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Organizing, Power, and Political Support in Caracas, Venezuela

Steffen Lajoie


The constraints and obstacles of living in mega-slums and the need to win back the city

The charter for the right to the city, articulated by Habitat International Coalition and supported by a large international network, pushes for recognition of the role and participation of residents, community groups, and social movements (Brown and Kristensan 2009). In 1999, Venezuela adopted the constitutional right to the city including the right to safe and decent housing, the right to participation in democratic processes, and, more interestingly, the right to form local planning units and control local decision-making in development and planning. This article will look at the context of urban slums and social movements before winning constitutional and legislative rights. Then, it will analyze the catalyzing effect of the constitutional changes and how they led specifically to the formation of the Comités de Tierra Urbana (Urban Land Committees or CTU). Finally, the paper will analyze the multiplier effects the level of government support had on local community organizations and on the reduction of poverty.

Context: Realities on the ground — The informal city and the struggle for inclusion

As in so many cities in lower income countries, walking the streets of Caracas bears witness to a myriad of constructions, and huge varieties in contexts. Estimates suggest some 60 to 70 percent of households live in informal neighborhoods, often in high-risk areas (flooding, landslides, and crime), in conditions well below what is considered safe and adequate by the people living there (Antillano 2005: 207-208; Nunez n.d).

The ‘formal’ or planned area of the city stretches along a narrow valley. Neighborhoods in this area range from wealthy to quite poor. It is spotted with cramped and illegal settlements wherever there is space: along irrigation canals; in abandoned buildings; and in empty derelict urban spaces. More noticeable is what surrounds the city. While planners and architects strove to create an interesting national district, massive informal settlements grew up along the steep hills surrounding the city, creating some of Latin America’s oldest and largest slums (Nunez n.d.; Ellner 2004: 120-130). The contrast is stark, impressive and not uncommon. The contrast also questions who is really building today’s cities.

How and why planners, designers and political visionaries managed to exclude the city’s poor and a majority of its population is a long and interesting story (see Ellner 2004). Suffice to say, slums in and around Caracas are defined by socio-economic and physical exclusion from the actual city (Antillano 2005: 206; Cariola et al 2005b: 22-25; Lajoie 2006: 5-6). The slums of Caracas are hyperorganic mini-cities: houses piled one on top of the other prior to any pedestrian or car access, water, sanitation, electricity or drainage. These settlements continue to appear and to grow all around the urban areas of Caracas.

Antillano (2005) describes the building of the social movement in the twenty years prior to the 1999 constitution as fractious, unorganized. Due to the many institutionalized and cultural obstacles, community groups had what seemed as insurmountable obstacles placed in front of them. However, it would be these same groups and activists who would eventually pick up the banner of the CTU and build off of their experience.

Change: Transforming Laws and Processes — Gaining Access

The 1999 Constitution set into motion major developments throughout Venezuela. In particular, it described housing as a human right. Considering the realities of the country, it seemed a bold and unrealistic statement. However, the constitution also promoted popular participation through article 26, and local planning councils through article 182 (Cariola and LaCabana 2005b: 27-29). (1) These two articles were then supported by what is now the very famous Decree 1666, which recognized the Comités de Tierra Urbana (CTU) as the responsible organizations for streamlining land regularization, tenure allocation, and community participation and organization.

Fundamental to the decree was the development of the Oficina Técnica Nacional (National Technical Office, OTN), which provides technical support to land regularization in the form of land surveying, regularization, and the development of cadastral maps. The OTN is also the gateway between the Ministry of Housing and Habitat (MVH), a central government body, and the CTU. This functions not only for policy and programming, but also for financing. All of these elements formed the ingredients of the dish. The development, mobilization and organization created the recipe for integrated urban transformation (Holland 2006).

Victories: Tenure security, housing improvements, organization, and political clout

The Barrio movement before the presidential election of Hugo Chavez and the 1999 constitution in many ways laid the groundwork for what now consists of a housing revolution (Antillano 2005: 207-208). The legislation developed within and to support the constitution provided the necessary legitimacy and mechanisms to create access to the processes and structures within the formal framework of the city. As a result, community groups were able to form into CTU groups, regularize the land they lived on and acquire legal tenure for their properties. Building this level of organization is no small achievement. However accessing land tenure as a community creates a level of participation and potential for future community planning. In the first six years of work, the OTN claims having given out 350,000 land titles affecting some 520,000 families according the Centre for Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE 2008: 3-5).

The top-down support developed in Venezuela served as the catalyst for the CTU to organize on borough (parroquia), regional and metropolitan, and national levels. These assemblies led to new proposals such as education and training workshops for CTU members and representatives; the creation of the Centros de Participación para la Transformación del Hábitat (Participatory centres for the transformation of habitat, or CPTH) and Pioneros; (2) as well as the development of new proposals for the MVH to move towards an integrated housing policy. (3) The CPTH are involved in creating new settlements, working with the government to facilitate new land development, building homes, and acting as the primary partner for disbursing funds. The Pioneros were developed by the CTU to deal with land acquisition and new and existing design and building projects (Holland, 2006; OTN 2004). Most recently the CTU proposed a law on the land tenure for urban settlements, Ley Especial de Regularizacion Integral de la Tenencia de la Tierra de los Asentamientos Urbanos Populares. This would be a major step in dealing with institutional conflicts, increasing bureaucracy, accelerating the regularization process and creating new instruments such as the Banco de Tierra Urbana (Urban Land Bank) (COHRE 2008:4).

The final outcome points not only to new processes and the transformation of housing rights and policy, but also to new ways a city can be built, from its personal space (homes) to the public and private sphere (streets, parks, open and public spaces). The question remains to what scale the CTU will be able to push their influence over the city, and what will be the outcome of the debate on socialism and the city.

Observations: Launching community struggles to new heights constitutional recognition of the right to the city

The housing movement is an example of good practice in its efficacy to reach institutional levels through civil mobilization. Civic housing movements in Caracas have managed to influence the city on many levels:

• new definitions of the needs of the poor;

• innovative approaches to urban regeneration and design; integration of the Barrios into the housing process;

• state reforms and decentralization of housing, tenure, and land regularization;

• multi-sectoral and participative bottom-up decision-making and project control;

• new public-private partnerships;

• and as a result, a level of scale which reaches throughout the entire country of Venezuela.

The case further illustrates the importance of top-down policy to facilitate and support the needs and demands of a mobilized community. In this respect, creating a mechanism for giving land tenure to CTUs became the catalyst, which built on the social capital of the community groups and allowed for such livelihood strategies and outcomes to push the movement significantly. Huge informal slums are directly gaining ownership of their city and actively participating in the creation of their own neighborhoods and on a national scale. The CTU is at the forefront of the policy and the social movements that affect them. They are setting constant precedents and are mobilized and organized at sophisticated levels. If they were setting the standard, they would be doing a good job. The struggle for the CTU is far from over, but they have taken several steps towards winning the right to the city.

Transformation of Law and Process

1. The Constitution: Passed after a national referendum in 1999, it includes decent shelter as a human right

2. Article 26: promotes popular participation for development in the municipalities

3. Article 182: provides for local planning councils to act as intermediates between citizens and public institutions

4. Decree 1666: streamlines land regularization, community participation and tenure allocation via the CTU(Cariola et al, 2005a: p.113)

5. The CTU: Groups of 100 to 200 households registered together with elected leaders and organized at local, parroquial, metropolitan, and national levels. They work towards facilitating the tenure and regularization process; push for legal changes; community organization

6. The OTN: Provide technical and professional assistance to the CTU; funded by the Central Government

7. The MVH: Ministry of Housing and Habitat; fund CTU and independent projects (Holland, 2006; taken from Lajoie 2006: 29)

1 The articles also supported the formation of various ‘missions’ at the barrio (slum) level, including electricity, health, water and sanitation, and nutrition (Holland 2006, Cariola et al 2005).
2 The articles also supported the formation of various ‘missions’ at the barrio (slum) level, including electricity, health, water and sanitation, and nutrition (Holland 2006, Cariola et al 2005). Proposal for a document to the Ministry : 1/ to signal the fiasco of the housing politic (not a human problem but a political one caused by quantitative approaches ignoring habitat, concentration solely on building new units, focus on mass production of housing, alliances with the construction industry rather than civil society, general elements of a revolutionary and popular housing policy, access to Land, national System of technical assistance), 2/ Local consultation services, 3/ CPTH (actions aimed at supporting community self-management), 4/ Immediate agreements (to define project continuity, evaluation and technical assistance, to continue relationships between the CTU and MVH and to promote and finance CPTH projects, to define, by the MVH, a mechanism to deal with evictions, to assign land and credit to Pioneros groups, to create a transitional group and define new institutional structures, to participate in developing law, to install ‘mesas tecnicas parroquiales’, to create a mechanism linking directly and permanently to the ministry). Translated from CTU meeting minutes, CTU 2006.
3 See above: Héctor Madera: Los CTU.


habitat spontané, habitat populaire, habitat urbain, politique de la ville, gestion urbaine, propriété foncière, pauvreté

, Venezuela


Droit à la Ville


This article is also available in portuguese and in spanish



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HIC (Habitat International Coalition) - General Secretariat / Ana Sugranyes Santiago Bueras 142, Of.22, Santiago, CHILI - Tel/fax: + 56-2-664 1393, + 56-2-664 9390 - Chili - - gs (@)

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