The Skyscraper Slums of Caracas

How Hugo Chávez built a squatter city in his backyard.

Ángela Bonadies & Juan José Olavarría
Ángela Bonadies & Juan José Olavarría

CARACAS — There is perhaps no better symbol of the depths to which Venezuela has sunk under President Hugo Chávez than Centro Comercial Sambil La Candelaria, a shopping mall in Caracas, the country’s teeming capital. In 2008, when he ordered its expropriation, Chávez called the mall a "monster of capitalism." Yelitza Campos, who heads a neighborhood association across the street from the megamall, calls it a "nightmare."

For Marta Navarro, it is simply a roof over her head.

For the past 11 months, Navarro, 23, and her three young children have been living in a small wooden cubicle carved out of one of the mall’s aboveground parking levels. One of an estimated 50,000 displaced people in Caracas, Navarro considers herself lucky.

Her living space measures 12 feet by 12 feet and has jury-rigged electrical outlets. She and her family share a large bathroom with hundreds of other refugees on each floor; there is no hot water. Residents hang their clothing along the rails, while Bolivarian National Guard units watch over the entrance, restricting access.

"The government provides us everything we need," Navarro says. "They deliver three meals a day to our cubicle, and they provided beds and furniture when we moved in. My children attend school here, and one of my neighbors even gave birth in a clinic on the parking deck." She sighs and looks around. "I can’t complain but it’s not home. It just doesn’t seem like home."

Navarro isn’t alone. Nearly 4,000 other homeless people are crammed into the parking levels of the mall, waiting resettlement in housing the government plans to build in the near future. Many more are arriving since unusually heavy December rains wreaked havoc in the city’s hillside slums. Outside the parking levels, the mall is largely unoccupied. Heavy trucks pull up to the building at all hours of the day, using its basement levels to store foodstuffs for a chain of government grocery stores. For the most part, though, the building is empty, its floors littered with dust and empty boxes.

The shopping mall, which sits squarely in a mixed residential-business neighborhood of Caracas, is part of a worsening housing shortage that now confronts Chávez, who took office in 1999. It also symbolizes the battle over the future of private property in the country.

Venezuela, a country of about 28 million people, faces a housing deficit of about 2 million units, analysts say. With an average of four people per home, that means about 8 million people are homeless, living in shelters or with relatives or friends, or stuck in unsafe housing.

"The government needs to build 100,000 units a year to keep the [housing] deficit stable," says Carlos Genatios, an engineer and professor at the Central University of Venezuela who also once served as a minister in Chávez’s cabinet. "Instead, the government built on average about 28,000 units each year from 1999 through 2010. The deficit has actually grown by about a million since Chávez took office."

The shopping mall is just the latest flashpoint of the country’s housing crisis.

Surrounded by tall apartment buildings, the mall was weeks away from opening when Chávez abruptly ordered its expropriation, even though the project had been approved by two of his closest allies. It had been expected to create 4,000 jobs and boost tax revenue for the city.

Since its seizure, the government has promised to convert the building into a university, hospital, or government-services building. That all changed last year when heavy rains left thousands homeless in the greater Caracas area: Refugees were ordered to the building, where makeshift shelters were built in the mall’s parking garage.

"That is when the problems began," says Campos, the neighborhood activist. "The mall was supposed to improve the neighborhood, create jobs, and make this a better place to live. Now, crime has soared. Traffic and noise have become unsupportable as the government decided to use part of the mall as a warehouse for food. Trucks come and unload at all hours of the night, making it difficult to sleep."

Campos say she and others have sought clarification from the government as to what the mall’s ultimate use will be. The unspoken fear is that the mall will become a permanent refugee center, taking in the country’s homeless during Venezuela’s annual rainy season.

"They have changed their minds so many times and have proposed so many things, including locating the state morgue in the building." She laughs nervously. "We ask them and they won’t tell us. We have no input; we have no say. There is no coordination, no plan."

La Candelaria neighborhood has become a battleground between the haves and have-nots. Within a 1 square-kilometer zone of the neighborhood, 24 buildings have been expropriated by the government or invaded by the country’s homeless.

Among the latter is Edificio Confinanzas, or as it is better known, Torre de David — David’s Tower.

The 45-story skyscraper, which is a stone’s throw from the headquarters of two of Venezuela’s largest banks, Banco Mercantil and Banco Provincial, was originally supposed to house offices, shops, and commercial space. But the owner — David Brillembourg — died in 1993 before the building was completed, and it passed to his banks. One year later, the government seized the tower when the banks went bust in a financial crisis. It was invaded by 200 families in October 2007 when it was 60 percent complete. Today, it’s home to nearly 3,000 people living in makeshift housing on the first 27 floors.

The tower, from a distance, cuts the sky with its sharp lines — in bold contrast with the squat profiles of its neighboring skyscrapers, which date from the 1970s. Up close, a different picture emerges. Many of the tower’s bottom floors have been closed in with brick-red cinder blocks as residents have sought to carve out makeshift homes, while protecting their children from falling to their deaths. TV satellite dishes stud the walls, giving the building a surreal appearance.

They may have cable, but basic services, such as elevators, are lacking. Neighbors say the building houses drug dealers and prostitutes. Thugs take shelter there after committing crimes, and the police refuse to follow them. Security is provided by the residents themselves, who man the doors. I entered the building but was immediately asked to leave by one guard.

"You just can’t walk in here like that. This is private property," he said, ignoring the irony in his statement.

The government has said little about the building and whether it will seek to evict the squatters. While they dither, neighbors fear that the situation will only worsen and that the "vertical slum" — as they call it — will become permanent.

Chávez, who is running for reelection next year, has always made solving the country’s housing shortage a priority, Genatios says. But decisions are taken haphazardly, and government inefficiency and corruption take a toll.

Caracas is particularly rife with problems due to its topography.

The city, which is built along a narrow valley, has little space for new housing, leading the poor to construct their makeshift homes on the slopes of the hills. When heavy rains occur, mudslides invariably happen. In 1999, thousands were killed when heavy rains ripped through the capital and surrounding region.

Some government decisions actually exacerbate the crisis, Genatios admitted. He gave the example of the government decision (greater Caracas is controlled by a governor appointed by Chávez) to expropriate a parking lot next to a long-standing restaurant. The lot was expropriated to provide a site for an apartment building for 40 people. The restaurant, which employed 60, was forced to close as a result, ultimately hurting more people than it helped. The apartment building has yet to be built.

"You can’t make housing decisions based on political considerations," says Genatios. "You have to take into account other factors such as the services and the overall community picture." The government has also refused to allow municipalities to participate in the planning, especially when they are controlled by members of the opposition.

The government’s own policies have made it difficult to close the gap. In 2008, Chávez nationalized the country’s steel and cement industries, and production has subsequently fallen, creating shortages of the very products needed for construction. New laws governing rental properties and undermining the rights of owners have ensured that private contractors have remained on the sidelines. Expropriations have further stunted private-sector interest.

Even the working poor are anxious.

Josefina Rodríguez, who lives in a slum in El Junquito on the outskirts of Caracas, is unnerved by the ever-present threat of squatters in her neighborhood. Rodríguez, who cleans houses for a living, bought a second home made out of cinder blocks when prices were low.

"I bought it thinking I could leave both of my children homes. Now I have to watch it nonstop to make sure no one tries to invade it and take it from me," she says. "I rented it out before, but with the new laws, I am afraid to. Once someone moves in, they could force me to sell it to them or just seize it. We have no rights now."

For those living in the shopping mall, there is no alternative but to wait.

"Of course, we don’t want to live in the parking levels," says Norma Ruiz, who was moved to the mall a year ago. "My husband is still looking for work, and so am I."

Ruiz has been offered housing in Maturín or Maracaibo — hours from Caracas. "We know no one there, and we don’t know what kind of jobs there are there," she says. "We have no friends there. So we’re waiting for housing in Caracas. The bad thing is that that means waiting at least another eight months here, according to officials. So, we just wait and wait. This isn’t a life."

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