CARACAS, Venezuela – In a warehouse converted into a disaster shelter, hundreds of people are living out of backpacks and duffel bags while they wait for President Hugo Chavez to come through on his promises of new homes.
They are among tens of thousands of Venezuelans driven from their homes by torrential rains and landslides that destroyed some of Caracas' hillside slums more than two months ago. Sharing a bottom bunk bed with her 6-year-old daughter is starting to wear on 33-year-old Rosario Cerrada.
"We don't really know how long we're going to be here. I have no idea. Some people say 18 months, others say 16 months," Cerrada said, keeping watch over a 3-month-old daughter sleeping in a crib. "It's really very uncomfortable waiting so long to get out of here."
The floods and mudslides of November and December exacerbated Venezuela's already severe shortage of affordable housing. Chavez, who is criticized by opponents for failing to address the issue during 12 years in power, is now trying to turn a monumental challenge into a political opportunity — promising to accelerate construction projects and finish 150,000 new homes this year.
His success or failure is likely to affect support for his 2012 re-election bid. His new focus on housing is also allowing Chavez to return to one of his time-tested political strategies: creating expectations among the poor to energize his base, just as problems from 28-percent inflation to violent crime have been taking a toll on his popularity.
Dozens of shelters in Caracas have been hurriedly set up in an abandoned downtown high-rise, a former auto dealership, government office buildings and a newly-built shopping mall that was expropriated by the government before it opened for business. In a symbolic gesture, Chavez opened up some areas of his presidential palace for disaster victims. He has also promised that if re-elected, he will build 2 million homes in the next six years.
"You can rest assured that we will achieve the goal of giving a decent home to every Venezuelan family," Chavez said in a televised speech earlier this month.
Chavez has his work cut out for him.
The Venezuelan Construction Chamber calculates that the housing deficit — based on a growing population and available housing — has grown from 1.1 million homes to 2 million homes during Chavez's presidency. According to a tally by the chamber, Chavez's government built about 284,000 homes between 1999 and 2010 — down sharply from 490,000 homes constructed by governments from 1989-98.
"By not being in the hands of anyone with experience in building homes, housing construction has declined to the lowest levels of any government," said Sebastian Paz Codecido, a civil engineer and Chavez critic.
Chavez, meanwhile, has taken to visiting housing construction sites during his hours-long speeches. He has enlisted the help of companies from Russia, China, Belarus, Iran and Portugal to build apartment complexes, and has promised to erect a "great city" of civilian homes inside the Fort Tiuna military base. On hilltops between Caracas and the Caribbean Sea, construction has already begun on the first of 20,000 homes that are to make up a development called Caribia Socialist City.
Many of those taking refuge at one government-run community center expressed optimism that their situation will be temporary.
"I'm sure we're going to have our home soon," said Gregoria Graterol, a 56-year-old hospital elevator operator who is staying with her two daughters and three grandchildren in a room with 16 other families.
She is among more than 3,000 evacuees living in dormitories, warehouses and a technical school at the center. Signs of Chavez's socialist leanings are visible everywhere, in slogans such as "Against Imperialism" emblazoned on walls, along with images of Chavez, Fidel Castro and Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara.
The temporary residents have marked each family's territory with signs on bunk beds such as "Familia Salazar." Many in this shelter said they were being treated well, with free meals and a wide variety of activities offered by the state oil company, including acrobatics classes for teenagers and candle-making workshops for adults.
"We feel at home," said Carolina Bance, a 16-year-old who was practicing acrobatics.
Elsewhere, some Venezuelans who are waiting for housing have protested to demand better conditions in government-run shelters — including one group that tried to block a highway in the suburb of Guarenas last month. In footage shown on Venezuelan television, several protesters were struck by a passing vehicles, and others ran into the road screaming to help the injured.
In Caracas, officials say they have been improving conditions in shelters by installing petroleum-based plastic partitions to give families more privacy. Soldiers turned away AP reporters from some of those shelters, saying military approval was required.
Caracas' housing problems go back decades. A chronic lack of planning contributed to urban sprawl as the poorly-built shantytowns spread over the years on steep, unstable hillsides. Their bare brick-and-cement "ranchos" have often come crashing down in landslides ever since.
"The hills are collapsing due to super-population," Chavez said recently, suggesting some housing projects must be built outside the city. "There are too many people in Caracas."
In the barrios, extended families of 10 people or more live crammed into a few rooms, and rents have been rapidly climbing.
Squatters have increasingly invaded and claimed abandoned buildings in recent years. Marwin Claro, 36, has been living in a once-vacant building owned by a bank in Caracas since she and other squatters broke in at 3 a.m. one morning in 2005, cutting the lock and talking their way past the security guards.
"There are many abandoned buildings," Claro said. "So when people see those buildings, they have to go inside. I support that."
She feels that Chavez also supports the plight of those who don't own a home — a perception reinforced by the government's recent crackdown on construction companies that face accusations of scamming home buyers and illegally charging inflation adjustments. The authorities have detained at least 42 people in the investigation since October.
Chavez's opponents say such maneuvers are intended to distract from his own failures. Chavez set a goal of providing 150,000 homes during his last re-election year in 2006, but fell far short at about 77,000 — many of which weren't turned over to people until the following year.
Still, many in the shelters said they are thankful to Chavez and plan to vote for him next year. Looking out over the buckled street that now runs in front of her abandoned home, Maria Franco, 43, said sadly: "It doesn't look like it was due to rain. It looks like it was an earthquake."
"We hope they'll solve our problems," she said. "We have to have faith."