The Squatters Have Their Day, Shaking Venezuela
By LARRY ROHTER
-- Until a few weeks ago, Elena Vasquez
and her six children lived in a single cramped rented room here.
But now she and thousands of other poor Venezuelans, inspired by their
new president's promises of social justice, have seized vacant buildings
and plots of land, upgrading their own housing while setting off a
passionate national debate about property rights.
family is one of 34 that have taken over the Edificio
Inmacolata, a nine-story government-owned apartment building on the
edge of downtown that has sat abandoned, she said, for six years.
neighboring buildings are furious, and there have been calls
for the police to evict the squatters. But she is more impressed by the fact
that her one-bedroom apartment has electricity and running water.
"It's like a
miracle, and I feel so relieved to finally have four walls and a
ceiling above my head," said Ms. Vasquez, 33, a restaurant cook and
single mother who earlier had lived in a cardboard shack under a bridge.
"It means you
don't have to worry about the rain, you have security, and
no one can come and abuse you," she added. "So I feel like a queen right
here in the middle of Caracas."
Since Hugo Chavez
was elected president of Venezuela in December,
similar land invasions have been taking place all over this country.
Estimates of the extent of the phenomenon vary, but officials suggest that
in the first three months of 1999, some 10,000 families have moved onto
sites including a ranch owned by a state governor, apartment buildings
here in the capital and even a provincial airport.
have sent waves of panic through the business, professional
and intellectual classes that are a distinct minority of Venezuela's 23
Chavez, a former
army paratrooper who in 1992 led an unsuccessful
attempt to overthrow the democratically elected government, has
assembled a Constituent Assembly to draw up a replacement for the
current constitution, and his critics fear that he intends to erode property
rights in the new charter.
invasions of rural and urban properties that have taken
place and continue to occur are a source of deep preoccupation on the
part of the citizenry," said Francisco Natera, president of the Federation
of Chambers, the country's leading coalition of business and professional
The only way
to halt this "deterioration of the rule of law," he added, is to
"restore these properties and goods to their legitimate owners."
As Chavez's government
points out, land invasions are not new to
Venezuela. Many of the working-class neighborhoods that cling to the
dusty hillsides overlooking the towering apartment and office buildings of
Caracas began their existence decades ago as "ranchos," or squatter
a surge of land invasions every five years
immediately before and after elections, as the poor test the resolve and
the campaign promises of new presidents. But "normally," said a diplomat
here, "the response is to call out the bulldozers and the National Guard to
trash the place, and then everyone leaves."
was elected on a platform that pledged a social
revolution and redistribution of the country's wealth, and the millions of
Venezuelans living below the poverty line are his main political base. So
since taking office on Feb. 2, he has taken a much more sympathetic
approach to the plight of squatters than any of his predecessors.
"I'm not going
to send in troops," Chavez said on a visit to a squatter
settlement in mid-March. "I will not rest until every human being who
lives in this land has housing, employment and some way to manage his
Critics of the
government portray the issue as one of sovereignty,
claiming to have detected foreign influence and support, especially that of
the Movement of the Landless in neighboring Brazil, in the wave of land
They also say
the policy has encouraged poor people in Colombia,
Ecuador, the Dominican Republic and Peru to migrate illegally to
Venezuela, and express fear that the pace of land takeovers will
accelerate as word spreads throughout the region.
Chavez has adamantly refused to rescind his government's
hands-off policy. In a speech on March 25, he referred scornfully to
businessmen and politicians "who want me to send in troops and police
to shoot machine-gun rounds at these people," adding defiantly, "I'm not
going to massacre them, so send me to jail if you want."
really invaders, they are people who have been excluded,"
he said in the televised remarks. "The majority are women, single mothers
who have been abandoned by irresponsible fathers. Let's go talk to them.
They're not monsters, they're clamoring for justice, and we should give
To reduce political
tensions and solve the problem, Chavez has
suggested a census of squatters, to distinguish those who are really
landless from the opportunists, and a program to resettle them elsewhere,
mostly on government land in rural areas. But local authorities around the
country have criticized that step as simply an encouragement to additional
"To conduct a
census and to offer houses or apartments to the invaders
implies support for the continuation of this illegal practice," said Antonio
Ledezma, mayor of Caracas from an opposition party and president of
the Venezuelan Association of Mayors.
approach, he added, can only be regarded as "a
stimulus to resentment" between classes that could lead to "a social
convulsion, a war among the poor."
Even many residents
of neighborhoods that began as squatter settlements
but later had their status legalized appear to support that view. They
recognize that the country suffers from an acute shortage of affordable
housing, but assert that they should not be forced to pay the price of
years of official neglect and inefficient policies.
"We're on permanent
guard here against any invasions," said Mireya de
Fernandez, a teacher and community leader in Tamaquito, a
working-class area on a hillside in western Caracas. "We don't want any
newcomers settling here because our situation is one in which we already
do not have enough water, schools and sewers to serve the existing
But at the Edificio
Inmacolata, the squatters maintain that Chavez -- "the
president of the poor," as they call him -- approves of their desire to
better their living standards. They say that they have painted and cleaned
up the building, and that they will make other improvements if they are
allowed to stay.
"We're not asking
that anything be given to us free," said Yahaira Rojas,
a seamstress and mother of three who said that three-quarters of her
monthly salary of $175 had been going to rent before she moved in. "We
want to pay. We've been trampled for so long, but we are convinced that
our Chavez will help us and find a good solution."