Thousands awaiting homes pose challenge for Chavez

The Associated Press
Monday, February 28, 2011; 12:00 AM

CARACAS, Venezuela -- In a warehouse converted into a disaster shelter, hundreds of people are living out of backpacks and duffel bags while they wait for President Hugo Chavez to come through on his promises of new homes.

They are among tens of thousands of Venezuelans driven from their homes by torrential rains and landslides that destroyed some of Caracas' hillside slums more than two months ago. Sharing a bottom bunk bed with her 6-year-old daughter is starting to wear on 33-year-old Rosario Cerrada.

"We don't really know how long we're going to be here. I have no idea. Some people say 18 months, others say 16 months," Cerrada said, keeping watch over a 3-month-old daughter sleeping in a crib. "It's really very uncomfortable waiting so long to get out of here."

The floods and mudslides of November and December exacerbated Venezuela's already severe shortage of affordable housing. Chavez, who is criticized by opponents for failing to address the issue during 12 years in power, is now trying to turn a monumental challenge into a political opportunity - promising to accelerate construction projects and finish 150,000 new homes this year.

His success or failure is likely to affect support for his 2012 re-election bid. His new focus on housing is also allowing Chavez to return to one of his time-tested political strategies: creating expectations among the poor to energize his base, just as problems from 28-percent inflation to violent crime have been taking a toll on his popularity.

Dozens of shelters in Caracas have been hurriedly set up in an abandoned downtown high-rise, a former auto dealership, government office buildings and a newly-built shopping mall that was expropriated by the government before it opened for business. In a symbolic gesture, Chavez opened up some areas of his presidential palace for disaster victims. He has also promised that if re-elected, he will build 2 million homes in the next six years.

"You can rest assured that we will achieve the goal of giving a decent home to every Venezuelan family," Chavez said in a televised speech earlier this month.

Chavez has his work cut out for him.

The Venezuelan Construction Chamber calculates that the housing deficit - based on a growing population and available housing - has grown from 1.1 million homes to 2 million homes during Chavez's presidency. According to a tally by the chamber, Chavez's government built about 284,000 homes between 1999 and 2010 - down sharply from 490,000 homes constructed by governments from 1989-98.

"By not being in the hands of anyone with experience in building homes, housing construction has declined to the lowest levels of any government," said Sebastian Paz Codecido, a civil engineer and Chavez critic.

Chavez, meanwhile, has taken to visiting housing construction sites during his hours-long speeches. He has enlisted the help of companies from Russia, China, Belarus, Iran and Portugal to build apartment complexes, and has promised to erect a "great city" of civilian homes inside the Fort Tiuna military base. On hilltops between Caracas and the Caribbean Sea, construction has already begun on the first of 20,000 homes that are to make up a development called Caribia Socialist City.

Many of those taking refuge at one government-run community center expressed optimism that their situation will be temporary.

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© 2011 The Associated Press