Tents, bare mats, improvised shelters, tattered refrigerators, and used-up kitchen utensils cover the sidewalk of this stretch of Avenida Lecuna, in downtown Caracas.
Several government-subsidized buildings on both sides of the street are adorned with propaganda. Women, men, and kids stand by, looking at each other and at the cars driving on this busy street. They sit on the upper corner of the zinc-roofed area that used to be their home, laying their backs on the dark blue wooden walls.
“It’s destroyed inside, you can see it if they let you go in,” said a chubby woman angrily. “They won’t let that blanquita in,” said a middle aged dark skinned man sitting on an upside down garbage tub.
And he was right. According to the guards standing at the entry, only ex-residents were allowed to go in, to take a shower or to get food.
The closed-off space was supposed to become a government pharmacy subsidized by Caracas’ Metro company before 11 families occupied it in 2010 in the hope of receiving, within a couple of months, an alternative home from the government’s Misión Vivienda.
Years went by. Nothing. Then, on June 6th, the guards came.
El Gocho, a 26 year old mototaxista with dark black hair and big sad eyes, had to leave the guesthouse (pensión) he lived. He could no longer afford it on his minimum wage. It had become way too small when his kids were born. His name was one of the millions in the interminable lists of Misión Vivienda, the government’s flagshp public housing program. But he didn’t have the same luck as some of his friends who had already been assigned, if not houses or apartments, a place in government shelters.
With nowhere else to go, El Gocho found a group of people planning to squat on a big space that belonged to the subway company. They coordinated with the Bolivarian National Guard and with the Consejo Communal Los Horcones to set up a little improvised home there while the government came up with another solution.
And they did.
Years went by. Babies were born. Men brought girlfriends. Women brought boyfriends. More families arrived.
Four years later, there were 21 families confined in the same space where 11 families had squatted earlier. President Chávez, who was present in conversations, posters, and graffitis on most of the corners, didn’t offer a solution. But he didn’t directly object to them living in the illegally occupied space, either. In general, he egged on squatting through expropriations and through his discourse against private property, against landowners and businessmen who “didn’t share land with lower class people.” The 21 families waited hopefully.
That hope ended on June 6th.
That day, “El Gocho,” was celebrating a friend’s birthday. Some members of the 21 families that had become very close after living together for four years in an invaded space, were drinking cerveza while women showing their bellies watched over various kids.
They suddenly heard the sound of two gunshots, louder than normal because the doors that were hit were made out of steel. El Gocho and another fat middle-aged man went out to find a green human barrier of uniformed national guards.
El Gocho took his phone out to take pictures. One of the guards tried to grab it from him. He pushed him and shouted “¿Qué te pasa a ti?” only to be brought down and kicked by three other guards.
More people came out, and the men ordered the women to go inside with the kids. The guards went in and crashed everyone they crossed menacingly. The squatters were violently directed to a corner outside and ordered to stay there for a couple of hours while the guards checked if there were drugs or stolen objects inside the rooms.
“We had sent letters to the president, and we had tried to speak with the Fiscalía (Prosecutor) a million times chama. But that was the first time the government somehow answered,” El Gocho said, “although six months ago we helped Ernesto Villegas in his campaign to become Alcalde de Caracas. He lost but they gave him an even better job. De todos modos se lavó las manos, he hasn’t done
When they tried to go back in, the guards wouldn’t let them. Instead, they laughingly stole their belongings, putting even the least valuable stuff in bags.
“They even stole our lipstick pa’ darselo a sus novias,” he said “they robbed us in our faces … and I have pictures,” his cheek moved up and down in an angry manner deforming the scar on his cheek.
He was standing in what was his room, which he could access because, luckily, it is located outside of the area the guards have roped off. He opened it by pulling a half-wrecked wooden door. It was dark inside, and there were rests of a broken chair, an iron, a dirty towel, some cardboard and a little white table. There was no space to possibly lay down.
“The problem is the way they did it, too. Why did they have to come in with gun shots and steal our corotos?,” El Gocho said. “You should put away your camera in case the police,” and he emphasized the word with a higher voice and an ironic smile, “steals it from you.”
“Look at that, it’s kitchen stuff on the floor. And there’s a shoe, a mat. Inside it’s even worse,” said El Gocho’s chubby friend.
He then approached a man to ask for some money to eat and went back out.
For all they’ve been through, these guys are not giving up the old religion. Even now, posters of Chávez’ face decorate the inside of many of the sidewalk tents the squatters live in.
For them, the problem is Maduro. As long as Chávez was around, there was hope. With Maduro, there is none.