By Jeremy Morgan
Latin American Herald Tribune staff
CARACAS -- Squatters living in private property in west Caracas that they were allowed to take over when the capital was controlled by President Hugo Chávez' ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) will be able to stay there if a pro-government mayor has his way.
Mayor Jorge Rodríguez of Libertador, the municipality that takes in all of the western part of the city, said he intended to issue a decree banning attempts to evict the squatters. He claimed the measure would "benefit" 20,000 families.
Rodríguez, a former vice president and a big wheel in the PSUV, said little or nothing about compensation for the owners of the apartment blocks at the center of his plan. By itself, this was enough to spark accusations that he was riding roughshod over not only property laws but the constitution as well – and in effect bolstering dubious actions by former Metropolitan Mayor Juan Barreto.
Barreto was once another large cheese in the PSUV, but one whose political star is deemed since to have dimmed to the point of utter obscurity. While Metropolitan Mayor, he "expropriated" 241 privately-owned apartment blocks and then let in the squatters.
At the time, his rationale for this was that the buildings were empty and he was duty-bound to help the homeless. Critics claim that most of the squatters – some of whom moved in under the eyes of the police, who did nothing to prevent them – are linked to factions of the PSUV.
They were also said to have been accompanied by men with guns when they took over some of the buildings a couple of years back. They've been there ever since, amid so far fruitless steps by the owners to evict them legally.
Now, Rodríguez is deemed to be trying to put an official stamp on the squatters' presence in the buildings, in the process retroactively justifying Barreto's action. However, in doing so, Rodríguez seems either to have ignored or been ignorant of the fact that the right to private property is set out in quite clear terms in the Bolivarian Constitution adopted at Chávez' behest in 1999.
Furthermore, it's argued that as mayor, Barreto didn't actually have the right to expropriate the buildings in the first place. Those powers can be exercised solely by the National Assembly or the Housing Ministry – and in both cases only with the prior enabling legislation in every instance.
Barreto is said not to have gone through any such procedure before making his move; He simply issued a decree that his critics have long claimed went way beyond his remit.
But by then, Barreto had shown a highly pronounced penchant for expropriating other people's property while he was mayor. A shameless populist despite hailing from academia – well, media studies, actually – Barreto on one famous occasion abruptly announced that the mayoralty was taking over two private golf courses in the city.
One of them was the distinctly up-market Country Club course, and Barreto said his purpose was to build housing on lots of land. On that occasion, Barreto didn't get away with it, even if he was taking a crack at the well-off "oligarchy" that Chávez claims still controls the economy – despite his having been in power for a decade.
Then-Interior Minister Jesse Chácon – an old and powerful soul mate and former comrade in arms of the president – bluntly pointed out that the right to private property was enshrined in the constitution.
It was a bit like watching an exasperated parent telling a tiresome child to stop being silly. Admonished, Barreto backed off and desisted. With hindsight, this is deemed the moment when his political fortunes began to fade.
After the Country Club episode, then-opposition Mayor Leopoldo López of Chacao in mid-Caracas suggested that the largely unused airport at La Carlota could be used for housing. Barreto didn't want to know. It was almost as if this was because it hadn't been his idea in the first place.
Today, López is in long-term political limbo after being "inhabilitated" or banned from standing for election at the whim of Comptroller General Clodosbaldo Russián. Barreto, too, is out there in the wilderness, but for entirely different reasons.
Barreto is said to be in bad odor with the Boss. Recently, he launched his own program on a small radio station in Caracas.
Succeeded as Metropolitan mayor by Antonio Ledezma of the opposition, Barreto's tenure is now under increasing question. One issue centers on a large property described as a mansion in Urbanización Miranda, a prosperous district of east Caracas.
The property is said to be set in 6,000 square meters of land, with a swimming pool and half a dozen bathrooms and other luxury features. It is also alleged to have been built with municipal funds, and Barreto is under suspicion of building himself a comfortable retirement home.
Under siege from persistent questions, Barreto claims that the building was to be used as a home for terminally ill people with several years left to live. This and other as yet unanswered questions linger on from his time as mayor, and it is said these are among the motives behind unruliness by thuggish individuals ever since Ledezma took over as chief executive of the capital.