by John Otis
Venezuela has a shortage of affordable homes so acute that squatters have moved into half-built high rises in Caracas. And there are also countless families left homeless by flash floods and landslides that swept the country six months ago. And there's pressure for the government to solve the problem.
"I know it's going to be difficult," said Maria Mendoza, who lives with her family in a homeless shelter in Caracas. "But I hope the government will give us a new home. And we're not the only ones in this situation."
Experts say there's a deficit of more than 2 million housing units in Venezuela. In the 1950s and 60s, Caracas was one of Latin America's most modern cities. Amid an oil boom, gleaming high rises were built downtown. Government housing projects rose from the slums.
But more recently, high inflation has made banks wary of signing mortgages for private home building. Under Chavez, the public and private sectors have put up just 28,000 houses per year, less than half the number built during previous governments.
"The construction was not a priority, even though Chavez talked about that," said political analyst Luis Vicente Leon. He added that Chavez preferred to spend billions of petro-dollars on schools, clinics and food programs for the poor. These projects touch millions of Venezuelans and their widespread popularity has helped Chavez get re-elected, twice.
By contrast, Leon said, each government-built house benefits just one family. "The quantity of money you need to build a house is so high and the quantity of votes that you get from it is low."
But now, with a new presidential election approaching, the Chavez government seems to be focusing on housing at last. At an outdoor plaza in Caracas, people can register for what's called "The Great Housing Mission." The government program aims to provide low-cost housing and easy home loans. Plans call for building 350,000 homes ahead of next year's vote.
"The flood refugees, the homeless and the squatters are top priorities," said the program's Dilumar Rodriguez.
Venezuelans have heard such promises before. Five years ago, Chavez pledged to construct 75,000 new houses for Caracas. Fewer than 3,000 have been built. Those numbers feed the suspicion that the new housing program is nothing but campaign trickery.
Though Chavez is being treated for cancer, he intends to run for re-election next year. Even if the housing program proves to be a bust, Leon said that people expecting a house from Chavez are unlikely to vote for the opposition.
"He's blackmailing people with that," said Leon. "He's trying to say, if you vote for me, somebody is going to build a house and this house is going to be yours. But if I am not going to be the president, the other guy is not going to do anything for you."
For one Caracas resident, the program does indeed seem like his only chance to become a homeowner. John Checa, is a tailor who earns $1,000 a month and has been renting a two bedroom apartment for 7 years. He wants to buy it but lacks the $16,000 for the down payment. So he registered with the housing mission for a low-cost government loan.
"A lot of people are going to benefit from this housing program," he said. "I just hope I'm one of them."