CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuelan soldiers took charge at several privately owned hotels Monday to help accommodate some of the thousands of people who have been forced from their homes by flooding and mudslides following weeks of torrential rains.
The occupation — which went unprotested by the hotel owners — appeared to be a show of force as criticism of President Hugo Chavez' handling of the disaster has grown. The state-run AVN news agency quoted National Guard Cmdr. Luis Alfredo Motta as saying the hotel owners were willingly collaborating with the military.
"We are always open to helping, but within a cordial relationship in which the rules are clear," Ricardo Cusanno, vice president of the National Federation of Hotels, told the local Globovision television channel.
Cusanno said 19 hotels located throughout Venezuela's capital have already have opened their doors to people driven from their homes.
Soldiers are helping organize shelter for displaced people at three tourism hotels in the coastal town of Higuerote — one of the communities hit hardest by the floods. Motta said authorities were also holding talks with the owners of eight other hotels in the state of Miranda to determine if they would join the initiative.
More than two weeks of constant rains across this South American nation of 28 million have caused flooding and mudslides that have killed at least 34 people and left more than 5,000 Venezuelans homeless. More than 100,000 people have taken refuge at hundreds of shelters, Defense Minister Carlos Mata Figueroa said Monday.
Chavez also declared a "state of emergency" in the states of Zulia, Merida, Nueva Esparta and Trujillo on Monday. He said his government would open some of the country's military barracks and other public institutions to Venezuelans driven from their homes.
The government has declared a state of emergency in the capital and three states: Miranda, Vargas and Falcon.
Rains pounded the western states bordering Colombia over the weekend. The country's wet season usually ends in mid-November.
Chavez foes have argued that the government's response has been inadequate and say Chavez has failed during his 11-year rule to meet rising demand for low-income housing. Growing numbers of poor Venezuelans have resorted to building in slums that skirt the major cities, they say.