing toward Aniyebe Sánchez’s house, now surrounded by about 100 others in an impromptu settlement called Los Pinos. “It’s simple. They are illegal.”
In fact, it’s complex. Venezuela needs another 2.5 million homes, according to United Nations housing expert Erik Vittrup. “No country in Latin America has solved the housing problem,” he noted.
Chávez officials contend they’re building rapidly.
“This government has built more houses in the past nine years than Venezuela did in the previous 50,” claimed Silfredo Zambrano, president of the Caracas Foundation, a city office devoted to housing issues.
But the Venezuelan Ministry of Housing’s statistics show the federal government has built just 233,000 houses over the past nine years, compared to 344,000 in the nine years prior.
“Every year, Chávez promises to build 100,000 new houses, but by the end of the year it is 40,000,” said Oscar Olinto Camacho, an urban studies professor at Simon Bolívar University.
Chávez seems genuinely committed to building new housing. The right to “dignified housing” is written into the Constitution he helped pass in 1999, and several of the biggest housing programs were also his idea. With Venezuela awash in oil cash, Chávez over the summer of 2008 pledged another $1.3 billion for public housing. He’s even started nationalizing Venezuela’s cement companies, claiming that “the recuperation of the cement industry will boost the nation’s housing and construction plan.”
Yet execution has been disorganized and underfunded, according to Camacho. He said that the Ministry of Housing has been plagued by high turnover, with a new minister and long-term plan arriving nearly every year, making sustained progress impossible.
Bizarrely, those charged with executing home construction say they’ve received virtually no money to do it.
“There’s no funding from the central government,” alleged José Miguel Menéndez, chief architect of Caracas’s public housing program. “We do not get anything from the Ministry of Housing.”
He blamed city officials opposed to encouraging squatter settlements for blocking funding for public housing.
But a leader of a housing group demanding the bulldozing of slums accused the government of putting the needs of the poor ahead of those of existing homeowners.
“There has not been a clear and enforced policy on the invasions,” said Roberto Orta Martínez, vice president of the Association of Urban Property Owners. Police have sometimes even helped squatters break into empty buildings, he charged. He said squatters had taken over 155 private buildings—around 3,000 apartments—in Caracas since 2003.
Pro-Chávez city officials counter that they regularly demolish squatter housing.
But in a city where nearly 60 percent of the people live in houses they built themselves, some are beginning to wonder if a whole new approach to public housing is needed.
“With housing, it’s almost like you have a hungry nation in front of you, so you’re not talking about cholesterol and gourmet foods. Everything is fine,” said Hubert Klumpner, co-director of the Urban Think Tank in Caracas. “We’re not picky, we’re just hungry.
“With housing, it’s a similar issue. The barrios… are actually not the problem, in our view, but more of an answer to an existing problem.”
Point of view is key. Seen from central Caracas, the squatters’ settlements, known as ranchos, might look like slums. But up close, they seem more like developing communities. Sánchez, for example, is involved in politics: she sits in front of a neighbor’s house, registering people for the new community council. Chávez created that initiative, to help legitimize new communities like these.
She’s upset by the hostile word newspapers use to write about her and her neighbors: “invaders.”
“It’s an offensive word, she said. ‘Invader’ is a word for people who come from another planet, from Mars.”
She’s used to the ambiguity of her position: even as she’s applied for a deed to live here, Tovar claims a court has issued a demolition order for house, and those of her neighbors.
Even more than the government, Sánchez fears other squatters, who might try to take over her house or street.
“The fear is there,” she said. “But we won’t let them. Besides, there’s nowhere left to invade.”