Monday, November 8, 2010

Hugo Chavez defends state takeovers of apartments

CARACAS, Venezuela – Facing a wave of criticism from business leaders, President Hugo Chavez is defending his order for government officials to seize control of residential complexes.

Chavez promised Sunday to crack down on construction and real estate companies that he accused of unjustly boosting prices, which he labeled "housing fraud."

The president, a self-proclaimed revolutionary who idolizes Cuba's Fidel Castro and is currently on a visit to Havana, called his decision last week to order the expropriation of six residential complexes and "the temporary occupation" of eight gated communities in Caracas and other cities "an act of justice."

Venezuela's consumer protection agency and state prosecutors are investigating complaints that construction companies and real estate firms are illegally charging buyers high interest on unfinished apartments, even though the buyers settled on a price years ago and made down payments.

"We have decided to put an end to this type of organized crime," Chavez wrote in his weekly newspaper column.

Companies accused of violating consumer-protection regulations deny any wrongdoing.

Apartment owners affected by the measures have had mixed reactions.

Some don't like having soldiers posted near their homes or fear the measure could encourage pro-Chavez squatters to invade buildings still under construction. Others applaud the measure, saying it has protected them from unscrupulous business practices.

In some mostly middle-class residential complexes, groups of neighbors have implemented security measures aimed at keeping squatters out, such as organizing around-the-clock surveillance teams and putting a siren at entrances to be sounded in case of emergency.

Apartment owners from one of the expropriated complexes — El Encantado Humboldt — issued a statement over the weekend criticizing the state takeover and throwing their support behind the company responsible for building the gated community, saying it never stopped construction as government inspectors have alleged.

"We strongly reject the expropriation measure," the statement said. "We are content with the construction company's development of the project."

Critics of the expropriations and temporary state takeovers, including Chavez's political opponents and Venezuela's largest business chamber, warn the government's measures will scare off investors and aggravate the country's housing deficit.

More than 1 million of Venezuela's estimated 28 million inhabitants do not have adequate housing while millions more live in dangerous, laberinth-like slums ringing the South American nation's cities.

The government plans to invest $1.5 billion next year to build homes for poor and middle-class families, Chavez announced Sunday.

Opposition politician Julio Borges accused Chavez on Sunday of trampling private-property rights and steering Venezuela toward Cuba-style communism.

Borges told a news conference that Venezuelans don't want to live in "a country of slaves, where the government is the owner of everything and the people aren't owners of anything."

"We want a country of property owners," he said.

In a telephone interview with state television from Havana on Sunday, Chavez alleged that some construction and real estate firms are funding opposition groups. He did not provide details.

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