Saturday, March 01, 2008

Squatting in Venezuela: worse than ever

Chavez celebrated his 9th year in office earlier in February. Grieving comes to a lot more folks around this fateful day. I was wondering what kind of comment I could write up to commemorate (?) such a date. But how do you reminisce about the date when Venezuela started its final road on becoming a broken country, a failed state if it were not for the thin glue that is still coming courtesy of high oil prices?

And then a couple of weeks ago I got an idea: discuss the squatting epidemic in Venezuela, 9, NINE years after Chavez reached office. Before getting into the why of the squatting pandemic, to enlighten the reader about this Venezuelan drama I will report on the two recent instances in San Felipe, which I managed to photograph without upsetting the natives who understandably are not too happy when someone comes to take a picture of their precarious living conditions. Note: the pictures were taken on two different days; click on them to enlarge for some of the worthy details.

The general set up

First, squatting rarely takes place away from central urban areas, or at the end of some dirt road. It is always on some worthy land, next to some major highway or some land suitable for housing projects. I will thus start first with a picture of San Felipe from Goggle Earth where I point out the two "invasiones" that I will describe today, invasion 1 offering the picture that introduces this post, with drying laundry included.

It is thus relatively valuable land, as close as possible from already established real estate, even if that real estate is for popular neighborhoods, as is the case for invasion 1. Invasion 2 is closer to a a middle class set up.

In the end an "invasión" is simply a blackmail to force the owner to shell off money to get back the land. If the owner does not have the money it is then expected that the municipal council will decide that it goes against the general interests of the community to let slums proliferate randomly. Again, blackmail. It has been reported often that some people have made a career of this: they invade an area, stick around for enough time and when some "compensation" will come they transfer their "rights" to someone else and go elsewhere to start the process anew. If it is a tragedy for some it is also a business for many.

Because this is the real problem that makes the situation so intractable: there is a genuine, dramatic, housing shortfall that has gotten much worse under Chavez. Mix with it a few unscrupulous low life adventurers and you get for a heady mix of corruption, violence, blackmail and human misery, while the state suffers from an increasing paralysis. It is important to note that the average housing construction under Chavez is below those of any recent democratic president.

The time table of construction

It always starts like that, a group of people set a few picket fences, a few plastic covers on top of 4 sticks. Even if it looks like it, it is not that random. This picture is on a portion of invasion 1, its current expansion toward the North. Now that the southern part is relatively settled, newcomers keep arriving and boldly creep toward the main avenue North. Note: this is the third try I remember on this very same piece of land which might be from a different owner probably as the one that finally took root, as we will see below. That is about the only explanation on why of two adjacent pieces of land one succeeded at first try and the other is still finding its ways.

Over a few weeks the settlement starts taking form. The settlement can be as primitive as log cabins (on the right side) to a mishmash of old zinc sheets, street signs, cardboard (on the left) to higher investment in new to semi new zinc sheets (in the middle). They are always one room at first although very soon a second room is added. Since it is Yaracuy and rains are heavy, they are careful from the start to build a slope on the roof. The one on the left is particularly interesting even though it is the one with the cheapest "recycled material": is is the one with the best engineering of the scene, with even a small open air area on the very left for people to spend the afternoon.

This next picture is a little bit further to the South and here you can see another example of log cabin on the left and a truly rag tag assembly of whatever from the right. Clearly, the background and means of these "settlers" can be quite different. Also note the log cabin one: think about where does that timber come from? Which land has been deforested somewhere? In case you do not know, in theory you need a permit in Venezuela to fall any tree, even in your backyard. If at my work place or a the family farm we were to cut down enough trees to build up a log cabin for the kids to play, the Nazional Guard would be immediately on us for a fine, or more likely for some baksheesh. These people, I am pretty sure, did not get bothered by the Nazional Guard, whereas the ex owner of these trees might be questioned about it about where his trees went..... Ecology under the bolivarian fraud is an empty concept.

The life style

Now, let's move on to the southern part of invasion 1. As you can see from this first picture it is more settled, more developed. People now are actually living in it whereas in the pictures above usually a single guardian stays the 24 hours in the "home". the reason is that since some authority or some thug group might come in the middle of the night and bring all down, the "claim" could be lost to either another "invasor" group, or to public authorities and even in some cases the owner. Yes, "invasiones" are not necessary an easy business, and can be fraught with risks.

But there comes a time where the owner for some reason cannot get the authorities support (usually because he cannot afford the lawyers and the right bribes) and the settlement can start to prosper, so to speak. In this picture below you can see a Saturday afternoon family scene where, stroller and all, the family retreats to their home. Shacks look bigger behind the grass, more densely settled with pickets to bring in electricity. Many, if not most, will by this stage have a TV and a refrigerator. The highway is a double road and in front you can see the well worn pass where the grass is topping to grow. There is now significant human traffic, and probably either a bus stop or some "bodega" not too far which justifies that folks go always through this 'pass'.

Because it should be clear that there is no service, no running water, no drains, no electricity. Water can soon be bought in by trucks (usually offered by the municipal social programs though purchasing them is faster and they can pull together resoruces) and all the settlers will soon acquire some large enough containers for water, stored INSIDE the shack because they are a prized possession and the envy of the neighbors. There is enough water so that folks can even do their laundry as the opening picture showed you clearly.

Sewers you can forget for a while and I confess that I am not tempted to go inside and inquire. I suspect that they must dig latrines or walk to the wooded area in the back though this is snake country. Maybe they use the old fashioned basin system? Maybe they put it in plastic bags? 'Showers' might not be too much of a problem. Washing with a few cups of waters does not wet too much the soil, the water will not be too dirty and this being the tropics within hours all will be dry anyway. In Caracas it is less of a problem since the big slopes allowed for drainage in the middle of the 'street' to the 'quebrada' (wadi). But here in flat land I am a little bit concerned for the health of the folks.

Fortunately electricity is an easy thing to fix: steal it from the aerial lines across the highway. In this picture you can see how they place high bamboos or tree pickets to carry electricity inside the settlement. Guess who pays for that? Yours truly since the electricity charges are all split under registered customers who must shore up the burden of all the stolen electricity of the country. The government rarely cuts off these people. If hey did within hours they would restore the cables anyway. The rear pages of the newspapers carry regularly reports of guys dead from electrocution.

Unfortunately garbage is another matter. The municipality cannot charge them for garbage disposal and thus it is collected only on occasion, when it becomes a traffic hazard. The picture below speaks for itself.

Invasión 2

The second area, invasion 2 in the map above, is a very recent one. It is placed right next to a new development project, of course bringing down the value of whatever folks are trying to build there. It is also next to a potentially dangerous "quebrada" who could overflow someday (hence the wooden nature of the area, clearly seen on the satellite image, since humidity is not too far below ground. And to complete the whole picture it is next to San Felipe historical archaeological park, ruining the tourist attraction. This area should remain wooded and become eventually a new park of sorts. Now it is ruined, an ecological crime and will cost the municipality a lot to recover, if it can ever come around to do it. And of course, if the stream overflows and destroys a few "homes" and takes a few lives, well, tax payers will have to foot the bill for something that started illegally.

The picture above repeats what was described above, even though it is hidden from view by the trees and because it is below highway level.

And the picture below shows how the folks spend their Sunday afternoon, guarding their take over. You will notice that we are at the early stage, no real inhabitation yet, one of the shacks has its 'walls' made of black trash bags (on the right side).

Is it cold in Boston in February?

Conclusion: what Joe Kennedy does not tell you

The first thing that the reader must be aware of is that these pathetic scenes of human misery are everywhere in Venezuela. In San Felipe, with not even 200 000 folks, you can count at least a half dozen new squatting events in the last three years. In fact, it has mushroomed since the state house was taken by chavismo three years ago. In all fairness Gimenez has built a lot of housing, but then again he got the means that were always denied to Lapi. Thus he probably ended up attracting people from far away in their desperate hope to find a home.

"Invasiones" also happened heavily in Carabobo after the Salas were evicted three years ago. The Southern approach to Valencia is dotted with huge squatting settlements for hundreds and hundreds of plots. I even allow myself to suspect that such squats are a deliberate maneuver from the new chavista administration to change the electoral makeshift of some areas.

Thus when you drive from San Felipe to Caracas you could easily count a couple of dozen of squats in 3 hours drive. Impressive by any standard.

Since I am aware that it is a reflection of human misery, of an incompetent state unable to promote economic policies that would allow these people a better way to solve their housing problems, I am not mad at them at all. Even though I know that my tax money will be used some day to try to solve somewhat this huge problem, I feel pity for these people and wish I could help them. It remains that the best thing that could happen to them is for Chavez to go and for a new economical system to come up, one that creates real jobs with real wages and not a "Mision" dependency of failing social programs that allows people to survive in such settlements, making them support the local chavista apparatchiks least they lose sustenance and any meager hope they might have to hold to their land claim.

No, my anger is well directed at Chavez and the sycophants that leach from him. Because the pictures that you saw above were all taken this past month, NINE YEARS after Chavez came to power. What has he done with all the oil money he received and all the taxes the SENIAT has collected? How come that after NINE YEARS of rule we see MORE SQUATTING SETTLEMENTS than 9 years ago? Where do these people come from? What are they refugees from? Because this is what it looks like, that Venezuela is becoming a refugee center of sorts. Are we seeing a massive exodus of the rural population that is chased away from the extraordinary failure of Chavez agricultural policies?

But what irks me more is that with the oil money we give to Boston alone we could build a small and cheap house for all of these people, in better land that could be purchased at a discount price from any owner instead of staling it form them, and if we must keep the dirt roads we could at least provide every house with a single faucet of clean water and at least a central line of sewer. And heck, even a Barrio Adentro module could be tossed in. And I bet you that some money would still be left to build a sheltered bus stop and expand the nearest school from the settlement. And why not, even clothe, vaccinate, buy school books for the kids.

Meanwhile leaches like Joe Kennedy play politics with Venezuelan oil in Boston where none of the recipients of the oil aid would put up for a minute with the living conditions of the people you saw on these pictures.

Where is the Boston Globe sending a reporter to make a good study of these squatters in Venezuela and show Joe why he is such an asshole? Where are the Delahunt and other Chavez apologists? Where is the stupid Obama campaign worker with a Che poster in her nice Air Conditioned office with working toilets down the hallway?

These are the people that deserve all the contempt that I was feeling when I took all of these pictures.

-The end-

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