“God takes care of us,” explained Maria Valera, 61, saying that the weekend races she sees for free are the saving grace of living at the track.
For those trying to survive here — indeed, for thousands more in similar conditions across Venezuela’s capital — it is just another symbol of the city’s long slide into squalor, decay and fear. And that is a serious problem for a leftist populist government that is frantically trying to build housing ahead of an October presidential election in which Chavez will be challenged by a young, energetic opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles.
Even among the destitute masses in this country — for 13 years the backbone for Chavez’s so-called people’s revolution — there is a tinge of despair that El Comandante has been unable to deliver on a long-held promise: housing.
Just 200 yards from where thoroughbreds rumble, Valera said she is opting to wait for Chavez to provide her with a new home. But she and her family — she says there are about 50 of them here, counting extended relatives — have been waiting for more than 14 months, leaving some in despair.
“We are waiting for him to resolve things because we know he will give to us,” Valera said, as her grandchildren squealed and ran along darkened corridors. “He said that all of us who are here would go to our own apartment.”
It is an often-heard refrain across Caracas, a city of about 5 million. Tens of thousands of people such as Valera were made homeless by torrential rains in 2010 that flooded the slap-dash neighborhoods where they lived. Those homeless families left harried government officials with little alternative than to move them into shelters, abandoned buildings, love motels and even tents near the presidential palace.
Shortage of materials
Venezuela already faced a housing shortage of 2 million units, the government’s own statistics show, with the state only managing to build a third of the 100,000 new units needed each year.
Julio Borges, an opposition deputy in the National Assembly who frequently clashes with Chavez on housing issues, said governments that preceded Chavez’s built more housing. “And we think it is the government’s own policies that are contributing to this problem.”
Indeed, Chavez’s government has nationalized the country’s steel and cement industries, leading to shortages in building materials, while seeking construction know-how from allies such as Cuba that have a spotty record in alleviating housing shortages. The president’s frustration was plainly evident as he spoke on national television last week after a group of homeless families took to the streets to demand government action.