Like many Venezuelans, Calogero Alotto was sympathetic to the estimated 30,000 families left homeless by flooding during 2010 and 2011. When government officials told him they needed his small parking lot and mechanic shop to build housing for the refugees, he accepted it as a patriotic duty.
But 15 months later, the housing has yet to materialize and Alotto is still waiting to get paid.
I worked for 42 hard years to build my business and it didnt count for anything, said Alotto, 57. Ive been left without property and without a job. Ive had to sell two trucks just to keep surviving.
As President Hugo Chávez, 57, heads into a tight presidential race, housing is at the center of his campaign. The government says it will plow $16 billion into building 200,000 homes this year under a program called The Great Housing Mission. The initiative is popular in this oil-rich nation, where many still live in wooden and tin shacks. And Chávez has said its key to his Socialist Revolution that aims to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor.
A recent poll by the Venezuelan Institute of Data Analysis found 75 percent of those surveyed said they expected to receive a house sometime during the next two years, thanks to the program.
But as the government has been seizing property in middle- and lower-class neighborhoods to build the projects, its starting to create a backlash from some of those who once considered themselves as Chávez supporters.
When police tried to evict home and business owners out of a three-block stretch of the Catia neighborhood in February, residents revolted. The government backed down, but many fear that if Chávez wins the Oct. 7 election, the evictions will continue.
We know that people need housing, but what happens to us? said Carlos Rubio, who has joined forces with 20 other small business owners in resisting the evictions. Now that Chávez is trying to win the presidency, hes promising homes to everybody.
Driving the backlash are stories of people such as Alotto who were never compensated for their property.
Alotto and 19 of his neighbors mainly the owners of parking lots began receiving eviction notices in late 2010. All of them were assured the government would expedite payments for the property. But that hasnt happened.
Nelson Rojas said he was forced out of the home that he shared with his physically disabled son. The government put him in a public housing complex, where they are crowded into a two-bedroom apartment with two other families. Rojas and his son share a bed and cook in their room.
We always heard about big consortiums or foreign investors getting expropriated, said Rojas, who had lived and worked on the site for a decade. But I never thought it would happen to me. Were not rich, were not bourgeoisie.
Its unclear how many people find themselves in Rojas and Alottos situation. Venezuelas Ministry of Communications, which handles all media requests, did not respond to phone calls or questions sent via email.
The Front for National Property, an organization that defends private ownership, said that from 2006 to 2008 it registered 241 expropriations representing 4,000 dwellings in the capital alone. Of those expropriations, the government only paid for 12, the organization said. In addition, over the last three years, the organization has tracked another 100 expropriations, including Alottos.