CARACAS: Lisbeth Alcala doesn’t have a piece of paper to show she owns her home in Caribia Socialist City, a housing project that quite literally bears the sprawling signature of late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
But that hasn’t stopped her from investing her savings to remodel her apartment, a 72-square-meter (775-square-foot) unit in a boxy low-rise complex outside Caracas which has the leftist leader’s autograph painted in enormous pink letters on one side.
Now, like many Venezuelans who live in low-income housing, Alcala would like to buy the formal title to her home so she can rent it, sell it or pass it down to her heirs.
That has ignited a political battle between the opposition—fresh off a landslide win in legislative elections—and Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, who accuses his “bourgeois” enemies of trying to coopt his mentor’s legacy to score points with voters as oil-dependent Venezuela muddles through a painful economic crisis.
Last week the opposition used its new legislative majority—its first since Chavez came to power in 1999—to pass a bill to offer housing project residents the title to their homes.
It was a bold foray onto what has traditionally been the Chavez camp’s political turf: giving poor and working-class voters a solid roof over their heads by spending Venezuela’s oil wealth with largesse.
The opposition craftily homed in on a political weak spot in Chavez and Maduro’s much-touted “Great Venezuelan Housing Mission”: the ruling Socialists’ ambivalent attitude toward private property, which has left people like Alcala in an awkward real-estate no man’s land.
“We’ve been wanting to buy our apartments, but they always told us to wait. Now it looks like it could happen any minute,” said Alcala, 47, who has lived for the past five years in this white concrete complex where Chavez posters hang from many balconies.
Her neighbor Lourdes Ramos is a die-hard Chavez supporter but even she is anxious to trade her “adjudication document,” which prevents her from selling or remodeling her home, for something more substantial.
She is a fan of any moves in that direction, even if they come from the opposition, she told Agence France-Presse.
“They’re not interested in what’s good for us, but what they’re offering suits us,” she said.
Mustache on the line
The opposition bill has put Maduro on the defensive.
This week, his administration responded by publishing a resolution declaring the “urgency” of registering low-income housing owners.
The president, meanwhile, sought to seize back the initiative.
“How can you claim property rights for a home if you’ve never built a single one?” Maduro asked majority leader Julio Borges, accusing the opposition of “wanting to privatize the people’s housing.”
Chavez, who died in 2013, launched the Great Venezuelan Housing Mission in 2010 to provide three million free homes to flood victims within nine years.
With each completed project, the administration has thrown huge ribbon-cutting ceremonies broadcast on state TV.
Maduro says the government has invested $66.4 million on the project, despite a deep recession and crashing oil prices, and promises it will reach its goal by 2019.
The two sides differ on the figures, though.
Maduro, who has vowed to shave off his trademark mustache if he misses the target, says the government had handed over one million homes by the end of 2015.
But the opposition says there are in fact just 280,000.
As the battle rages, some low-income housing residents have already tried to obtain the legal title, without success.
Yelitza Nares was told she could buy her home for 300,000 bolivars ($48,000, at the official exchange rate), paid in monthly installments of $130.
“But they still haven’t given me the account number where we have to make the deposits,” she told Agence France-Presse.
Residents say that, without papers, they are fearful of losing their homes.
But Lisbeth Alcala vows she won’t go without a fight.
“I live here. This is mine,” she said.