“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.”