Venezuela’s Quiet Housing Revolution: Urban Land Reform

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 unprecedented mobilization of Venezuela’s barrios.

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