CARACAS, Venezuela – President Hugo Chavez said Sunday that he would force privately owned hotels to help shelter tens of thousands of Venezuelans who have left their homes due to floods and mudslides caused by weeks of torrential rains.
"I want the tourism hotels," Chavez said during a visit to the coastal state of Miranda. He said his government would pay for flood victims to remain at the hotels until the rains subside. "We will occupy them under lease."
Chavez also announced that his government would build apartments near Simon Bolivar International Airport, the country's largest and busiest airport, and other residential complexes inside El Avila National Park, a mountainous swath of land separating Caracas from the coast.
He lashed out at the opposition, which has criticized the government's handling of the floods. He said wealthy Venezuelans have done little to help ease the effects of the floods.
"You people from the upper class should have already offered your golf courses to set up tents" for those driven from their homes, he said.
Deadly floods and mudslides prompted authorities to evacuate hundreds more Venezuelans from high-risk regions Sunday and stoked fears that voters would abstain from important elections in 11 cities and two states.
Vice President Elias Jaua said a dam overflowed in western Zulia state, but he called for calm, saying the incident had not caused any deaths and noting that 300 people living in villages below the dam had been evacuated.
"It's not going to have significant consequences," Jaua said.
The floods and mudslides unleashed by more then two weeks of steady rain across much of this South American nation of 28 million have killed at least 34 people and left more than 5,000 Venezuelans homeless. More than 90,000 people have taken refuge at hundreds of shelters, Defense Minister Carlos Mata Figueroa said Sunday.
The government has declared a state of emergency in the capital and three states: Miranda, Vargas and Falcon. Rains also pounded the western states of Zulia, Trujillo, Merida and Tachira on Saturday. Heavy rains have continued even though the country's wet season usually ends in mid-November.
Sumate, a local nongovernmental organization that monitors elections, expressed concern the rains would keep voters away from balloting for governors in two states and mayors in 11 municipalities, including Maracaibo, the South American country's second-largest city.
"This situation will undoubtedly have negative effects regarding the participation of voters," Sumate said in a statement issued Saturday.
On Margarita Island, more than 200 families were evacuated from a town near the San Juan River, which overflowed its banks, said Wolfang Diaz, an official with Venezuela's emergency protection agency. Diaz told the Globovision television channel Sunday that early-morning rains caused mudslides nearby, clogging dikes and prompting the river's water levels to swell.
National Guard troops and federal police planned to evacuate 360 families from the hillside slum of Nueva Tacagua, on the outskirts of Caracas, National Guard commander Luis Mota Dominguez told the state-run AVN news agency.
Chavez foes have charged that the government's response to the floods has been lackluster and say he has failed during his 11-year rule to meet rising demand for low-income housing. Consequently, increasing numbers of poor Venezuelans have been forced to live in ramshackle slums ringing major cities, they say.
"There are no longer any excuses for this unprecedented failure," prominent opposition politician Julio Borges said Sunday.
Floods have also ravaged neighboring Colombia, where 170 have died during the country's rainy season, according to the International Red Cross. "The rains have increased in different areas of Colombia and they will continue until the first days of the coming year," Jorge Ivan Nova, a representative of the Red Cross in Colombia, said recently.
Colombia's government has donated $300,000 to some of the 316,000 families affected by the floods. The U.S. Embassy in Bogota has also pitched in, granting $30,000 to 2,200 families. Colombian officials estimate that more than 10,000 homes have been destroyed during this year's particularly lengthy rainy season.