Venezuela’s Quiet Housing Revolution: Urban Land Reform

marksimonbrown mark at
Wed Sep 21 16:32:34 BST 2005

Venezuela's Quiet Housing Revolution: Urban Land Reform

Monday, Sep 12, 2005

"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 

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 
" (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 turf. 

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.

More information about the Diggers350 mailing list