At home in Venezuela – An Irishman’s Diary on cities, slums and hope

How the future has come to Caracas

Ernesto Villegas: transforming  greater Caracas

Ernesto Villegas: transforming greater Caracas

 

For seven days I experienced life in the most urbanised city in the most urbanised country in the most urbanised region of the world. Caracas in Venezuela. Some 93 per cent per cent of the population of the country live in urban areas. The city has a population of 2.1 million, or 5.1 million, depending on where the boundary is drawn. And the boundary keeps shifting outwards and upwards. And the city continues to draw people in not just from within Venezuela and neighbouring countries but also from the Caribbean, most notably from Haiti. Not just are Latin America’s cities stretched far beyond their capacity but they are also the most unequal in the world.

The density is not surprising. People packed in. One on top of the other and then some more. And in a country where the economy is spiralling downwards. Haemorrhaging. The good days of oil-inspired plentifulness are long gone. Yet the price at petrol pumps is at a beyond-belief low. Less than one cent a gallon. That has much to do with the exchange rate. There are three. Four, if you count the illegal black market. Which is everywhere. And for most people probably the real one. When asked to explain, the standard response was “Es complicado”. Complicated it is.

But it was housing I was primarily interested in. If the city is the future, then the future has come to Caracas.

And even the fairest appraisals would suggest that we haven’t made a great success of city living. Across the globe, an estimated one billion people live in informal settlements and slums and the number of slum dwellers increased by six million every year between 2000 and 2010. That is one in seven people. According to the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN Habitat), one city dweller in three now lives in slum conditions (863 million in total, up from 760 million in 2000 and 650 million in 1990), lacking security of tenure in overcrowded, unhygienic places characterised by unemployment, pollution, traffic, crime, high cost of living, poor services and competition for resources.

That’s where Ernesto Villegas comes in. In December 2013, he was appointed minister of state for the revolutionary transformation of greater Caracas. Quietly spoken, thoughtful, bespectacled, smiling, youthful-looking, dressed in striped shirt, chinos and sneakers, he has an easy disarming demeanour that seems unequal to the task of dealing with the capital’s mounting challenges. But determined he is. And he has one basic principle. People before property. Where there is land or unused housing it will be put to use. And communities come before individuals. He eschews the coercive approach to housing. It’s never a question of forcing people into housing against their will. His is not a “take it or leave it” option. Nor does he expect that people thrown together from disparate backgrounds will automatically form communities. His is not a top-down professional community development-led model. The community must lead. In that way cohesion is possible. Not guaranteed but much more likely.

Take the Tower of David, for example. At 52 storeys, the one-time would-be bank, in places bereft of windows and outside walls, was home to 3,000 people. It was the world’s tallest slum or, as people here prefer to say, informal settlement. But it was home and it had a functioning community with its own services – grocery shops, internet cafes, hair salons and even a tattoo parlour. But it was not safe. Children had fallen and died. It was time to move. For months Villegas negotiated their relocation. “And when the time came for them to move,” he told me, “the police helped. But we made sure that the police that helped were unarmed”. Not only were the residents consulted about the move but where they would be moved to. It was a community relocation, he tells us. It was not done on a case by case basis. Coercion was never part of the plan. The move was a success and he smiles with satisfaction at the outcome.

And that has become his approach. As he talked we stood on the roof of another tower block. The empty space had been appropriated by another community on which they had built five five-storey blocks of apartments. The government supplied the material, the community the labour. A minimum of 10 hours per week per family. You are unlikely to have problems with your neighbour, one resident told me, if you have helped build their house.

The owners of the land? Well it was just lying there. People before property. Consultation and not coercion. We have much to learn.