Caracas: Here we are

This is the first of a series of articles shedding light on the origin of the unplanned settlements in Caracas, which are home to more than half of the population. These stories have rarely been told. Multiple inhabitants were interviewed and shared their stories of struggles, talked about how they overcome hardships, and organize for improvement and self governance. 

 

21st Century Barrios

We will start in the present, backtracking from the newest “barrios” to the longest standing ones. This article is about  “Juventud Bolivariana” a 20-year-old barrio, which is one of the newest and named after the venezuelan national holiday “Día de la Juventud (The day of youth)” celebrated each february 12th. On this day in the year 2000 the “invasores (translates to invaders, a derogatory term used to call people who’ve taken over private lands to build homes)” took over the stretch of land between the San Blas barrio and the Pomarrosa estate, in the southeast of the Barrio Maca of South Petare.

Judith García, founding member of Juventud Bolivariana shares,

“Chavez once said that there was a lot of people who didn’t have a home, and that if we saw unutilized land we should invade it, and you know, people are not gonna wait too long. We invaded right after.” 

 

Chavez began his government with a war against estates, threatening landowners to take over their land to be redistributed amongst the poor, he promised to improve their living conditions with his “revolution.” These words  televised via “chain broadcast” across all public access television and radio were what drove the inhabitants of San Blas to take over the private lands where the “Juventud Bolivariana” homegrown neighbourhood stands today.

Most of the invaders who took over these private lands lived in the San Blas barrio, as renters or with their parents alongside their own families. Richard Alvarez the main organizer of the invasión remembers seeing the land from his home in San Blas, he recalls playing in these lands during his childhood, flying kites and riding bikes. It was him who “had a dream of taking over these lands, to build his own home.” It was a family affair, Richard recounts how he told his family who lived alongside him on the San Blas main road, about his desire and plan to take over the land. Judith explains that everyone was related, her husband was Richard’s cousin, their neighbors were Richard’s brother and her sister in law. 

Judith recounts the days before the invasion, 

“We were only a few, like 10 people and all of us were family, but little by little people started finding out about our plan. We ended up being 30 people and the whole street was packed, a brother told the other brother, and that brother told his cousin and that’s how it got packed.”

They gathered on the main road the night before the invasion, they had to set up their “ranchos (a derogatory term to describe self fabricated wood and cardboard dwellings)” before dawn. It had to be done during the dark, if neighbors found out they would call the police and have the invasion stopped. Richard and his cousins were the main organizers, so they approached the land first, and then came back to bring the rest. They grabbed their machetes and ventured to these wild lands. She remembers the grass being a meter and a half tall, and how hard it was to enter despite their boots and gloves, these were very harsh conditions. Judith remembers how they prepared torches and coffee to stay up all night. On the morning of February 12th, the small community of “Juventud Bolivariana” saw their first sunrise. That morning they split the land in 26 pieces for the 26 families involved, and organized guarding shifts amongst the family leaders. At least one person would spend the night in one of the ranchos to make sure they weren’t taken back. 

 

Images of the Escudero family home videos, days after the "invasión"
Images of the Escudero family home videos, days after the "invasión"
Images of the Escudero family home videos, days after the "invasión"
Images of the Escudero family home videos, days after the "invasión"

They couldn’t begin to build right away, so this is when the battle really began. With no land tenureship they had to confront the National guard, the neighbors of the Pomarrosa estate, and the owners of the land. Judith says that they couldn’t leave the land, they knew that if they gave way other people would invade these lands. Two weeks after they invaded, two new communities were founded “Barrio San Valentín” and “Barrio La Suiza” in the lands next to Juventud Bolivariana. They had daily confrontations with the Pomarrosa neighbors who didn’t want ranchos next to their homes, and finally were visited by the landowners who alleged that lands were destined for a graveyard. During the dispute for the land that was televised, on the popular show “Justice for all” the owners proposed to build housing and sell it to the slum dwellers, but then couldn’t prove that the land was actually theirs, making them lose the case. 

Judith García, Juventud Bolivariana neighbor
Judith García, Juventud Bolivariana neighbor
Richard Alvarez, Juventud Bolivariana neighbor
Richard Alvarez, Juventud Bolivariana neighbor

Despite this small victory, they incrementally developed at a very slow pace, in the first 2 years they only improved their self-constructed dwellings in size, adding more wooden walls, bigger zinc roofs with dirt floors. They could only transport material up to the Pomarrosa main road and then had to manually transport it to their plots. It was in the december of 2002 that Judith’s family laid the first block to build the home in which they live in today. Services came with the organization of the community through a civil association. Sociologist Mirla Pérez, of the “Centro de Investigaciones Populares de Caracas (Popular Investigation Center of Caracas)”, explains how this organic way of organizing themselves served to decentralize governance, allowing communities to develop incrementally through self-government. The civil association had no structures of power or rules, it was just the gathering of neighbors for the development of projects for the well being of all. Naturally, leaders rose from these organizations, but it was mainly based on affection and people’s trust in them. 

The first service they acquired was lighting, thanks to a community higher up the cerro (term used to describe the steep mountains informal settlements sprawl on), who passed them an electric cable to put up their own lighting posts and lighten up the road. Afterwards Electricidad de Caracas (integrated electricity company for Caracas, Venezuela and surrounding areas) installed a proper electric service with a meter per home. Roads were paved through a project developed by students of the Universidad Central de Venezuela in the year 2000. The Juventud Bolivariana community self managed the development of water services, buying their own pipelines to connect to the main tube that passed from San Blas to the Pomarrosa. Through the civil association they partnered with Hidrocapital (the subsidiary serving Caracas of HIDROVEN, the national water company) to bring running water to the homes of Juventud Bolivariana. Finally a public transport service included Juventud Bolivariana in their daily route and a motor-taxi service was set up by neighbours at the end of the main road. Judith states that by the year 2006 it became non-viable for them to continue incrementally developing their homes, due to the harsh economic conditions the country fell into.

 

The Cerros (steep mountain) on which Juventud Bolivariana sits

Sadly, some problems escape the capabilities of the organizational structures of Juventud Bolivariana, a tragedy struck the community a couple of years ago when during heavy rain, 5 houses were completely destroyed due to a landslide. Fortunately there were no deaths, but this goes to show the instability of these lands, which are mostly made up of landfills. Another big issue is land tenureship, after 20 years the inhabitants of Juventud Bolivariana do not own the land where their houses stand. Some have been able to obtain “títulos supletorios” which are a supplementary title, a document granted by a judge to justify the occupation of the land, granting the right to the surface to those who have selfbuilt on the land, but it can by no means replace the land property or go against a third party’s rights, for example the actual owner of the land. 

Richard, a government supporter, expresses his gratitude to the government for their support, but when asked what is it exactly that the government did for them, he couldn't formulate a proper answer. He says the government organized them in “Consejos Comunales” an organizational structure with the same roles as the civil association. Mirla explains that consejos comunales destroyed community leader networks because those who didn’t support the government were displaced. This was the case of Juventud Bolivariana, the 3 leaders of the civil association didn’t agree to be included in the consejo comunal. Judith affirms that the civil association kept working despite the creation of the consejo comunal but with time, the consejo comunal took away the civil association’s functions, ultimately rendering it useless. The consejo comunal’s organizational structure only seeked to centralize power, to stop independent actions of communities. Starting in 2009, they were organized into committees such as a water, gas, and food security committee, and trained to present project proposals. Nevertheless, when asked if he still belongs to the consejo comunal, he says he quit because they never got funding for any project from the government, and curiously enough their training didn’t teach them how to get funding from any entity aside from the government.

“The problem is that the government creates functions and then doesn’t follow-up. [...] We get tired of proposing projects and then never seeing the results. I am losing energy and time, I was trained to do this but I don’t want to invest time in it if it’s never gonna get done. A lot of the people who were part of the consejo comunal are now disappointed, because there is never an adequate response from the government [...] We get organized, we propose projects and then a year goes by and then another, and we tire ourselves. But then when it’s a political thing, they say propose projects, you might get funding for your project, that happen when elections come...” 

-.Neighbor of Juventud Bolivariana.

Judith says that nowadays the Consejo comunal’s only function is allocating a monthly heavily-subsidized basic food handouts and gas, that Richard affirms is given to everyone no matter their political views because everyone is in need. Judith explains that at the very beginning of Consejo comunales, benefits were only given to government supporters, but that has shifted in the last years due to the dire conditions of everyone. Richard acknowledges that everything has worsened for them, in fact he no longer lives in Juventud Bolivariana. He was allocated an apartment because he works for a government ministry. He speaks of the hardships his neighbors endure to be able to make it to their workplaces. The great distance that separates the settlement from the sources of employment in the city, has made public transport unreliable. 

Judith speaks of water shortages as one of the biggest problems that now affects them, they receive only a couple hours of water over the weekend. The high prices of food and the suspension of garbage collection services makes them dependent on government handouts. Judith states that the Government has completely lost its support in the Juventud Bolivariana community, she says that only Richard supports the government and that’s because he continues to receive benefits from them like his new apartment and his second car, thanks to his work as a bodyguard, for an important government official that he cannot name. 

 

Incremental development, Home of Juventud Bolivariana barrio, second floor under construction.
Incremental development, Home of Juventud Bolivariana barrio, second floor under construction.
Home of Juventud Bolivariana barrio
Home of Juventud Bolivariana barrio
The Escudero Family home
The Escudero Family home
Incremental development, Home of Juventud Bolivariana barrio, second floor under construction.
Incremental development, Home of Juventud Bolivariana barrio, second floor under construction.

Richard misses his life in Juventud Bolivariana, specially living next to his family but he acknowledges that life is easier living downtown with services close by and peace and quiet. Pedro Escudero, a young second generation inhabitant of the Juventud Bolivariana, says that the dynamics have completely changed in the barrio, mass migration has left many empty homes and left him with a lot fewer friends, his girlfriend left for Colombia last year. Judith says that 6 out of the 30 families that make up barrio Juventud Bolivariana have left the country. Everyone we interviewed agreed that Juventud Bolivariana isn’t what it used to be.

Speaking to the founders of Juventud Bolivariana shed light on why there was so much support for the Chavez administration. However, it is strikingly evident that the government made life a lot more difficult for these people in the long run.  They “encouraged” people to invade unstable lands in the periphery of the city far from their workplaces putting them at high risk of losing their homes and lives due to landslides. To this day they have not provided them with property rights over the land. 

They took away their self governance capabilities stunting their incremental development process through organizational structures like the consejo comunal, which they used as a tool to manipulate votes at the time of elections. Despite the odds, these communities have survived the worst economic and social crisis of Venezuelan history. Mirla Perez explains that this is all thanks to the strong network of relationships between slum dwellers. This comradery is precisely what Richard misses so much about his barrio, and what keeps this family afloat. Judith explains that the national blackout was an extremely difficult time, after three days of darkness they grew restless. 

“We helped one another, and that’s how we survived. If someone needed something and someone else had it, we exchanged things. With water, we all had saved water in kegs, but after 3 days we ran out of it, it was tough, very tough, so we would go to other barrios to get water, [...] we tried to solve it all working together.”

These communities have withstood the crisis thanks to their organizational abilities. Without the help of a government or private companies, they were able to establish a homegrown neighbourhood on their own. What could they achieve if they were to seek out funding from the many aid organizations who are now entering Venezuela or private companies with strong social responsibility programs? How about if the government recognizes them as an actual part of the city, not as the informal realm and provides adequate and equal public services to these neglected areas of the city?  What could happen if the improvement of these areas of the city were planned by these actors with the support of experts? 

It is encouraging and interesting to think about all the possible improvements they could make to their built environment if they were given the freedom they used to have and the proper tools to act in self governance. An inhabitant of Juventud Bolivariana laments that, 

“They [the government] have to give communities more participation, our quality of life has radically changed. [...] Things would be better if they invested equally throughout the city, have them come into our barrios, and give us a hand, the thing is that we have been forgotten.”