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What Next for Venezuela’s High-Rise Slum?

What Next for Venezuela’s High-Rise Slum?

The Venezuelan government did something unusual last week.

I am not talking about pressuring the tiny island of Aruba in order to free a drug lord. I am not even talking about broadcasting a birthday party — complete with "Happy Birthday" and cake — for a corpse (the late Hugo Chávez). As bizarre as these things sound, they are part of the daily craziness of chavista Venezuela.

No, what I’m walking about is the government’s unusual decision to evict squatters from one of the country’s most notorious slums.

In spite of lying in an attractive tropical valley with spring-like weather all year round, Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, is not a particularly memorable city. It has few architectural landmarks, and most of the city’s buildings sprung up during the 1950 to 1980 oil boom that spurred the country’s growth — not exactly a period that architects remember fondly.

It came as a surprise, then, that one building became a topic of much interest for foreign media and architects alike in the past few years. The building in question is the Tower of David, a 45-story glass skyscraper that lay abandoned for years after the bank that commissioned it went belly up. The tower — named after David Brillembourg, the owner of the bank — captured the world’s imagination after it was invaded by more than 800 homeless families. The squatters quickly transformed it into the world’s tallest slum.

Everyone from award-winning journalist Jon Lee Anderson to the BBC wanted to see this monument to urban decay. Squatters quickly created a mini-city that had everything from grocery stores to school to a Pentecostal Church. Of course, the tower was riddled with criminals, and several people — mostly children — have plunged to their deaths thanks to the tower’s lack of railings and non-existent safety conditions.

The building captured the world’s imagination. Photojournalists came to take pictures, and a project to transform it into a livable community won an architectural prize. The American TV show Homeland used it as the setting for one of its episodes. The building was an enthralling microcosm of chavista chaos.

Chavista lore explains that the presence of the squatters is due to the severe floods of 2010, which left thousands homeless. But the reality is different: Homelessness in Venezuela is caused by a dearth in the supply of housing. The private sector is hampered by red tape, and the financial industry is averse to mortgages; enormous budget deficits and high inflation means it’s less risky to lend to the government than to potential homeowners. In an economy with double-digit inflation and scant respect for private property, giving mortgages to individuals is a risky proposition.

Add to that a deficit in cement and steel material production following the nationalization of both industries, and the result is unsurprising: Construction has not been able to meet housing demand for many years. It is estimated that more than 7 million Venezuelans lack proper housing.

Surprisingly, the government began the process of emptying the tower last week. (The photo above shows the Tower of David’s residents carrying their belongings out of the building.) This was unexpected since the government has protected, and sometimes even encouraged, the occupation of abandoned housing or commercial complexes.

It has begun moving its residents to a government housing complex in the nearby city of Cúa, some 21 miles from Caracas. (A satirical website joked that the government was building a new skyscraper in poor, rural Cúa in order to accommodate the families.)

Press reports suggest the eviction was done at the behest of the Chinese. Apparently, the building was being eyed as a future headquarters for the Bank of China, and the Venezuelan government is deeply beholden to Chinese interests, particularly in light of generous loans flowing from Beijing to Caracas.

If this is true, one has to wonder why the Chinese picked that tower in particular as headquarters for its many Venezuelan interests. Many office buildings in Venezuela have plenty of room. Companies are leaving the country thanks to severe currency restrictions and a deteriorating business climate, and supply is probably outstripping demand.

The answer is in the symbolism. The Tower lies at the heart of Caracas’s banking district, and as such it was an eyesore, a blatant reminder of the failed promises of the Bolivarian revolution. The Chinese probably viewed this as unacceptable, and they may have wanted to test the government’s resolve in solving politically sensitive problems such as evicting thousands of squatters — many of them chavista supporters — from the middle of the city. It remains to be seen whether or not they will succeed — so far, only 25 percent of the tower’s inhabitants have left the building.

Regardless of what fate has in store for the Tower of David, it is clear that solving the underlying causes of the housing crisis is going to be much more difficult than getting the tower ready for its next use. Whether it is used for a Chinese bank or simply demolished, the tower will no longer be a monument to failed public policies. Even though the government has pushed for an increase in public housing as of late, those efforts are sputtering. One can only hope that the conditions that led to this housing crisis will change.

Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions, editor of Caracas Chronicles, and author of Blogging the RevolutionRead the rest of his posts here.