EspañolThe Tower of David, the world’s tallest vertical slum, is nearing the end of its days. A Chinese consortium has reached an agreement with Venezuela’s central government that will lead to the eventual evacuation of the invaded building.
Abandoned amid construction, the Tower of David was supposed to be an international financial center. After it sat unoccupied and unfinished for years, squatters invaded in 2007, with the backing of then-President Hugo Chávez.
Throughout the years, the incomplete skyscraper has not only become a center of attraction for foreign journalists, photographers, and even artists, it has been a Caracas symbol of poverty, gangsters, and failure of the rule of law in Venezuela.
The tower, formerly known as Confinanzas Financial Center, started out on the dream of a Venezuelan version of Wall Street in the 1990s. However, after the death of David Brillembourg in 1993, construction was halted, and the financial consortium Confinanzas went into bankruptcy. The Fund to Guarantee Deposits and Banking Protection (FOGADE) soon confiscated the incomplete skyscraper and left Brillembourg’s dream unfinished.
When the squatters occupied the skyscraper, led by a church pastor, they claimed dire need of a dignified place to settle. With Chávez’s open support for private-property invasions, and with no authorities willing to evict them, they turned the 45-story concrete frame into their new home. The inhabitants soon built small shanty houses over what was supposed to be the most modern corporate office building in the country.
Of the skyscraper’s 45 floors, 28 are inhabited by approximately 1,200 families. The building lacks any elevators, and therefore people resort to mototaxis — motorcycles that operate as taxis — to go up to the 10th floor. From there, inhabitants walk the stairs to the remaining 18 floors.
Seven years have been enough for these families to create their own self-managed community. Without proper legal procedures or sanitary conditions, the squatters have installed electricity, completed the walls with bricks or zinc sheets, and got running water. They have created a cohabitation system based on common rules and the distribution of maintenance tasks between the neighbors. All families pay a monthly fee, and some even operate shops inside the building: tattoo studios, ice-cream shops, dentist’s offices, hair salons, and even 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 — drug trafficking, assaults, prostitution, rape, and kidnappings — has reflected the absence of a police force in an area with a high population density.
Neighbors have even complained to the authorities about the increase of crime rates in the areas that surround the invaded skyscraper. However, up until now, the government has not taken any visible actions to evict them.
Instead, it has adopted a supportive approach. As recently as May, Ernesto Villegas, minister for the transformation of Caracas, visited the vertical slum. He even brought state-sponsored programs, and organized an assembly to address the tower community’s most concerning problems.
According to the state news agency, Venezolana de Televisión, Villegas told inhabitants that thanks to Chávez, Venezuela doesn’t have a “right-wing government that will kneel to the power of speculative businessmen, or a repressive government that, with any doubt, would hand in the building to the financial sector.”
Nonetheless, Villegas’s promises soon turned into dust. Just one month after his speech, a Chinese consortium reached a deal with Maduro’s administration to build their own international financial center in the Tower of David. Now the problem is, what to do with the more than a thousand families living in the abandoned infrastructure.
According to a tenant from the tower, the government has already started a negotiation process with the squatters to reach some kind of agreement that could lead to their exit, and provide them with alternative, state-sponsored housing. So far, the families expect the move to be in December of this year.
Even though the tower’s inhabitants don’t know what kind of agreement Maduro’s administration has reached with the Chinese government, they do know they will have to leave the building in a near future. Further, Villegas, the same man who guaranteed the protection of the squatters, is the one in charge of the eviction operation.
The decision comes just weeks before the visit of China’s President Xi Jinping to Venezuela, as part of his Latin-American tour.
Venezuela has increased its businesses with the Chinese government, especially since 2007, when former President Chávez signed a cooperation fund with China. The binational fund has served as a loan arrangement for the Chavista government, paid with oil shipments. So far, Venezuela has received US$86 billions to finance development projects.
According to Maria Teresa Romero, an international affairs expert and columnist with the PanAm Post, that the Chavista regime never saw fit to evict the occupants, until a Chinese consortium asked them to, says a lot about how far Maduro is committed with the Asian country. This kind of concession just prove how close both governments of Venezuela and China have become, Romero explains, and the preference that Maduro’s administration gives to Chinese investments over domestic ones.
“Never before in the history of the republic of Venezuela, was there a commercial, political, and diplomatic relationship with China as the one we are seeing today. Also, the financial dependence that our nation has grown on the Asian country is unprecedented.”
However, what’s most concerning for Romero is the lack of transparency in the relations between Venezuela and China. In 2013 US$84 million from the Chinese-Venezuelan Fund was embezzled by several government officials. So far, only eight culprits are under trial.