Spring 2015 Article

More People More Slum: Venezuela's Struggle with Urbanization

By Charmaine Shuford
Photo credit: ©Iwan Baan 1996-2010

The tallest building in Caracas, Venezuela was intended to be one of the most beautiful, well designed, and elaborate structures in the city. It would have glistened at night with such marvel that people would have stopped and stared in amazement. However, it is not the tallest, most elaborate and stunning skyscraper in Caracas, but instead is currently the tallest vertical slum in the world (Silva 2014). The 45-story, half-finished building, known as the Tower of David, was initially planned to be a banking center. Construction on the structure began in 1990, but it was halted in 1994 because of the banking crisis and the death the building’s founder and main investor, J. David Brillembourg. The government immediately took control of the building after Brillembourg’s death, but did not continue construction. The structure stood vacant for more than a decade, and in 2007 squatters began to move in due to the massive shortage of housing. The 300 families now living in the Tower of David once lived in squatter settlements on the ground, but due to the heavy rainfall that occurs and the lack of substantial infrastructure, they were forced to relocate to this vertical slum. Since then, the roughly 2,500 squatters have developed a community with a convenience store as well as a beauty shop and a gym. Recently, the government has begun to take action and move the families into new homes following the realization of the hazardous conditions of the building. However, many question why the government has now decided that housing should be a priority after so many years of failure to address the problem.

The Tower of David is a harsh reality of what people do when they are faced with no other option for housing. This article will examine the historical and social aspects of urbanization and how they contribute to what is now, finally, being called a “housing crisis” in Caracas.(Romero 2011) It will then analyze the ways in which the government is taking action to combat the housing shortage. From this, this paper will assess if the government has properly allocated public spending funds to the renovation and completion of previous infrastructure projects, such as the Tower of David, which would assist in combating Caracas’ housing problem with “overurbanization.”

Perez Jimenez’s Infrastructure Project

In the 1950s and 1960s, Caracas was viewed as one of Latin America’s most modern cities (Otis, 2011). A surge in economic growth due to the Venezuelan oil boom, as well as a severe decline in the farming economy, created an increase in urbanization in the city. Urbanization is defined as “the shift from a rural to an urban society, [which] occurs as a result of a number of complex and intersecting dynamics which include, but are not limited to: economic restructuring, environmental degradation, political policies, religious or ethnic conflict, poverty, and food scarcity” (Bartlett, Garcia, and Saah 2012). This idea of urbanization caused a severe strain on the city due to the sudden high demand for housing. It would soon be necessary to provide proper living arrangements for everyone moving to Caracas; this would lead the city to its first urban housing structures. However, these housing structures, initially meant for the working and middle class, were not enough to satisfy the expanding population of the working poor.

On December 2, 1955, President Pérez Jiménez vowed to start his first major housing project to combat the shortage. This housing project would be a monumental move for Venezuela, improving  the poor conditions that the lower class citizens were subjected to. The plan was to build “consolidated superblocks,” 15-storey structures containing 300-450 apartments each. This architectural plan was designed to “deliver the opposite [perception] of [a] ‘slum’: to sort everyone out on top of each other into discrete apartments, lifting them up from an unencumbered ground plane into fresh air [and] with virtual space all around” (Byard, Klein 2005). As a result, this would allow room for structures to be built, which would allow more housing opportunities. The project would not be completed and ready for occupation until January 23, 1958 and as a result, it adopted the name 23 de Enero (23 of January), and it "represented a strong political statement during a time in which only 5% of the population received 50% of the national income, an effort on an enormous scale to do something for the rural poor who were moving by the millions into the city” (Byard, Klein 2005). By 1960, Venezuela had invested more than $7 million in public housing, dwarfing previous sums. It would become one of the first Latin American countries to invest such a substantial amount in housing for the poor. However, in the end, 23 de Enero would end up with one of the worst slums in the region.

Chavez’s Move to Resolve the Housing Crisis

Construction on housing projects began to decrease in the 1980s and 1990s despite the rapid influx of people migrating to the city. As private companies attempted to keep up with the increasing housing needs, construction became increasingly difficult since most of the land was found to be inadequate for building. The lack of access to water, sewage, and telecommunications added to the struggle of rapid population growth. During the presidential election of 1998, Hugo Chavez vowed to create many reforms that would benefit the lower class citizens; he was very popular after attempting to lead a coup d’état against the previous government. His main concern when he arrived in office was that the government needed to do more for the people. He focused on social and land reforms, health, education, and job opportunities to increase the well-being of the population. During his presidency, Chavez portrayed the characteristics of “Caesarism”, which theorist Antonio Gramsci describes as, “instilling trust from the people due to the charisma of the leader, despite the leader’s decisions” (1972). The charisma that Chavez possessed allowed many of his supporters to disregard Chavez’s failure to focus on housing; in fact, as political analyst Luis Vicente Leon explained, “[a]ffordable housing has never been a top priority for Chavez despite his power-to-the people rhetoric” (Otis 2011). According to former Chief Economist of the Venezuelan National Assembly from 2000 to 2004, Francisco Rodriguez,

“The average share of budget devoted to […] housing under Chavez in his eight years in office was 25.12%, essentially identical to the average share (25.08%) in the previous eight years. And it is lower today than it was in 1992, the last year in office of the “neoliberal” administration of Carlos Andres Perez –the leader whom Chavez, then a lieutenant colonel in the Venezuelan army, tried to overthrow in a coup, purportedly on behalf of Venezuela’s neglected poor majority.” (Rodríguez  2008)

Public spending had been allocated to other areas that improved the lives of many, but little had been done to provide housing for them. It got to a point where, according to economist Luis Pedro España, “seven out of ten new houses in Venezuela are built by individual families” (Rodríguez  2008). Unfortunately, as urbanization continues to increase, limited space is left for many of these families. As a result, they are beginning to build on top of one another, ineffectively mirroring Pérez Jiménez’s early idea of “consolidated superblocks”. In Planet of the Slums, a novel by historian Mike Davis, he describes these conditions as a slum, complete with characteristic “overcrowding, poor or informal housing, inadequate access to safe water and sanitation and insecurity of tenure” (Davis 2006). Under Chavez, an average of 40,000 housing units a year were constructed to combat this problem; however, other statistics say that this number was closer to 24,000 per year (Carroll 2011). This estimate reveals the staggering averages of those continuing to live in a community slum. For example, the Petare slum community in Caracas contains an average of 600,000 to one million people, which is about one-third of the population for the entire city of Caracas, at about 2.104 million (Badkar 2011).

In 2011, Chavez passed a land reform that gave squatters the opportunity to occupy and settle any unused land. This caused a major uproar from most of the middle and upper class because this also meant that squatters would begin reconstructing community slums. At the time, many families were being displaced from the slums due to heavy rainfall, leaving many homeless. Chavez, enthusiastically promised, “over 3 million [new] homes by 2019 to close the country’s housing deficit, measured at 3.7 million families requiring new or improved housing in a 2011 national survey” (Robertson 2014). While this project could have proven beneficial to the people of Caracas, the record shows that there is still a large number of people living in extreme poverty without adequate housing. Although more housing has become available, there are more people flooding into the city and they all cannot be accommodated.

The Reality of ‘Overurbanization”

Urban population growth in spite of stagnant or negative urban economic growth is what some researchers have labeled as ‘overurbanization’ (Next Left Review 2004).  Mike Davis argues that overurbanization is “driven by the reproduction of poverty, not by the supply of jobs” (Davis 2006).  The poor living conditions of Caracas have resulted in the city being classified as ‘overurbanized’. In these housing settlements, running water and proper sanitation services are virtually impossible to find. As more people move into the city by the day, these conditions only grow worse. The housing crisis is also increasing crime throughout the community, because these housing structures are more susceptible to break-ins and robberies due to the ill-constructed windowpanes and doorways. The recent promise that the late Chavez made to provide housing has placed a lot of pressure on succeeding president Nicolás Maduro’s administration; it has left many families anxiously awaiting a dream that many of them may not live to see. One citizen was quoted as saying, "I trust Chavez will get us into an apartment. I just don't know when that could occur, and waiting so long is becoming more and more difficult" (Toothaker 2011). Even with Chavez's death, the dreams of the poor only intensify.

Many will continue to wait, even if they are a rain storm away from being homeless. On May 6, 2014, Maduro and the Venezuelan government announced that they would implement a plan to use old cars, bicycles and motorcycles as scrap metal for the construction of new homes. Maduro is very similar to Chavez: he was a former trade union bus driver and was appointed a number of positions under Chavez, most recently Prime Minister. After Chavez’s death in 2013, Maduro vowed to uphold the social reform movements that Chavez had implemented during his term. However, there was once again a failure to look at the infrastructure problem as a whole.

There are many buildings and structures that have been left standing as incomplete projects. These can be used for housing if remodeled and renovated, such as the Tower of David. This would help address the shortage of steel, as most of the steel is already in place in the unfinished buildings. The squatter situation has made it hard to begin construction since it would displace many, but if the Maduro administration follows President Perez Jimenez’s idea of “building upward”, they would displace fewer people and move more people into sustainable housing more quickly. This would eventually result in more available land on which to build additional housing.

Although Maduro is finally placing the necessary attention on the housing shortage, there is still a need for the proper reallocation of public spending. Maduro and his administration are looking to “widen” the social program reforms such as public housing construction, social welfare payments, employment and cultural programs (Robertson 2014). This means that more money would go towards the improvement of these areas. However, it is necessary that special attention be placed on housing considering it is the one area that has had the least improvement over the years.

Conclusion

Urbanization, in the case of Caracas, has served the opposite purpose of what was intended. Historically, urbanization was meant to bring not only more jobs into the city, but was also a sense of pride. The city of Caracas has felt everything but pride: its housing crisis continues to be one of the worst in the world. In order for Caracas to rise to the great heights it was built for, the government must effectively plan to use funds for public housing before it becomes impossible to fix. The Tower of David can stand as a symbol of pride for Caracas if it is repaired, finished, and reconstructed into adequate living quarters for families instead of the banking center that the city is still, in theory, attempting to construct. This is a building that is known globally as the world’s tallest slum, but it could prove to all overurbanized cities that a government can hear the cries of its people. The government is made for the people, and essentially, it should give the people what they need.

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