CARACAS Venezuelan soldiers and officials began moving hundreds of families on Tuesday out of a half-built 45-story skyscraper that dominates the Caracas skyline and is thought to be the world's tallest slum.
The mass eviction from the "Tower of David", originally intended to be a bank center but abandoned since 1994 and later home to some 3,000 needy Venezuelans, proceeded peacefully.
"Necessity brought me here, and the tower gave me a good home," said Yuraima Parra, 27, cradling her baby daughter as soldiers loaded her possessions into a truck before dawn.
"I was here for seven years. I'm going to miss it, but it's time to move on."
Residents were going to new homes in the town of Cua, south of Caracas, under the state's Great Housing Mission project - a flagship policy of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez.
Nicknamed after its developer, the financier and horse-breeder David Brillembourg, the Tower of David was viewed by many Caracas residents as a focus for crime gangs and a symbol of property "invasions" encouraged in the Chavez era.
Residents, though, said the building became a refuge from the city's crime-ridden 'barrios' and had turned into something of a model commune.
Inside there was evidence of hyper-organization everywhere: corridors were polished daily; squatters who had first arrived in tents then partitioned spaces into well-kept apartments; work schedules, rules and admonitions plastered the walls.
Life was far from easy, though.
Occasionally, people fell off dangerous ledges. There were no elevators, meaning long daily treks up and down. Makeshift power and water services were a headache.
And Caracas police did not share the view of a model community, raiding several times to look for kidnap victims.
The vistas, however, matched those of the city's swankiest high-rise buildings. "The view was so beautiful," mused caterer Robinson Alarcon, 34, who spent five years on the ninth floor and was leaving with his wife and three children on Tuesday.
"People are excited but sad too. Some don't want to leave Caracas. But this was all discussed and agreed in advance."
President Nicolas Maduro's government has not yet said what it will do with the tower, but one local newspaper reported Chinese banks were buying it to restore to its original purpose.
"The tower does not meet the minimum conditions for safe, dignified living," Ernesto Villegas, minister for the transformation of Caracas, told reporters at the scene, declining to speculate on its future. An initial 160 families, out of a total of more than 1,150, were being moved out this week, he added. The tower has long piqued international interest: an exhibition about it won a prize at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale.
Politically, the tower was a stronghold of "Chavismo," even though opponents saw it as an indictment of the failures of his government to provide adequate housing for the poor.
"This is all thanks to the 'comandante'," said Carlos Francisco, 36, a plastics factory worker loading up his belongings on Tuesday morning. "First, that he let us live here. And now that he built us new homes. May he rest in peace."
Chavez, a hero to the masses in a way his successor Maduro has struggled to replicate, died of cancer last year.
(Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)