CARACAS — There is perhaps no better symbol of the depths to which Venezuela has sunk under President Hugo Chávez than Centro Comercial Sambil La Candelaria, a shopping mall in Caracas, the country's teeming capital. In 2008, when he ordered its expropriation, Chávez called the mall a "monster of capitalism." Yelitza Campos, who heads a neighborhood association across the street from the megamall, calls it a "nightmare."
For Marta Navarro, it is simply a roof over her head.
For the past 11 months, Navarro, 23, and her three young children have been living in a small wooden cubicle carved out of one of the mall's aboveground parking levels. One of an estimated 50,000 displaced people in Caracas, Navarro considers herself lucky.
A tour of Venezuela's skyscraper squatter city.
Her living space measures 12 feet by 12 feet and has jury-rigged electrical outlets. She and her family share a large bathroom with hundreds of other refugees on each floor; there is no hot water. Residents hang their clothing along the rails, while Bolivarian National Guard units watch over the entrance, restricting access.
"The government provides us everything we need," Navarro says. "They deliver three meals a day to our cubicle, and they provided beds and furniture when we moved in. My children attend school here, and one of my neighbors even gave birth in a clinic on the parking deck." She sighs and looks around. "I can't complain but it's not home. It just doesn't seem like home."
Navarro isn't alone. Nearly 4,000 other homeless people are crammed into the parking levels of the mall, waiting resettlement in housing the government plans to build in the near future. Many more are arriving since unusually heavy December rains wreaked havoc in the city's hillside slums. Outside the parking levels, the mall is largely unoccupied. Heavy trucks pull up to the building at all hours of the day, using its basement levels to store foodstuffs for a chain of government grocery stores. For the most part, though, the building is empty, its floors littered with dust and empty boxes.
The shopping mall, which sits squarely in a mixed residential-business neighborhood of Caracas, is part of a worsening housing shortage that now confronts Chávez, who took office in 1999. It also symbolizes the battle over the future of private property in the country.
Venezuela, a country of about 28 million people, faces a housing deficit of about 2 million units, analysts say. With an average of four people per home, that means about 8 million people are homeless, living in shelters or with relatives or friends, or stuck in unsafe housing.
"The government needs to build 100,000 units a year to keep the [housing] deficit stable," says Carlos Genatios, an engineer and professor at the Central University of Venezuela who also once served as a minister in Chávez's cabinet. "Instead, the government built on average about 28,000 units each year from 1999 through 2010. The deficit has actually grown by about a million since Chávez took office."
The shopping mall is just the latest flashpoint of the country's housing crisis.
Surrounded by tall apartment buildings, the mall was weeks away from opening when Chávez abruptly ordered its expropriation, even though the project had been approved by two of his closest allies. It had been expected to create 4,000 jobs and boost tax revenue for the city.
Since its seizure, the government has promised to convert the building into a university, hospital, or government-services building. That all changed last year when heavy rains left thousands homeless in the greater Caracas area: Refugees were ordered to the building, where makeshift shelters were built in the mall's parking garage.
"That is when the problems began," says Campos, the neighborhood activist. "The mall was supposed to improve the neighborhood, create jobs, and make this a better place to live. Now, crime has soared. Traffic and noise have become unsupportable as the government decided to use part of the mall as a warehouse for food. Trucks come and unload at all hours of the night, making it difficult to sleep."