Venezuela’s Quiet Housing Revolution: Urban Land Reform

Ecovillage Network UK office at
Sat Dec 10 16:50:16 GMT 2005

"Urban Land Committee delegates from nearly all Venezuelan states packed 
the stadium on August 30th for the first time in Caracas to receive land 
titles and project funds."

Venezuela’s Quiet Housing Revolution: Urban Land Reform

Monday, Sep 12, 2005

By: Gregory Wilpert –
"Uh-Ah-Chavez no se va!" chanted the red-dressed crowd to the catchy 
beat of the band "Madera." It was just like August 2004 all over again. 
Was this perhaps an event to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the 
defeat of the presidential recall referendum that was held almost 
exactly one year ago? No, this was something far more important. It was 
the celebration of the handing out of over 10,000 land titles to 
families living in Venezuela's poorest urban neighborhoods, in the barrios.

Flying below the radar of most Venezuela observers, both pro- and 
anti-Chavez, Venezuela is undergoing a quiet revolution, in which urban 
land reform promises to dramatically improve the lives of millions of 
Venezuela's poor. The urban land reform is functioning as a catalyst for 
the mobilization of Venezuela's barrios, following the fizzling out of 
the Bolivarian Circles and the Electoral Battle Units (UBEs). It is a 
mobilization that is independent of the government, but was jump-started 
by the government's decision to issue land titles. It has led to the 
mobilization of over 5,000 land committees, representing a total 
population of more than 5 million Venezuelans, or 20% of the population. 
This makes the urban land committees Venezuela's largest organized 
social movement.
The event, which was held last August 30th in one of Caracas' main 
arenas, resembled a rally in the closing phase of the August 2004 recall 
referendum campaign. Participants had come from 22 out of Venezuela's 23 
states, representing 4,298 land committees, and were obviously fired up 
to see Chavez symbolically turn over grants for 14 land committee 
projects. Altogether, the land committees have submitted 1,200 grant 
applications for about $50 million of funds.

"This event is very important," said President Chavez to the roaring 
crowd. "Here is evidence for something that is fundamental for any 
revolution and in this case for our Bolivarian Revolution: grassroots 
organization, grassroots participation," he added.
Urban Land Reform and the Housing Crisis

The Urban Land Committees (CTU - Comités de Tierras Urbanas) were called 
into life with presidential decree 1,666 on February 4, 2002. That is 
not to say that the President created the committees by decree, but 
rather that the decree established the legal parameters for the creation 
of such committees. The decree specified that Venezuelans who live in 
self-built homes on occupied land, which is the case for nearly all of 
Venezuela's poor, can appeal to the government for title to the land. It 
is estimated that up to 60% of Venezuela's population of 26 million live 
in such communities or barrios as they are known in Venezuela.

The main mechanism for acquiring title to the land, which some have 
occupied for decades, are the land committees, where 100 to 200 families 
that live in a contiguous area elect about seven individuals to 
represent their community (the average size is 147 families). The 
committees then register with the National Technical Office for the 
Regularization of Urban Land Tenancy. The technical office then provides 
the committees with training and help to measure out the families' plots 
of land and to initiate the process of acquiring title to the land. In 
some cases, land committees have requested collective land titles.

The land committees, however, have evolved to do much more than just 
measure land and process title claims. The technical office encourages 
them to write a "barrio charter," which lays out the history of that 
particular barrio and the community's rules and principles. In addition, 
land committees have begun to form sub-committees that deal with public 
utility companies, such as water and electricity supply, sewage and 
garbage disposal, the organization of cultural events, the management of 
security concerns, the initiation of neighborhood improvement projects, 
and other issues. Most importantly, though, the CTUs empower communities 
in an unprecedented way, giving them a real sense of ownership over 
their habitat.

As of mid 2005, the National Technical Office has issued over 84,000 
titles to 126,000 families, benefiting about 630,000 barrio inhabitants. 
With a total estimated barrio population of around 10 million, the 
project still has a ways to go. Once most barrio inhabitants (not all 
can receive titles because many homes are on unstable ground or have 
competing ownership claims) have received titles, though, this will be 
one of the government's greatest impact programs, aside from public 
health and public education. This would be a far greater impact than the 
public housing project could ever hope to have.

As a matter of fact, barrio inhabitants, who generally build their own 
homes on occupied land, have built more homes than all government have 
built in Venezuela's post-1958 era. Land committee organizers thus feel 
that it is high time that this labor and this contribution to Venezuelan 
society is recognized and legalized. For them, the land titles are the 
recognition of a social debt that society owes barrio inhabitants.

The project, according to one of its brochures, hopes to, "develop, with 
the participation and activity of the Urban Land Committees, a process 
of complete barrio transformation and the democratization of the city." 
The project's legitimacy comes from the constitution, which states that 
all Venezuelans have a right to a home that is, "adequate, safe, 
comfortable, hygienic, and supplied with basic essential services…" 
(Article 82). Since the government cannot guarantee this right on its 
own, via its public housing projects, it is up to Venezuelans themselves 
to claim this right.

The urgency for the land committees to act is particularly great in 
light of the Chavez government's general failure to construct public 
housing. According to the human rights group PROVEA, the annual average 
number of homes constructed during the first four years of the Chavez 
presidency (1999-2003) was 34,228, compared to 37,018 for the second 
Perez government (1989-1993) and 33,754 during the second Caldera 
government (1994-1998). The figures for 2004 were no better and for 2005 
look like they will be only slightly higher.

Considering that housing experts estimate that Venezuela needs a minimum 
of 135,000 new homes per year and that there is an accumulated deficit 
of nearly one million homes, and that the private home building sector 
constructed even less than the public sector, Venezuela is facing a 
severe housing crisis. It thus appears that the only way out of this 
housing crisis is to help Venezuelans to help themselves as far as their 
housing is concerned.

Urban Land Committees Lobby to go Beyond Land Title Regularization

In late November 2004, 820 delegates of the CTUs, in the presence of 
government representatives agreed on a proposal to the Housing Ministry, 
according to which CTUs would be more actively involved in solving 
Venezuela's housing crisis. According to the proposal, CTUs would form a 
new organizational neighborhood entity known as CPTH, which stands for 
Participation Centers for the Transformation of Habitat. CPTHs would 
consist of 5-10 adjacent CTUs (1,000 to 2,000 families or 5,000 to 
10,000 individuals), as well as neighborhood associations, health 
committees (which work with Mission Barrio Adentro), and Technical Water 
Committees (which work with the water company), among others.

The CPTHs' main objective is to function as a partner for the government 
in the improvement of neighborhoods. That is, they are supposed to 
"promote, develop, and strengthen in a sustainable way the active 
participation of all members of the community in the processes of 
co-responsible self-management and management with the state for the 
complete and permanent transformation of habitat, as well as in the 
creation of new settlements." (Brochure on Democratización de la Ciudad 
y Transformación Urbana)

In effect, the CPTHs would be the new primary organizational unit for 
the diagnosis of what communities need, to plan projects, to implement 
training programs on community participation, to develop and strengthen 
the community's capacity for holding local government accountable, among 
many other things.

The Housing Ministry and the various governmental bodies for funding 
projects thus have a primary partner for disbursing funds, which is 
exactly where the funds during the August 30th event were given.

More important, though, for solving Venezuela's housing crisis, is a new 
proposal that has yet to be approved, which is to create new 
settlements. That is, the CPTHs are proposing to the government to aid 
in controlled land invasions. When a community realizes that it is 
running out of space in its neighborhood, it would have the local CPTH 
ask the Housing Ministry for land that families could settle in an 
organized manner, to build their own homes on this new land, with 
government support. Such new settlements would be called "pioneer 
camps." According to the Director of the National Technical Office, Ivan 
Martinez, the goal is to have communities build 20,000 homes in the 
second half of 2005 - a figure that would easily rival that of recent 
governmentally constructed homes.

Significance of the Urban Land Reform

The urban land reform process is perhaps the single most important 
manifestation of participatory democracy in Venezuela today. There are 
other manifestations, such as the Local Public Planning Councils 
(CLPPs). However, while these appeared to be a very important 
manifestation of participatory democracy in Venezuela's constitution, 
they seem to have fallen by the wayside due to an inadequate law and the 
sabotage by low-level elected representatives who try to protect their 

Another manifestation is the possibility for holding referenda, which 
citizens can organize and which saw its most important enactment during 
the presidential recall referendum. While many other types of referenda 
are possible, no other use of this mechanism has been made since the 
constitution was first passed in December 1999.

Next, there are the possibilities for social comptrol (contraloria 
social) or citizen oversight over all levels of government. This tool 
has proven to be quite valuable in many cases, especially for making 
local government more transparent and accountable. However, since the 
CLPPs are not functioning properly, there are few community 
organizations that have the capacity to take advantage of the 
opportunities for citizen oversight.

Finally, as mentioned earlier, the organizations that Chavez called into 
being, the Bolivarian Circles and the Electoral Battle Units (UBEs) also 
appear to have failed in the longer term. That is, the Bolivarian 
Circles served a purpose when they were first formed, in mobilizing 
Chavistas for demonstrations and in creating a visible pro-Chavez 
presence in communities during the height of the confrontation from 
shortly before the coup until shortly after the oil industry shutdown. 
Similarly, the UBEs served a purpose in mobilizing and organizing people 
in support of Chavez against the recall referendum and for the October 
2004 regional elections. When Chavez transformed their mission into 
community self-improvement groups, though, they faltered and 
disappeared, just as the Bolivarian Circles.

In all likelihood, a large part of the reason for why the Bolivarian 
Circles and the UBEs dissolved is that both had contradictory purposes. 
That is, on the one hand they were partisan pro-Chavez groups, 
mobilizing the population in support of Chavez. On the other hand, they 
were also supposed to be (in the case of the circles) or to become (in 
the case of the UBEs) community self-improvement groups working in 
everyone's interest, whether pro-Chavez or anti-Chavez. However, the 
groups' two missions contradict each other: they cannot be both 
non-partisan community self-improvement groups and partisan mobilization 
groups. Also, their community self-improvement aspect lacked a clear 
focus for maintaining people's interest.

Into this organizational void (not really a void, as the CTU began 
around the same time as the Bolivarian Circles) stepped the Urban Land 
Committees. Other task-specific groups emerged as well, such as the 
Technical Water Committees, which work on improving water supply, health 
committees, which work on supporting the community health mission Barrio 
Adentro, and other mission-specific community groups, such as those that 
support the high school completion mission Ribas and the free food 
allocation centers (Casas de Alimentación).

The participants in these groups were to a large extent recruited from 
Bolivarian Circles and UBEs. Key to their long-term success, though, is 
that these groups are non-partisan and pluralistic, so that 
anti-Chavistas and Chavistas can work side-by-side, getting their 
immediate tasks done, relatively free of the political polarization that 
has gripped Venezuela in the past few years.

In effect, these task-specific committees, with the CTUs leading the 
way, have come to occupy a space between non-governmental organizations 
and governmental organizations, between partisan politics and 
non-partisan project work. As such, the CTUs and the mission-related 
committees have become the most important example of participatory 
democracy in Venezuela today. The government did not create them, but it 
enabled their creation by opening the government up to their emergence 
and their input. Perhaps this can be a model for reforming the 
Venezuelan state as a whole and other states as well.

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