What Next for Venezuela's High-Rise Slum?

The Venezuelan government did something unusual last week.

I am not talking about pressuring the tiny island of Aruba in order to free a drug lord. I am not even talking about broadcasting a birthday party -- complete with "Happy Birthday" and cake -- for a corpse (the late Hugo Chávez). As bizarre as these things sound, they are part of the daily craziness of chavista Venezuela.

No, what I'm walking about is the government's unusual decision to evict squatters from one of the country's most notorious slums.

In spite of lying in an attractive tropical valley with spring-like weather all year round, Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, is not a particularly memorable city. It has few architectural landmarks, and most of the city's buildings sprung up during the 1950 to 1980 oil boom that spurred the country's growth -- not exactly a period that architects remember fondly.

It came as a surprise, then, that one building became a topic of much interest for foreign media and architects alike in the past few years. The building in question is the Tower of David, a 45-story glass skyscraper that lay abandoned for years after the bank that commissioned it went belly up. The tower -- named after David Brillembourg, the owner of the bank -- captured the world's imagination after it was invaded by more than 800 homeless families. The squatters quickly transformed it into the world's tallest slum.

Everyone from award-winning journalist Jon Lee Anderson to the BBC wanted to see this monument to urban decay. Squatters quickly created a mini-city that had everything from grocery stores to school to a Pentecostal Church. Of course, the tower was riddled with criminals, and several people -- mostly children -- have plunged to their deaths thanks to the tower's lack of railings and non-existent safety conditions.

The building captured the world's imagination. Photojournalists came to take pictures, and a project to transform it into a livable community won an architectural prize. The American TV show Homeland used it as the setting for one of its episodes. The building was an enthralling microcosm of chavista chaos.

Chavista lore explains that the presence of the squatters is due to the severe floods of 2010, which left thousands homeless. But the reality is different: Homelessness in Venezuela is caused by a dearth in the supply of housing. The private sector is hampered by red tape, and the financial industry is averse to mortgages; enormous budget deficits and high inflation means it's less risky to lend to the government than to potential homeowners. In an economy with double-digit inflation and scant respect for private property, giving mortgages to individuals is a risky proposition.

Add to that a deficit in cement and steel material production following the nationalization of both industries, and the result is unsurprising: Construction has not been able to meet housing demand for many years. It is estimated that more than 7 million Venezuelans lack proper housing.

Surprisingly, the government began the process of emptying the tower last week. (The photo above shows the Tower of David's residents carrying their belongings out of the building.) This was unexpected since the government has protected, and sometimes even encouraged, the occupation of abandoned housing or commercial complexes.

It has begun moving its residents to a government housing complex in the nearby city of Cúa, some 21 miles from Caracas. (A satirical website joked that the government was building a new skyscraper in poor, rural Cúa in order to accommodate the families.)

Press reports suggest the eviction was done at the behest of the Chinese. Apparently, the building was being eyed as a future headquarters for the Bank of China, and the Venezuelan government is deeply beholden to Chinese interests, particularly in light of generous loans flowing from Beijing to Caracas.

If this is true, one has to wonder why the Chinese picked that tower in particular as headquarters for its many Venezuelan interests. Many office buildings in Venezuela have plenty of room. Companies are leaving the country thanks to severe currency restrictions and a deteriorating business climate, and supply is probably outstripping demand.

The answer is in the symbolism. The Tower lies at the heart of Caracas's banking district, and as such it was an eyesore, a blatant reminder of the failed promises of the Bolivarian revolution. The Chinese probably viewed this as unacceptable, and they may have wanted to test the government's resolve in solving politically sensitive problems such as evicting thousands of squatters -- many of them chavista supporters -- from the middle of the city. It remains to be seen whether or not they will succeed -- so far, only 25 percent of the tower's inhabitants have left the building.

Regardless of what fate has in store for the Tower of David, it is clear that solving the underlying causes of the housing crisis is going to be much more difficult than getting the tower ready for its next use. Whether it is used for a Chinese bank or simply demolished, the tower will no longer be a monument to failed public policies. Even though the government has pushed for an increase in public housing as of late, those efforts are sputtering. One can only hope that the conditions that led to this housing crisis will change.

Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions, editor of Caracas Chronicles, and author of Blogging the RevolutionRead the rest of his posts here.


Democracy Lab

The Good News from Indonesia's Election Stalemate

We don't know who the winner is yet, but the presidential election in Indonesia, the world's third largest democracy, is already proving to be the most exciting in recent memory: messy, polarized, and full of drama. Both candidates -- Djoko Widodo (known as Jokowi) and Prabowo Subianto -- are claiming victory, each citing unofficial results produced by several private polling agencies. Indonesia's official news agencies have now withdrawn their initial vote projections in order to calm the waters before the official results are released.

The Indonesian Election Commission is expected to complete counting the votes on July 21. According to the English-language Jakarta Post, cases of foul play are spreading "like a rash during the vote tabulation phase." Most of the complaints are coming from Jokowi's supporters.

Whoever wins, his margin of victory will be small. Both candidates have already made it clear that they will not accept defeat on the basis of the vote count determined by the Indonesian Election Commission (KPU). That means that the second-place candidate will probably take matters to the Constitutional Court, which will delay the official announcement of the results by a month, complicate the country's already chaotic post-electoral politics, and test the (so far admirable) discipline of each camp's supporters. On the positive side, an appeal will further institutionalize these procedures and establish a road map for future contingencies. Indonesia has approximately three months to complete the electoral process before a new president takes the charge by mid-October 2014.

Over the past three months, the election has opened up a sharp political divide between the traditional political elite and groups that are demanding greater political change. The former camp has coalesced around Prabowo, an ex-general who played a leading role in Suharto's security apparatus. The latter, consisting mainly of civil society groups and ordinary citizens, have supported Jokowi, who has used his position as mayor of Jakarta to buttress his reputation as a reformer. These two sides of the Indonesian electorate have found themselves at odds over the question of how much democracy is good for Indonesia and how much political space is needed for Indonesian citizens.

The Prabowo-led coalition of forces from the established political elite has been dueling with a Jokowi-led movement that is demanding more democratic reforms, clean government, and greater political accountability. While Jokowi is widely viewed as a champion of good governance, Prabowo has been linked with large-scale human rights violations during the riots of May 1998, when the businesses and homes of Indonesians of ethnic Chinese origin were attacked around the country.

Jokowi, the man of the masses, represents the Indonesian Party of Struggle (PDI-P), the largest political party in the Indonesian parliament. Prabowo, a former military general and son-in-law of Indonesia's former dictator, Suharto, is the leader of the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), the third-largest political party in parliament.

You might think that Jokowi would have the edge simply because of his populist reputation as a man who represents the aspirations of ordinary Indonesians -- and you wouldn't be far off, since he has indeed been the national favorite ever since the campaign first got under way. Yet Prabowo has gone from single-digit approval ratings at the beginning of this year to his current status as a challenger on almost equal terms with the front-runner. Why has his candidacy taken off so dramatically? What is the source of his appeal?

Above all, Prabowo has tapped into growing popular frustration with what many see as Indonesia's chaotic democratic process. His vote-winning strategy has relied on a highly effective media campaign organized around themes of economic nationalism and xenophobia. He has built a strong electoral alliance, mobilized lucrative support from business elites, embraced religious hardliners, and cast himself as a strong leader who will vigorously defend the country's national interests and natural resources. It was the government of Megawati Sukarnoputri, the leader of the PDI-P, that allowed international companies to start mining in protected forests in 2004. Prabowo's economic nationalism has proven so popular during the campaign that Jokowi was forced to include similar planks in his agenda several months ago.

In order to win over the support of Indonesia's majority Muslims, Prabowo has openly embraced the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a religious militia that has launched several attacks not only on religious minorities but also on non-Sunni Muslims.

Prabowo has also proven to be a skilled coalition-builder, ultimately putting together a broad alliance of seven conservative parties. The coalition's members, who include four Islamist groups as well as Suharto's own Golkar party, potentially command more than two-thirds of total votes as well as a parliamentary majority. The coalition not only drew in supporters and sympathizers but also extended Prabowo's political and social appeal.

Shortly after the election, Prabowo announced plans to transform this electoral alliance into a five-year permanent coalition -- one that will stand for unapologetically majoritarian rule, policies closely tied to moneyed interests, and resistance to further democratic reforms. (In reality, Prabowo's "permanent" coalition may not last very long if he loses; Golkar, in particular, has a long history of opportunism, switching sides whenever it sees fit.)

Prabowo's most effective (and polarizing) campaign tactic, however, has been his smear campaign against Jokowi. In a significant departure from past presidential campaigns in the democratic era, Prabowo launched a frontal attack on his rival, charging him with insufficient Islamic piety, Chinese origins, and communist sympathies. This is, essentially, a reprise of the approach favored by Suharto, who used the same three accusations as the basis for eliminating a large number of Indonesian citizens during his three decades of authoritarian rule. Prabowo's apparent success at reviving the old formula has raised uncomfortable questions about the extent to which the legacy of Suharto-style authoritarianism remains alive and well. Indonesia's dark past, as Australian journalist Hamish Macdonald noted, "is proving uncomfortably persistent."

Yet there is actually quite a lot of good news amid the darkness. The same very ingredients that Prabowo has used to his advantage -- the politics of exclusion, fear, and intimidation -- have mobilized common citizens and civil society against his candidacy. Indonesians began to worry that his victory could mean an end to democracy. On July 4, The Jakarta Post, one of Indonesia's most influential daily papers, broke a 30-year policy of neutrality and officially endorsed Jokowi as a presidential candidate. The paper's editorial staff defended their decision by arguing that the stakes were too high in this election, and that the fate of Jokowi's candidacy would also decide the fate of Indonesian democracy.

Even though this contest has sorely tested Indonesian democracy, it has also demonstrated once again the strength of popular participation and of respect for democratic norms. Turnout in this election has broken all previous records, proving that Indonesians are determined to see that their votes count.

Equally importantly, this election has been almost completely free of violence. Indonesians have adhered to the democratic norm of expressing their political differences by peaceful means. The Indonesian security forces have remained neutral, successfully maintaining law and order throughout the country. Meanwhile, electoral authorities, civil activists, and party volunteers have been keeping a close watch on ballot boxes and vote tabulation processes in order to prevent tampering.

In this respect, Indonesia's presidential election is reinforcing the broader positive trend among Asian democracies. As in many other countries, the burgeoning Indonesian middle class is pushing for corruption-free, reform-oriented, distributive politics. This class, which now includes around 75 million people, and which is growing by some 10 percent per year, is demanding transparency and accountability.

The likelihood of Jokowi's victory (in the absence of mass-scale electoral fraud) implies that the majority of Indonesians reject Prabowo's revival of Suharto-style authoritarianism. For now, the idea of inclusive, progressive, and good governance-driven democracy seems to have trumped the exclusivist, conservative, and elite-driven politics of the few.

Vibhanshu Shekhar is a Scholar-in-Residence at ASEAN Studies Center, American University. He is also a Visiting Fellow at New Delhi-based Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He can be reached at

Agung Parameswara/Getty Images