CARACAS (Reuters) - The hillside slum of “Las Mayas” provides both great vistas of Caracas and an ideal view of a housing crisis shaping into a major battleground for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s re-election bid.
Along one side of the once-forested slopes, shacks of corrugated iron, wood and mud cling precariously to land that erodes a little bit further whenever it rains.
Every few days, a house collapses or land slips away.
At the bottom of the valley lies a possible solution: rows of neat red-brick apartments that are part of Chavez’s vision of new “Socialist Cities”, designed to end the South American nation’s housing shortage while promoting communal living.
“The biggest problem in Venezuela right now is houses,” said Marisol Aponte, part of a group of women community leaders sweating their way round Las Mayas’ steep tracks on a recent day to draw up lists of the families most in need of a new home.
“We need to get people out of Las Mayas and into the new housing, but there just isn’t enough for everyone yet.”
Despite being in power for 12 years and bringing plenty of new schools and clinics to poor areas, Chavez has failed to fix Venezuela’s housing shortfall -- currently at 2 million units.
That, say critics, demonstrates the failure of socialism in Venezuela, where the 500,000 new homes built during Chavez’s rule, about two-thirds by the private sector, is no better than the rate of construction under his predecessors.
Stoked by politicians on both sides, and exacerbated by 140,000 refugees from flooding last year, the housing issue has reached boiling point. Barely a day goes by without reports of a collapse in the slums, an “invasion” of private property by the poor, or a protest by “damnificados”, those left homeless by the floods.
Not surprisingly, Chavez has sought to take the initiative with a new “Grand Housing Mission” -- his eighth such construction plan -- aiming to build 2 million new units by 2017 with funds available from higher global oil prices.
“Believe me, I have taken this personally. It’s my problem, Chavez’s problem,” said the flamboyant president, who will run for re-election in a vote due by the end of 2012.
“I will not rest in the quest to solve the drama inherited from the curse of capitalism.”
‘NO MAGIC WAND’
At the heart of Chavez’s plan are “Socialist Cities” like “Cacique Tiuna”, named after a Venezuelan indigenous warrior, at the foot of Las Mayas slum next to Caracas’ race course. Units are sold at subsidized prices on generous loan terms.
Cacique Tiuna houses about 4,000 people recently moved from the slums. Children crowd a smart new school within the complex, while adults take computer, textile and carpentry courses at employment training centers.
Waiting to be moved herself and helping draw up lists of the most needy, mother-of-five Carmen Nunez said the evacuation of Las Mayas is moving slowly but at least in the right direction.
“This is the only government that has done anything for us. The others weren’t interested in the poor,” she said. “We have to be patient. The president does not have a magic wand.”
Elsewhere, though, impatience is palpable.
Some in the slums grumble that militants in the ruling Socialist Party are being favored as new homes are handed out. Others ask how such a huge deficit of housing could have been allowed to accumulate in an oil-rich OPEC member nation.
In a hotch-potch response to last year’s floods, refugees are currently housed in anywhere from private car parks and hotels to government ministries and warehouses.
And there is a Utopian nature to the Socialist Cities. The first one, “Caribia City”, has been slowly and ambitiously rising on top of a mountain outside Caracas since 2007. But nobody yet lives there, and the roads up are unfinished.
To really solve the crisis, the government and private sector would have to work hand-in-hand on a daily basis, analysts say, but the nationalizations and demonization of private business under Chavez have made that look unlikely.
The government is instead increasingly turning to firms from allies like China, Iran or Belarus to help build homes.
In what some see as political genius, Chavez has introduced a list for slum-dwellers or homeless to sign up for new homes in the future. Be it a real sign of political commitment or pre-election fantasy, tens of thousands have signed.
“The launch of the housing mission just before the 2012 election campaign is a strategy by Chavez to insulate himself from the political cost of his inefficiency in this matter,” local political analyst Luis Vicente Leon said.
Additional reporting by Mario Naranjo and Marianna Parraga; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel