Thousands Of Homeless An Election Issue For Chavez

Oil-rich Venezuela is awash in hundreds of thousands of homeless. Many find places to live where they can — in half-finished shopping malls or under the grandstand at a race track. The huge number of homeless has become an election issue for President Hugo Chavez, who is seeking his fourth, six-year term.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. In Venezuela, hundreds of thousands of people are homeless or live in substandard housing. President Hugo Chavez claims his government is building homes to alleviate the problem, but in the meantime, it's parked the homeless in some unlikely places, including the grandstand of a racetrack.

With Chavez running for reelection, Venezuela's opposition is now making the housing crisis a campaign issue. NPR's Juan Forero has the story from Caracas, Venezuela.

JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: La Rinconada is the once elegant horse racing track in the capital. The horses still run on weekends and the fans still place their bets.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE RACE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

FORERO: But under the grandstands in tiny cubicles separated by drywall, dozens of families, including small children, live in squalor. Garbage piles up and clothes hang out to dry from the guardrails.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)

FORERO: The stench of sewage hangs in the air as children run along darkened corridors and as they play on dirty mattresses under dimly lighted bulbs.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)

FORERO: Maria Valera(ph), who is 61, has been living here with dozens of relatives for more than a year, put here by the Chavez administration after heavy rains flooded their homes in 2010.

MARIA VALERA: (Foreign language spoken).

FORERO: The bathrooms are out, the water service goes and there's lots of garbage, Valera says. And then there are the people, other residents of La Rinconada, who fight and rob, she says.

Thousands more Venezuelans were forced out of their homes by floods more than 14 months ago. With nowhere to put them, the government found them shelter in an abandoned mall, motels and even in tents near the presidential palace.

The government's own statistics show that there's a shortage of two million housing units in Venezuela. Chavez's political foes say this is a crisis in a country of just 29 million people.

Henrique Capriles is the young governor who recently became the opposition's anti-Chavez candidate for this October's presidential election. In a recent press conference, he tells reporters that government expropriations of land, property and companies, like cement and steel makers, have crippled construction.

HENRIQUE CAPRILES: (Foreign language spoken).

FORERO: He says the Chavez government has built fewer homes than any past administration. Government statistics have shown that, too.

PRESIDENT HUGO CHAVEZ: (Foreign language spoken).

FORERO: But, lately, in frequent TV appearances, Chavez is talking about the vital nature of the state's role in building housing. He says nearly 150,000 units were completed by the state last year and that 200,000 will be built this year.

CHAVEZ: (Foreign language spoken).

FORERO: With God's help, Chavez says, when my next government ends in 2019, there will be no Venezuelan family without a good, dignified and pretty home.

Ajenes Vellez(ph) is among those who received a free apartment in a series of low slung apartment blocks going up on the edge of Caracas.

AJENE VELLEZ: (Foreign language spoken).

FORERO: The president has dedicated himself to governing, to helping the people, says Vellez, who calls the handing out of apartments a Godsend to people like him.

Political analyst Carlos Romero says the government faces an uphill struggle to build the homes needed, but Romero says just the effort could help Chavez in the campaign.

CARLOS ROMERO: At least, there's going to be the sensation. There's going to be that perception that he's working on and that's going to be very important to gain votes for the people.

FORERO: Heidi Cormanarez(ph) also has been homeless for more than a year. She and her severely handicapped 10 year old daughter have lived in a drab room in a shabby love motel.

HEIDI CORMANAREZ: (Foreign language spoken).

FORERO: I'm tired, Cormanarez says, especially with my daughter having to deal with all these problems she has. But day after day, they sit in the room as soap operas drone on. Cormanarez says she still has no word on whether she'll have a home for her own.

Juan Forero, NPR News.

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