Venezuelans evicted from 'vertical slum'

Last updated 16:22 23/07/2014
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JORGE SILVA / Reuters

GOODBYE: An evicted resident of Tower of David sits in a bus, as the building is reflected on the window.

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JORGE SILVA / Reuters
Evicted residents of Tower of David wait for a bus to transport them to their new house in Caracas on Tuesday.

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Venezuelan soldiers and officials are moving hundreds of families out of a half-built 45-storey skyscraper that dominates the Caracas skyline and is thought to be the tallest slum in the world.

The mass eviction from the ‘‘Tower of David‘‘, originally intended to be a bank centre but abandoned since 1994 and later home to some 3,000 needy Venezuelans, proceeded peacefully.

‘‘Necessity brought me here, and the tower gave me a good home,’’ said Yuraima Parra, 27, cradling her one-year-old daughter in a rug as soldiers helped load her possessions into a truck before dawn outside the building.

‘‘I was here for seven years. I’m going to miss it, but it’s time to move on.’’

The tower’s inhabitants said authorities were providing new homes in the town of Cua, south of Caracas, under the government’s Great Housing Mission project — a flagship policy of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez.

Nicknamed after its developer, the financier and horse-breeder David Brillembourg, the Tower of David was viewed by many Caracas residents as a focus for crime gangs and a symbol of property ‘‘invasions’’ encouraged in the Chavez era.

By 2007, the ‘‘invaders,’’ had claimed everything from the parking garages to the rooftop helipad. They rigged up electricity, opened stores and barbershops, and created a sophisticated internal management system.  

Residents said the building became a refuge from the city’s crime-ridden ’barrios’ and had turned into something of a model commune.

Inside there was evidence of hyper-organization everywhere: corridors were polished daily; squatters who first arrived in tents then partitioned spaces into well-kept apartments; rules, work schedule and admonitions were posted on walls.

BEAUTIFUL VISTAS

Life was far from easy, though.

Occasionally, people fell off dangerous ledges. There were no elevators, meaning long daily treks up and down. Makeshift power and water services were a headache.

Caracas police did not share the view of a model community, raiding several times to look for kidnap victims.

The vistas, however, matched those of the city’s swankiest high-rise buildings. ‘‘The view was so beautiful,’’ mused caterer Robinson Alarcon, 34, who spent five years on the ninth floor and was leaving with his wife and three children on Tuesday.

‘‘People are excited but sad too. Some don’t want to leave Caracas. But this was all discussed and agreed in advance.’’

President Nicolas Maduro’s government has not yet said what it will do with the tower, but one local newspaper reported that Chinese banks were buying it to restore to its original purpose.

The tower has drawn considerable international attention with reams of articles, documentaries and analyses of its unique spatial structures. One exhibition about it won a prize at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale.

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Politically, the tower was a hotbed of ‘‘Chavismo,’’ even though opponents saw it as indictment of the failures of his government to provide adequate housing for the poor.

‘‘This is all thanks to the ’comandante’,’’ said Carlos Francisco, 36, a plastics factory worker loading up his belongings on Tuesday morning. ‘‘First, that he let us live here. And now that he built us new homes. May he rest in peace.’’

Chavez, a hero to Venezuela’s poor in a way his successor Maduro has struggled to replicate, died of cancer last year.   

On Tuesday, Maria Sevilla, manager of the 28th floor, looked wistfully at the sooty concrete skeleton, with its steep ledges and incomplete stories stippled with satellite dishes. 

‘‘What I’ll miss the most is the community we built here,’’ she said. 

A former street vendor, Sevilla said the 50 neighbours on her floor had become like family to her and her teenage children. 

-AP/Reuters

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