Newsday, April 11, 1999 Squatters' Search For a Better Life By David Paulin. SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
Caracas - One afternoon, nearly two months ago, Yajaira Rojas, who works as a street vendor, joined 14 other single mothers to grab a chance at a better life for herself and three sons. They stormed a downtown building and claimed the vacant apartments.
"There were just a few drug addicts and street people in the building, and we kicked them out," said Rojas. "We took over the building out of necessity."
In recent weeks, such seizures by squatters have repeated themselves thousands of times across this South American nation. The "invaders" -
as Venezuelans call them - have taken over farmland, undeveloped tracks of private and public land and, in a few cases, empty buildings.
Property invasions in Venezuela and Latin America are nothing new -
squalid shantytowns surrounding major cities provide grim evidence of that. However, this wave of invasions is different, say political observers. They appear to be bigger than past invasions and are occurring amid a populist mood sweeping the nation.
Moreover, President Hugo Chavez - unlike past presidents - has declined to use the National Guard to turn away the squatters. A leftist who led a 1992 military coup attempt, Chavez has expressed concern that a confrontation between the National Guard and squatters could result in bloodshed; the National Guard, unlike the military, is not politically aligned with Chavez, note political observers.
"They are not invaders, but brothers in a desperate situation," Chavez said on a television news program.
The phenomenon is stirring a national debate. "The law itself is skewed in favor of the squatters," noted Heraclio Atencio, a Caracas lawyer. "Increasingly, middle-class Venezuelans and business leaders worry the invasions have gotten out of hand and put private-property rights in ever greater jeopardy."
"Am I going to have an apartment when I come back from Miami?" said Lourdes Alvarez, a housewife who frequently travels abroad for weeks at a time.
Like many middle-class Venezuelans, Alvarez blames Chavez for having given a green light to the squatters with his populist rhetoric. Chavez, among other things, has pledged to redistribute the country's oil wealth and lamented that large tracts of land are not being used. In one controversial statement, Chavez even stated that crimes committed by those attempting to feed their families were understandable.
"Chavez has created high expectations among the poor and even middle class," which has created a climate for invasions, according to sociologist Roberto Briceno-Leon of Central Venezuela University.
In past years, Briceno noted, invasions were more limited but often were instigated, during presidential campaigns, by political parties seeking popular support. They usually were confined to undeveloped public land - not private property - and the new government quickly put a stop to them, Briceno said.
"This time, the government has not stopped them," he said.
The poor don't consider the invasions a form of theft, because "their sense of private property is nonexistent," Briceno said. Fifty percent of 23 million Venezuelans live in shantytown areas, he said. There, residents own their ramshackle dwellings - not the land beneath them; they siphon off electricity from nearby lines, which the government tolerates. Eighty percent of Venezuelans live in poverty.
Virtually none of the squatters are homeless. Rather, they're seeking to better their living conditions and believe the government should be paternalistic and provide for their needs, Briceno said.
Hoping to defuse a potential crisis, various officials have recently
pledged to build more public housing and make public lands available to the squatters.
However, the invasions show no sign of slacking off. This has alarmed foreign investors, upon whom Chavez is depending to jump-start and diversify the troubled oil-producing economy.
"This has very broad implications: What happens if you have an agricultural project or a mining project and people squat on your land?," said James Kelly, a longtime resident and president of the Venezuelan-Canadian Chamber of Commerce.
Recently, the chamber helped host a conference to promote foreign investment. Now, Kelly says: "We are in a very volatile situation here [because of the invasions], and this is not good news at all."
According to Briceno and others, the invasions could trigger a repeat of the bloody nationwide "price riots" on Feb. 27, 1989 - because of high expectations Chavez has raised and the possibility of a violent government crackdown if the invasions get out of hand.
Rojas, for her part, is optimistic. "Chavez is on our side," she said.