[Hpn] Squatters Demand Answers As Chavez Faces Recall

William Charles Tinker wtinker@metrocast.net
Thu, 12 Aug 2004 07:02:26 -0400


Thursday, Aug 12, 2004

Venezuela's evicted squatters demand answers as Chavez faces recall


Knight Ridder Newspapers

CARACAS, Venezuela - (KRT) - Myrna Serpa, a newly homeless mother of four,
joined about 100 fellow squatters on a recent afternoon to rally outside
Mira-flores, Venezuela's presidential palace.
Furious about a sweep of evictions that booted thousands of squatters such
as her out of dozens of Caracas buildings, they hoped President Hugo Chavez
would halt the expulsions.
"Here's what I want to know: why didn't they throw us out before?" Serpa
said, holding a protest banner in front of the offices of the president she
said she reveres.
It's a good question.
As Chavez faces a recall vote Sunday, armed gangs of pro-Chavez squatters
who say they had a government wink and nod to take over abandoned buildings
are now fighting the police, City Hall, each other and key Chavez loyalists.
Chavez has distanced himself from a key ally, Freddy Bernal, mayor of the
predominantly poor Libertador sector of Caracas where many of the building
seizures have taken place. Experts say the move by Chavez is an attempt to
keep the dispute from undermining his overwhelming support among the
country's poor.
Other analysts think Chavez orchestrated the dispute to offer his
middle-class enemies election-time proof that that he does not advocate
illegal property seizures.
The result: One Chavez activist dead, another in jail, and some Chavez
backers accusing Bernal of conspiring to thwart the president's chances at
the polls.
"What you have here is urban anarchy," said Carmen Beatriz Fernandez, an
expert in land issues. "I don't know if Bernal created these gangs, but he
used them, and now it got out of his hands."
Squatting has long been practiced in Venezuela, where desperately poor
people have created entire neighborhoods by putting up shacks on vacant
land. But Chavez's leftist rhetoric has energized many of the country's
poor, and organized occupations of abandoned buildings soared after 1998,
when he took office.
"You think if I had money, I'd be living here?" said Marianela Contreras,
who shares a dilapidated one-room apartment in Libertador with her husband
and teenage daughter.
Contreras took the apartment, just a few blocks from the presidential
palace, after the car dealership where her husband worked as a security
guard closed last year, shut down after a two-month strike to topple the
She told Knight Ridder Newspapers that the takeover was organized by Yasmin
Rondon, a pro-Chavez activist better known as "Commander Manuitt."
Contreras said Rondon weeded out people with criminal histories or drug
problems, and selected only abandoned buildings in the hands of the state.
Her building was filled with criminals when she and three other families
stormed it in the middle of the night, chaining the doors so the previous
squatters could not come back.
Dozens of buildings have been occupied by squatters for as long as four
years, some used as offices for organizations that support Chavez. But this
year other groups of squatters have been battling Rondon for turf, leading
to daylight shootings and nighttime assassinations.
Bernal has now ordered 53 buildings cleared, and Rondon has been arrested.
"We cleared them because there were flagrant gun fights in there," Bernal
told reporters. "In the searches, we've found firearms, Molotov cocktails
and other explosive devices."
But activists say Bernal initially supported the squatters, and changed when
it was no longer politically convenient. Some of the squatters think he
deliberately created the disputes to undermine Chavez's chances in the
recall vote.
"This is political sabotage," said Yunny Larea, a Rondon supporter. "The one
who will be affected is the president."
Some squatters say the disputed buildings are being cleared out only to be
occupied by tenants organized by Lina Ron, another pro-Chavez activist. "We
have nothing to do with that," said Ron's husband, Humberto Derroteran.
A spokesman for Bernal said the evictions were decided by the courts, not
politics. "There was an armed mafia in some of those buildings, and there
were several murders," said Eduardo Rothe. "That, without a doubt,
accelerated the decision to evacuate them."
Chavez has long been accused of creating and arming bands of followers who
sometimes create chaos at antigovernment protests.
Rondon has been in jail for weeks now, charged with possession of weapons of
war, public intimidation and resisting arrest - but not the illegal seizure
of buildings.
She is being held in a police jail, where witnesses said she was visited by
nearly two dozen friends last week, while other inmates were limited to four
"Yasmin helped 3,500 families, including children and grandparents," said
Yunny Larea. "This is nothing but dirty politics."

 2004, The Miami Herald.

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