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On Chavez's whim, a gold market no more

Few colonial buildings remain in Caracas. Is Chavez changing that or just haphazardly seizing buildings?

La Francia building on Plaza Bolivar, a late art deco building which has acted as a gold market since the 1950s. (Charlie Devereux/GlobalPost)

CARACAS, Venezuela — Standing at the corner of one of Venezuela’s most historic squares, the Francia building always looked a little incongruous among the Spanish colonial mansions.

But for many, this late art deco construction holds fond memories — it housed Caracas’ largest gold market for more than half a century. Many came to buy engagement or wedding rings for their sweethearts, confirmation bracelets for their children or watches or trinkets for themselves.

That was until last week when the edifice caught the eye of President Hugo Chavez as he presented his weekly television show, “Hello President,” from Plaza Bolivar, Caracas’ most famous square.

“And this building?” he asked the local mayor, pointing at La Francia. “It’s a building that has private jewelry businesses,” the mayor replied. “Expropriate it,” ordered the president. Turning to another corner of the square he explained that someone had told him Simon Bolivar, Venezuela’s liberator, had lived there when recently married. “That little house you can see there with two balconies and where there are some businesses — expropriate it!”

“We need to convert this into a great historical center,” Chavez said. “It already is but we need to recover the historical and architectural project in this, the historic heart of Caracas.”

Within two days of the broadcast of his program, the president’s demands had been met and traders had evacuated almost the entire building afraid that their goods would be seized. There had been 91 gold and silver shops over nine floors.

Standing among empty glass counters and chain smoking cigarettes, Gad Abayor — who had owned a small shop selling gold and silver jewelry since 1979 — said he felt the market was as much a part of Caracas’ historical heritage as the building itself.

Gad Abayor with employees in his store at the expropriated La Francia gold market.
(Charlie Devereux/GlobalPost)

“Everyone knew this building,” Abayor said. “Entire boats of tourists came here. All sorts came here because they knew we sell a gram of gold or silver at much lower prices than other shops.”

Abayor, who employed three women who had worked for him for more than 14 years, said he did not know where he would relocate his shop.

But others applaud the government’s actions. At the opposite corner of the square, outside the house where Simon Bolivar is said to have lived, retired policeman Edgar Luis Urdaneta related his passion for 19th-century history.

“That’s what laws are for,” he said, clutching a book of the Complete Works of Bolivar. “Bolivar said, 'If the law authorizes it, nothing is impossible.’”

The government has yet to announce what it plans to do with La Francia, although several projects have been proposed. Jari Nunez, an architect at the city government's conservation office, said two projects would be presented to the president within the next week. Those include converting the ground floor into a cafe and the remaining levels into spaces for artisanal jewelry makers. They hope to begin restoring the building within weeks.