Maria Valera spends her days at the Caracas horse racing track watching after her grandchildren. (Juan Forero/THE WASHINGTON POST)

The chestnut-colored 3-year-olds still take the turns hard and fast on the dirt track at La Rinconada, the once-elegant racing park inaugurated in 1959 as Venezuela began its oil-fueled heyday.

But these days, dozens of homeless families live under the vast concrete grandstands, moved there by President Hugo Chavez’s government into cramped cubicles to alleviate a critical housing shortage. Water service is spotty, foul-smelling bathrooms overflow with sewage and gangs of young thieves steal what little residents have.

“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.

“Does one pull homes out of one’s sleeve?” Chavez said.

“These are counter-revolutionary actions,” he added, referring to the demonstrators. “They act like enemies of the government.”

In more guarded moments, though, the government and its maximum leader offer rosy forecasts and issue impressive statistics. There are programs such as the “Grand Housing Mission,” designed to build tens of thousands of new units, and “My Well-Equipped Home,” in which the government provides free or low-priced Chinese furnishings being imported at a cost of $1 billion.

Some 200,000 homes will be completed this year, Chavez claimed. Looking ahead to his reelection to another six-year term, he predicted an end to the housing crisis by 2019. “There should not be one Venezuelan family that does not have a dignified, good and pretty home,” Chavez said.

To be sure, with the government’s oil-funded money machine in high gear, construction is taking place. One collection of new apartment blocks is going up on a hillside overlooking La Rinconada, winning several hundred supporters ahead of the October election.

“The one I am going to thank is the president of the republic,” said Hilda Rivero, 62, who lives in a new government apartment after having been moved from slum housing, known here as ranchos. “I had a rancho and my president took me out of there and gave me a dignified home.”

‘No one responds to us’

It is difficult, though, to ignore the grim realities of a city that in the 1970s was the continent’s most modern but has become its most violent and, in some ways, anarchic.

Vast slums cover hillsides while towering housing projects have the feel of some tropical version of the brutal futuristic city in “Blade Runner.”

Hundreds of families have for years occupied one uncompleted 45-story tower, even though many of the floors lack elevator service, running water or even walls and windows to protect children from tumbling to the streets below. A block away is a vast half-built shopping mall, the expropriation of which Chavez announced in a national address and which now houses hundreds of other families.

The hallways of the tower are dark and forbidding, but “you get used to it,” said Franci Coronado, 19, her two small children wriggling playfully at her side.

Across town at the horse racing track, several residents reeled off the downside of life there: the killing of a young man thrown from a grandstand, the harrowing birth of a baby in a cubicle separated by dry wall from other living spaces, old shower stalls covered in feces.

Residents said that they are on government waiting lists for housing, and asked that their full names not be used for fear that they would be punished for talking to a reporter.

“It is terrible,” said one 30-something man named Pedro, who is raising a family here. “There is no safety; the food is sometimes terrible; and no one responds to us.”

Some, like Maria Valera, went out of their way to avoid criticizing the president, saying she believed other officials were to blame.

“There has been no president like this president,” she said. “This one has helped poor people a lot, the people who do not have the way of getting a home, who have no way to buy an apartment.”