Venezuela's socialist cities

CARACAS, Venezuela — Just last year Sudeibi Salazar lived with her husband and son in a rat-infested shack. Today her home is a three-bedroom apartment in a gleaming white block a few miles up the road.

"When it rained everything got wet and the rats came in," she said describing her former home. "This is a total change."

Today, Salazar, who will pay less than $9,000 for her apartment in monthly installments over the next 36 years, can leave her son at the community creche while she goes to study nearby. She can shop at the complex's subsidized food market, surf the internet for free on one of eight computers at a government-sponsored cyber cafe and even buy a cheap school uniform for her son from the textile factory run by women from her community.

On the eastern outskirts of Caracas, Ciudad Mariche is a "socialist city," a flagship project that is designed to solve not only Venezuela's chronic housing shortage but also provide long-term solutions to poverty and crime.

But like many of leftist President Hugo Chavez's policies, these new housing estates also court controversy. Critics say they are blinkered solutions to the country's housing crisis and that they may also be a surreptitious way of invading the right to private property.

"A socialist city is a space with socio-productive projects that allow the population to form self-sustainable development along with good housing," said Luis Chalo, a law professor who is campaigning to become a delegate for Chavez's United Socialist Parties of Venezuela in upcoming legislative elections.

The government is rolling out 55 such projects across the country in a bid to kick-start domestic productivity amid a flailing economy. It also hopes to buck a decades-long trend of urbanization in Venezuela by persuading people to leave the cities' barrios and return to the countryside.

At Ciudad Mariche there are plans to build a plastic factory employing community members. "The idea is to have everything here so that we will not have to rely on the outside world," said Salazar as she surveyed rows of concrete beds where the community plans to cultivate vegetables. She said they hope to grow enough to feed themselves and perhaps sell on to neighboring communities.

But not many have been as lucky as Salazar. In fact, self-sufficiency is something Venezuela's poor have become accustomed to over the years, especially when it comes to housing.

There is currently a deficit of 2.5 million houses in Venezuela, which has a population of 28 million. Last year, the government constructed 83,000 new homes, which would mean it would take it 30 years to satisfy current demand.

Socialist cities such as Ciudad Mariche might appear as shining beacons but they still represent a decades-old approach to solving the housing problem, said Ignacio Marcano of the Central University of Venezuela's People's Cities Center.

Marcano argues that Venezuela's housing shortage is so acute that it is useless to try to solve it through constructing new houses. Instead, he proposes adding some order to the chaos of the barrios that grow spontaneously wherever people can find land to build their own homes.

"Venezuelans are innate builders," he said, pointing out that more houses have been built by ordinary people than by either the state or private industry. "We would save time by looking at how people build houses in the barrios. There's labor there, there are materials. What's missing is a mastermind in urban planning to organize the city."

Last year the government began applying some of Marcano's theories when it launched a program to renovate Caracas' barrios. Barrio Nuevo-Barrio Tricolor's aims to provide equipment and material to local communities so that they can regenerate their own neighborhoods, said Diosdado Cabello, Minister for Public Works and Housing. "We are going to convert Caracas in a multi-colored city, to recuperate spaces through integrated work between the state and the community," he told state TV.

Critics of the government's housing plans are also concerned that the government has ruled that new properties such as those at Ciudad Mariche have been deigned "communal property" and cannot be sold on or rented out.

Julio Borges, of Justice First, a party opposed to Chavez, said denying people the right to sell their homes to whomever they wished was the first step in what he sees as a "Cubanization" of Venezuela property laws.

A new law passed last year further strengthened the state's powers to seize land in urban areas that it deems unproductive, raising fears among some that the government plans to abolish by stealth Venezuelans' right to private property.

"Our families who live in the barrios are not being given title deeds so that they can be owners of their land," he said. "They are simply labelled 'occupants'. It converts the government in the owner of everything and the people in owners of nothing."

But that did not seem to matter to Cristina Ardila who was handed the keys to her apartment in Ciudad Mariche a few months ago. "When I've finished paying it off I'm going to have my papers. The apartment will be mine," she said, adding that at least she would be able to sell it back to the government if she wanted to move.