In the past twenty years, the Tower of David (pictured) has gone from being a symbol of financial growth to one of vindication for the rights of the poor. In a way, it can also reflect what Venezuela’s society experiences these days: a failure of institutions that has led to chaos and impunity. Invasions of private properties have become more frequent — and since there’s an urgent housing shortage, the government has made it acceptable for people to occupy idle private properties. This argument follows the principle that everyone has the right to a dignified house.
The Tower of David, formerly known as Confinanzas Financial Center, was built with a dream to become a Venezuelan version of Wall Street in the nineties. However, in 1993 the construction was halted due to the death of the tower’s investor David Brillembourg. The following year, the financial consortium Confinanzas went into bankruptcy and the famous skyscraper was confiscated by the Fund to Guarantee Deposits and Banking Protection (FOGADE), leaving David’s dream unfinished. In 2007, a group of people called Cooperative Cacique Venezuela led by a church pastor, occupied the skyscraper and made it their new home.
This vertical slum has become a scenario with more than 500 families who have created their own auto-managed community. Even though the fifty-eight-floor building lacks basic services, the inhabitants have found ways to improvise, installing electricity, completing the walls with bricks or zinc sheets, and getting running water. They have created a cohabitation system based on common rules and the distribution of maintenance tasks. All families pay a monthly fee, and some even operate shops inside the building such as tattoo studios, ice-cream shops, dentist’s offices, hair salons, and a Baptist church.
However, not every day is sunshine for the Tower of David inhabitants. The fact that there have been crimes committed inside the Tower, assaults, prostitution, rapes, and kidnappings shows the result of the absence of a police force in an area with such a high population density.
Until this day, the government hasn’t taken any actions to evict these families who live there illegally or at least find them a more suitable place. The unfortunate part is that the Tower of David is not the only invasion case. According to the NGO Association of Urban Property Owners, there have been 22,000 properties occupied illegally nationwide since 1999. With time, squatters have stopped being a spontaneous movement and have become highly organized groups linked to organized crime.
It’s no secret that Venezuela has a critical housing shortage. The people who live in slums, in overcrowded settlements, or who have become homeless refugees from the floods amount to more than two million. From a practical perspective, invasions don’t solve the basic necessities that impede them from overcoming poverty. It only changes their location; their condition remains the same, or even gets worst. The squatters break into unfinished buildings or lands that aren’t being used and make it their own home, without taking into consideration the lack of proper legal procedures or sanitary conditions.
From the moral perspective, this “solution” starts off from a complete absence of respect for private property, land ownership, or civility. It is based on the message of “my flag, my land.”
The role of the government towards this issue has been ambivalent. Yes, it’s wrong that there are more than two million people living in precarious conditions. However, it’s even worse that a government allows this situation to go further by encouraging theft of properties that others have worked for. It’s hard to imagine a country overcoming poverty by building a society based on these anti-values. It’s even harder to conceive how this scheme can be sustainable on the long term.
Venezuela is characterized by a lot of problems, but the most important one is institutional failure. The weakness of institutions has undermined the importance of respect, dialogue, and justice between Venezuelans. Even though private property is an intrinsic value and foundation for healthy societies in other countries, the “Bolivarian” regime has vanished this concept by turning expropriation, confiscation, and invasions the new housing policy.