The following is a journal entry I wrote after visiting an occupied housing development outside of Barquisimeto on February 17th, 2011. This particular occupation is one of about 60 in the Barquisimeto area.
Last Thursday we got the opportunity to visit a land invasion in a wealthy area of Barquisimeto. The urban and rural land reform movements in Venezuela have been in progress since long before Chavez took power, but constitutional and legal changes since his presidency has given greater legitimacy to this movement’s aims. A typical tactic of the land reform movement are land expropriations, or invasions, in which a previously unused building or piece of land is occupied by a group of people in order to build homes or use it for agricultural production. This particular occupation had been in progress since January of 2010. On the drive there our contact in the community, David, explained a bit about its history and how the process was going so far. David lives in the community and was one of its original organizers many years ago. He said that the process for “invasions” (a word used to describe these communities that is much resented by their members) such as this one goes as follows: First the inhabitants must find an unused piece of land and figure out who owns it as well as how long and why it’s been abandoned. Next when a suitable location has been found it must be occupied and defended until the community can be recognized by the government. This process is not easy. On the occupier’ side, they must prove they have the intent to form an organized, participatory community. If they can do this, the government will go into negotiations with the absentee land owner, pay they the market value for the land and turn over the deed(s) to its new inhabitants.
This community in particular astounded me with how diligently and tactfully it was going through this process. It began with about 24 families, some houseless, organizing through a preexisting comuna in the la caruce barrio. After a period of searching and investigating land all over Barquisimeto they settled on a 7 story luxury apartment building on the outskirts of the east side of town. This building had been nearly completed before it was abandoned about 14 years ago, likely due to nervous speculators backing out after the election of Hugo Chavez in that same year.
When the original organizers moved in to the apartment building they began to open up to new families who wanted to join the occupation. The land below the apartment building was being developed for houses, and already contained paved roads, sidewalks, water/sewage mains, and a connection to the electrical grid. (There is also a massive model home on the property that is currently being occupied by the architect that was contracted to construct this development and was never paid. He moved into the model home to compensate himself.) The new families accepted into the community began building ranchos (the makeshift homes that can be seen all over Venezuela) along the paved roads. Out of work engineers that live in the community have hooked up water, sewage and electricity to all 200 plus of these homes.
The community has since grown to over 300 families, accepting new members constantly on the basis of a background check, personal references and their intention to be an active contributing member of the community. This background check involves a check into the judicial records, and allows exceptions for certain crimes on a case to case basis, with the understanding that the same need that pushed them to occupy this land, also pushes people to do illegal things at times. With 300 plus families they have also reached the minimum amount to form a community council, the participatory, actually useful equivalent of a neighborhood association. They are now in the process of gaining recognition from the government. During this process the community must demonstrate its organization to the government, take measures to defend itself from outside threats and keep the community itself from drifting apart during this time of uncertainty.
The development that the occupation now rests on was originally to be a gated community. Upon entering, one passes through a gate with a large Venezuelan flag affixed to it, and a guard booth with 5 or so community members and a couple of dogs standing by at all times. The folks at the gate were friendly and welcoming despite the militant visage of the guard post. The outpost was more like a couple of neighbors sitting in lawn chairs chatting and listening to music than an armed guard. The irony of this community utilizing the structures that were intended for the exclusion of people such as themselves was hard to miss. Irony aside though, the danger of violent repression is very real. In similar occupations in rural areas hundreds of organizers have been assassinated by the hired guns of wealthy landowners in the past few years. Despite this, the repression this community has faced has largely been in the legal, bureaucratic and political realm.
As we got near the occupied land on our drive over we entered a part of the city I had never seen before. Until now I had thought that the working class and industrial areas of Barquisimeto that I had seen constituted almost the entire city. I was wrong. After driving through the city center we ended up in a part of town so starkly in contrast with the rest of Barquisimeto that it looked more like a ritzy silicon valley suburb than anything else. Directly before we made the turn for the occupation we saw a ticky tacky housing development called “Urbanization Hollywood”. Directly bordering the occupied land was a 12 foot concrete wall, shielding a sea of uninhabited swanky townhomes from the budding rancho community above. We learned that the owners of this neighboring property and their fear of what these new neighbors might do to their property value were these families’ main opponents in securing their homes.
These property developers had been bargaining with the local government to remove the occupiers from their land since the invasion’s inception. Meanwhile it appears they are keeping 100’s of homes unoccupied in order to secure higher prices once the riff-raff has been dispersed of. This battle between human need and market *logic* is a central paradox of capitalism that can be seen just about anywhere its tentacles may reach. Take for example the visceral reaction many neighborhood and business associations in the US have to the construction of a drug rehabilitation center or public housing project in their area due to these same possible effects on property value. The difference here however is that due to a strongly organized grassroots struggle, and a constitution that values housing as a human right with precedence over the needs of capital, the tide is turned in the direction of those with need instead of privilege.
The success of this occupation and the vast majority of social movements in Venezuela should not be mistaken to be a product of the revolutionary government. Rather, it is the participants’ dedication and use of their new constitutional rights as a tool to meet their needs. In the case of this land occupation there is a very logical synthesis of using the government structures when necessary, and bypassing them when cumbersome.
For example, the constitution’s values of human rights over private property rights have allowed this occupation to exist without being destroyed by the police as it undoubtedly would have been in the states. However, aside from not taking an active role in destroying it, the government has not done anything to build it.
When the gated community where the occupation now sits was being built, the city put in water and sewer mains, but as there were no houses they sat untapped. Instead of waiting for government approval of the occupation, which could take years, the engineers in the community have tapped in to the mains and routed them to all of the houses in the occupation. The same has been done with electricity, and streetlights are currently being installed.
In the case of the newest sector of the occupied neighborhood, the area that runs up against the massive cement wall bordering the townhomes, the city sewage mains are inaccessible. Instead the engineers have dug a hole that allows them to access the townhomes’ sewage system, and in no time their shit will flow through it free of cost. Imagery like this is hard to miss at the occupation; previously houseless families now living in 5 bedroom luxury high rises, the model home McMansion surrounded by 100s of concrete and metal ranchos, and vinyl from right wing political billboards being used as tarps and temporary walls. As we stood on the roof of the apartment building and overlooked the entire scene: the ranchos, the wall, the townhomes, the wealthy part of town and the city center with the endless industrial and residential areas as a backdrop David said that he has never seen a more blatant view of the class war than this. It was hard not to agree.