CARACAS – Antonio Moreno, a 61-year-old Venezuelan retiree, trembles uncontrollably while recovering from a respiratory infection inside his makeshift apartment in Viasa Tower, an iconic Caracas building that once served as the headquarters of a now-defunct airline and began to be occupied by homeless squatters nearly 15 years ago.
The door facing his bed is decorated with images of late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Argentine-born Cuban revolutionary leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara, two leftist icons with whom he sympathizes as a loyal member of the long-ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).
“I (took up residence) here thinking they would relocate us,” Moreno, straining to enunciate his words, told EFE.
The retiree, who has had Parkinson’s disease since 2014 yet is not being treated due to insufficient money and a lack of availability of drugs at Caracas’ pharmacies, rented different apartments on the capital’s west side until becoming a squatter.
When his shortness of breath temporarily subsides, he walks around a living space devoid of internal dividing walls.
His room formerly served as one of the fifth-floor offices of one-time flag carrier Venezolana Internacional de Aviacion (Viasa), an airline that was nationalized in 1975, enjoyed commercial success in the 1980s, was re-privatized in 1991 when Spain’s Iberia took a majority stake and ceased operating and went into liquidation in 1997.
The Teresa Carreño Theater, the country’s largest, and the Central Park Towers, twin skyscrapers that dominate the horizon on Caracas’ west side, are visible through the room’s panoramic window.
But so are the half-built shacks of the low-income San Agustin neighborhood, which extends over a steep hillside that is more easily accessible by cable car than by road.
“I want them to remove us,” a still-trembling Moreno told EFE while staring at the images of Simon Bolivar, Chavez and Jose Marti that adorn the walls of his home.
The reality facing this retiree and hundreds of other people living at Viasa Tower contrasts with official government figures indicating that 3 million homes have been delivered to low-income people through a nationwide program known as Mision Vivienda.
The country has been mired in a severe economic crisis for years, with hyperinflation and shortages of basic goods having prompted more than 4 million people to leave the country, according to the US Agency for International Development.
Leftist incumbent Nicolas Maduro remains in power even though the US has implemented harsh sanctions on Venezuela’s state oil company, government and central bank in a bid to further strangle the oil-rich nation.
Because dozens of residents of Viasa Tower scrape out a living by selling “tostones,” one of the most popular fried snacks in Caracas, the smell of burnt oil and fried plantains is pervasive.
Hundreds of kilos of green plantains are fried every day in oil-filled cauldrons before being packed by hand and sold for less than $0.10 apiece throughout the capital – in parks, hospitals, kiosks and the Caracas Metro.
The business rakes some $2,000 in sales every day, but when divided among the hundreds of fry cooks, packers and sellers the per-person income is meager.
The smell of tostones penetrates both Moreno’s living space and that of his neighbor, Laura Ramirez, who is also 61 and retired and lives alone in a room that has both water and electricity service.
“I ask my God to help me get out of here,” said the woman, who previously worked in the public sector and the informal economy.
But Ramirez also said she is at peace and accustomed to her circumstances after living in the tower for 13 years.
The walls of her room also are covered with images of Chavez, a charismatic socialist and outspoken critic of US foreign policy who governed Venezuela from 1999 until his death from cancer in 2013. Maduro, his hand-picked successor, has continued his leftist policies.
“I don’t hide anything. I voted for Chavismo (Chavez’s political doctrine). I voted for everything Chavez,” Ramirez said.
Moreno and Ramirez said that despite their many years as PSUV supporters, they don’t feel resentful about their living conditions and do not believe the government has abandoned them.
“A revolution doesn’t move that quickly. I’m not complaining. I’m a Chavista, and well, here’s Chavez,” Moreno said, pointing at one of the images of the late president on his wall.
“I’ll be with this until the sea dries up because this is the only government that has helped poor people,” he added.
Another tower resident, Ivonne Madrid, moves quickly around the room while shaking a folder full of sheets of paper.
She says she keeps constant tabs on the 140 families living inside the Viasa Tower to know who is sick, whose situation is particularly bad and how many families live on each floor.
“More than 200,” she told EFE without hesitating when asked how many children reside in the building.
She excitedly recalls some small triumphs, such as when the residents managed to pump water from the building’s lobby to the upper floors, but also remembers with sadness two other episodes.
“Things have happened,” said the 53-year-old housewife, who has taken on the role of squatter leader and spokesperson.
In 2018, at least nine residents died as a result of clashes with security forces, who accused them of attacking a police officer and stealing his service weapon.
And just a few months ago a fire erupted on the building’s 13th and 14th floors, leaving a dozen families in an even more precarious situation.
“(The tower) doesn’t have everything we’re aspiring to attain. We need our own homes,” she said.