CARACAS -- For the past two years, Martina has enjoyed cable television, central air-conditioning, a sweeping view of the capital, and hot meals delivered to her room three times a day. Those are the perks of living in a five-star hotel.
But Martina isn’t a paying guest at the Alba Caracas — where rooms go for $350 a night. She’s homeless.
In the wake of heavy rains in late 2010 and early 2011 that forced the evacuation of an estimated 30,000 families, the government turned the city’s buildings into emergency shelters. The homeless were packed into government offices, shopping malls and even the presidential palace.
As New York struggles to find shelter for some 40,000 people who have seen their lives uprooted by Hurricane Sandy, the Venezuelan approach may be both a model and a cautionary tale.
Perhaps some of the most fortunate of Venezuela’s flooding victims were moved to hotels, where they stay expense-free, as they await permanent housing.
Venezuela’s Association of Small and Medium Hotels of Greater Caracas said 2,557 families, or about 10,000 people, were moved into the capital’s hotels at the height of the crisis. The arrangement was supposed to be temporary and owners are not reimbursed for housing the evacuees. But two years later, about half those families are still in the establishments, said Association Director Juan Carlos Iglesias.
“Hotel owners have had to take out loans and sell assets to stay afloat,” he said. “The government has said it would help mitigate the costs, but that hasn’t happened.”
Martina didn’t want to provide her real name because she feared that talking to the press might jeopardize her chances of getting the free house the government has promised.
When her neighborhood, called Propatria, was damaged by the rains in November 2010, the government moved 88 families into the Alba Hotel, she said. Most of them have since been given free places to live, but about 25 families remain.
Martina shares her room with two relatives. The hotel provides free food to discourage guests from cooking in their carpeted rooms, but Martina keeps an electric burner handy for when she wants a homemade meal.
She said she’s thankful for being put up in one of Caracas’ swankiest hotels, where bottles of Buchanan’s Rum sell at the bar for $270, and the lobby shop carries ceramic statutes of President Hugo Chávez for $37.
“This is all very nice,” she said. “But they keep telling us our homes are almost ready and I’m ready to go home.”
In late 2011, the government vowed to have all the families in permanent residences by the end of this year. And many have been moved to the towering apartment blocks that are being erected as part of the government’s Grand Housing Mission, which has provided more than 260,500 free or subsidized homes over the last two years.
But local media reports that more than 25,000 families are still in shelters nationwide.
Venezuela’s Ministry of Communications and Information, which handles media inquiries, did not respond to requests for information.
But protests by disgruntled evacuees are almost a weekly occurrence.
Ana Granado, 28, and about a dozen others, were recently picketing one of the new government housing projects demanding a place to live. Granado said she and 488 other families have been staying inside a shopping mall since 2010.
“I can’t say anything bad about our president because he’s trying to help, but the lack of homes is just too much,” she said. “We’ve spent two Christmases in that place and we’re tired.”
Those at the Alba Caracas hotel are among the lucky ones. They can come and go as they please and even use the swimming pool for a fee. At other hotels, the displaced families are spirited in and out through back doors and kept isolated from paying guests.
Most people are unaware that their hotel is also doubling as a shelter.
Saúl Barton was visiting from El Salvador and was staying at the Alba. He didn’t know the hotel, which used to be a Hilton, was also housing the homeless, but he said he wasn’t surprised.
“I think this is in keeping with the brotherly spirit that characterizes President Chávez,” he said.
But the government’s generosity has been hard on hoteliers.
“These have been a rough two years for us,” said Jose Alberto Nuñez of the National Hotel Association of Venezuela, which has 700 members. “Almost all the hotels that were used need to be remodeled. Not because there was anything wrong with the guests, but rooms are designed for 1.5 people and if you put four, five or seven in there the whole thing collapses.”
Near Sabana Grande is La Calle de los Hoteles — or hotel street — dotted with dozens of small properties that were almost completely taken over by flood victims. On a recent weekday, families mulled on the sidewalks selling candy and cell-phone minutes.
David, a hotelier, agreed to speak to The Miami Herald as long as his name or that of his business weren’t used. He feared that any grousing might be used as an excuse by the government to put more displaced people in his hotel.
For 22 months, about 60 percent of his hotel was occupied by 12 families, he said. During that time, he had trouble renting the remaining rooms because paying guests feared sharing the place with the damnificados.
“This society has its prejudices,” he said. “And many of our clients looked for other options.”
Along with being forced to house the flood victims, he said the government refused to give him a break on his electricity or water bills, which quintupled. The government hasn’t offered credits or loans to repair the rooms, he said.
“All I can tell you is that this has been a tragedy for those who lost their homes but also for the hotel owners,” he said.
Turning hotels into shelters isn’t unprecedented. After the U.S. Gulf Coast was slammed by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, the Federal Emergency Management Agency put victims in trailers, cruise ships and hotels for months, and sometimes years. But the providers of those shelters were reimbursed.
When the Venezuelan government first started commandeering hotels in 2010, it claimed it was a one-time emergency measure. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Earlier this month, when Lake Valencia in the northern town of Maracay threatened to break through a retaining wall, the government evacuated 638 families and put them in hotels, according to local media.
Martina knows she’s fortunate. She has friends at shelters without running water or private bathrooms.
“We have nothing to complain about,” she said, as she took in the view of downtown Caracas and the hotel’s swimming pool from her balcony. “This is a five-star shelter.”