The New York Times
April 23, 1999


The Squatters Have Their Day, Shaking Venezuela

          By LARRY ROHTER

          CARACAS, Venezuela -- 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.

          Ms. Vasquez's 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.

          Residents of 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.

          The seizures have sent waves of panic through the business, professional
          and intellectual classes that are a distinct minority of Venezuela's 23
          million people.

          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.

          "The repeated 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

          Venezuela experiences 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."

          Chavez, however, 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.

          Nevertheless, 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."

          "They're not 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
          them justice."

          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
          land invasions.

          "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.

          The government's 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."