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Venezuelans lose their homes for government housing program

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 didn’t count for anything,” said Alotto, 57. “I’ve been left without property and without a job. I’ve 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 it’s 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, it’s 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, he’s 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 hasn’t 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. We’re not rich, we’re not bourgeoisie.”

It’s unclear how many people find themselves in Rojas’ and Alotto’s situation. Venezuela’s 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 Alotto’s.

The government has minimized the problem. Housing Minister Ricardo Molina recently said 80 percent of the land used in the program is state-owned. Of the private property seized, some of it was owned illegally. But when rightful owners are found “we determine the value of the property and pay the owner,” he said.

It’s not clear how often, or how quickly, that’s happening. The government just announced it’s planning to indemnify farmers who had their land seized in 2005. And the problems are likely to get worse. Molina said the government needs an another 231 square miles to fulfill the housing initiative.

Whatever pain might be caused to those who lose property, the housing program, and other “missions,” have been key to Chávez’s popularity. In power for 13 years and battling an undisclosed form of cancer, Chávez retains high approval ratings and is leading in most presidential polls.

His presidential rival, Henrique Capriles, 39, has accused the government of lying about its housing efforts and using the misery to win votes. During a recent conference, Capriles said the government’s math doesn’t add up. The administration claims it built 146,000 homes in 2011 — more than enough to house the 30,000 families it said had been left homeless by the flooding. Yet, the country still has more than 800 shelters holding more than 27,000 families.

“It’s a lie that the government built 140,000 homes last year,” Capriles said. “If that’s true, why are there still so many people in shelters?”

The homes are not just for flooding victims, the government has said. It’s priority also is to move homeless families out of shopping centers, office buildings and apartment blocks that have been turned into shelters.

Like many hotels, the four-star Hotel President in Caracas has been forced to house flood victims. The families have a private exit so they never mingle with paying guests and elevators don’t stop on that level. Workers said the administration was hoping to keep the residents’ presence a secret to customers. One worker said if the hotel has a problem with a family, staff calls the military. “The official threatens to move them to one of the other shelters and they usually don’t cause anymore problems,” the worker said. “They have it really good here.”

Yolis has been living in one of those “other shelters” — a gray office building, just blocks away from Caracas’ JW Marriott hotel.

For the last 16 months, Yolis, her husband and two children have been sharing a small cubicle in the building. There’s no running water and the building leaks, she said. Despite promises that they would be moved to a new home, they were recently told that wouldn’t happen until 2013. “We can’t take this anymore,” said Yolis, who feared she might be evicted if she gave her last name. “These are not conditions under which you would raise children. It’s dark and dirty.”

Security personnel would not allow The Miami Herald into the building, but other residents confirmed Yolis’ claims. Despite the problems, Yolis said she was grateful to Chávez for helping her get a new home.

From the roof of his home, Alotto has a commanding view of his old parking lot. On a recent weekday, he said workers there hadn’t moved a brick in 11 days. The rumor was that the government has run out of cement. As far as Alotto is concerned, the government is building on top of what he hoped would be his retirement. “I don’t dislike the president,” Alotto said. “But I can’t vote for a party that ruined my life.”

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