Venezuela's Great Housing Mission - RCG/FRFI SOAS meeting 13 June 2018

RCG meeting at SOAS, 13 June 2018

On 13 June 2018 the Revolutionary Communist Group, with Fight Racism Fight Imperialism (FRFI) SOAS student society and Rock Around The Blockade (RATB), hosted a public meeting titled 'Venezuela: How socialism can resolve the housing crisis' to explore the lessons that can be learned from Venezuela's Great Housing Mission and how they can be applied to the fight for social housing in Britain. Presentations were given by Marcos Garcia, First Secretary of the Venezuelan Embassy, and Hannah Caller of RCG and RATB. Below we publish the text of a speech delivered by Elias Haddad of FRFI SOAS, giving an overview of the Great Housing Mission and its wider context and lessons.

Venezuela is implementing its own socialist solution to its own housing crisis. It is obvious that the conditions facing the Venezuelan and British people are different, and the specificities of the housing shortage here are different to those over there. Yet that is part of why Venezuela’s project is so important to us. Because while Britain is a wealthy country that receives massive profits from exploiting the rest of the world, Venezuela is much poorer and relies solely on its own people and national resources. Moreover, Venezuela is facing political isolation, economic sabotage and sanctions from the US and its imperialist allies. Despite this, Venezuelans are guaranteed the right to affordable, decent housing. The British government, from a privileged situation, makes no effort to solve homelessness, overcrowding or unfit accommodation. Instead, our government and councils push austerity on the poor while luxury flats are built to create more profits for the rich.

In this speech I will talk about the context in which the Great Housing Mission became necessary, and why it has been possible. Then, I will move on to explaining what this project is in detail, and some expectations for the near future. Finally, I will present some of the lessons that we can draw from Venezuela’s case, to open up the discussion.

Firstly, it is very important that we understand the economic context of the Great Housing Mission and the socialist process taking place in Venezuela, the Bolivarian revolution. The dependency on oil exports and the problems that come with it are not new to Venezuela, and they are not a product of socialist policies. Knowing the background not only helps to explain the current shortages crisis, but also to understand the conditions in which the masses lived in Venezuela as the Bolivarian revolution started.

In 1999, the new government of Hugo Chávez inherited something he himself called a ‘capitalist rentier’ economy. The Venezuelan ruling class depended on the sales of the national oil company, to the point where oil sales made up 95% of exports in 1998. Many products, even the most basic such as flour, were imported into Venezuela rather than produced in the country. This economic structure was supported by the imperialist United States, since it created a very dependent Venezuela. Oil production has been falling overall throughout the years of socialist governments, yet it still represents the main source of dollars, which are much needed to import products.

This dependency also shaped the population’s distribution. Since historically the Venezuelan bourgeoisie relied on a regular stream of profits from oil sales to the US, industry and agriculture gave way to oil. Many Venezuelans had to emigrate out of the underdeveloped and idle countryside, so that today 89% of Venezuela’s people live in cities. This is the highest proportion in the region. The result of this migration to the cities has been the creation of enormous slums and poor housing conditions for the mass of the working class. This was accompanied by a lack of universal healthcare and education.

During the entire 40 years before the Bolivarian revolution, the Venezuelan government built only 1.5 million affordable housing units, and they were nowhere near meeting decent standards. They were often handed over to families unfinished and without basic utilities. This type of housing was nicknamed ‘matchstick boxes’. 2,700 of these houses were built on unstable soil, and where declared uninhabitable as soon as Hugo Chávez took office in 1999. Again, we see how both Venezuela’s bourgeoisie and the US imperialists had no interest in supporting the development of the country.

In 2011, Hugo Chávez launched the Great Housing Mission of Venezuela. This mission is part of a whole range of social programmes to ensure that everyone has access to healthcare, food, education and other basic needs. The Venezuelan government also had programmes to refurbish houses in bad conditions, through the missions called Barrio Tricolor and Barrio Nuevo. The Great Housing Mission planned to build 3 million homes by 2019. Current president Nicolás Maduro already declared that the target will eventually rise to 5 million. Seven years later, Venezuela has 2.1 million new homes, via a centrally-planned house building programme with some very remarkable characteristics.

Venezuela is trying to actually guarantee access to decent housing for all of its people. Just writing laws is not enough. For example, in Spain housing is a constitutional right, yet there are no mechanisms in place to provide for it. Instead, Spain has seen 170,000 evictions take place between 2008 and 2012 without alternative housing offered by the state.

The mission’s houses are built by the state and local communities together. While the large, nationalised corporations provide the funding and materials, Venezuela’s communal councils also participate in construction. In fact, over half of projects are built by the communal councils. This means that people are democratically organised at a grassroots level, in their neighbourhoods or small towns. This involves the people in the house building programme, as well as in other political projects. In Britain, for example, social housing is provided through a simple top-down approach that alienates tenants. In Venezuela, the decent, affordable homes are planned based on the needs of the people, national production and of the environment, rather than to make profits for landlords and private developers.

Secondly, these new homes are granted taking into account the living conditions of households. When candidates apply for this type of housing, they need to declare if their current accommodation is overcrowded or doesn’t have the basic utilities, so as to be prioritised. Factors such as income and household size will also affect the price for the applicants. In fact, the poorest applicants receive a 100% subsidy on their mortgage, while those on twice the minimum wage have a 50% subsidy. Banks have to put 20% of their funding into mortgages.

It is important to note that these new houses are owned by the tenants, with minimum state involvement. Venezuelans are fighting not just to have a roof, but to have a home of their own. Instead of low rents, as in Britain’s case, Venezuelans pay income-based mortgages for their affordable housing.

Even after the houses are built, the Venezuelan government’s housing ministry holds meetings with local communal councils in order to maintain communication between the leadership and the people. This channel can serve to raise concerns of irregularities and corruption to the national government.

For the remaining part of my speech, I will expand on some of the problems faced by the Venezuelan people and government today, and what is expected of the Great Housing Mission.

I already mentioned the dependency on oil exports, so a few figures will help to clarify the current problems. In 2012 Venezuela was selling oil at 109USD ($) per barrel. From there prices fell, with a massive drop between 2014 and 2015. That was the deepest drop in history. By 2016 an oil barrel was worth $40, which is less than the price in 2005. Now it stands around $70. This is one of the causes for the sudden shortage of dollars, which as I said earlier are vital for the country’s subsistence. On top of that, there is the continued economic sabotage carried out by the displaced Venezuelan bourgeoisie, in coordination with foreign imperialist forces from North America and Europe. Part of this sabotage is the artificial rise in inflation, which has reached unimaginable levels of 24,000%, when in Britain it is 2.5%. In the recent years the US, Canada and the EU have also been imposing sanctions on Venezuela, accelerating the process of pushing people below the poverty line and hoping to cause dissent against the socialist government.

Fortunately, the consciousness of the Venezuelan workers and peasants has maintained the socialist government in power, granting it victories in all the elections of the past year. The economic problems still mean that the Bolivarian revolution has slowed down its development. The Great Housing Mission of Venezuela may not be able to meet its target of 3 million housing units by 2019, but take longer instead. The Venezuelan masses are enduring increasingly adverse conditions. Under the severe attacks from the right-wing, the Venezuelan people have chosen the path of more socialism, supporting Nicolás Maduro in the last elections1. They know that imperialism and capitalism offer no solutions for them.

One very important lesson is that Venezuela is not just building houses. It is taking control of its resources and involving grassroots democracy into political decision making. In Venezuela the masses aren’t waiting for a benevolent and charitable ruling class; they are taking power into their own hands. They have to resist imperialism and fight capitalism if they want to develop Venezuela and work for the benefit of the people.

The Venezuelan wealthy and the imperialist forces have used all kinds of methods to overthrow the Bolivarian revolution. Right-wing attacks by economic sabotage, paramilitary squads and sanctions have become everyday business in the country. Let’s remember that in April 2002 there was even a right-wing military coup d’état against Hugo Chávez, which fortunately failed thanks to the fight put up by the Venezuelan people2. Let us also remember that Latin America has a long history of interference by US imperialism, with multiple coups d’état, assassinations, funding of parties and economic sabotage all for the control of the continent’s wealth.

Here in Britain we can only take lessons from the struggling Venezuelan people and government. We need socialist solutions to the problems of capitalism. We cannot wait for those who profit from sky-high house prices to provide for the needs of the masses.

Here in Britain there have been some proposed solutions. Often they involve higher taxes for the rich and the government building homes through a top-down approach. This is the method that was used in the past. This means that, in Britain, in times of crisis such as now, the same ruling class that gave us social housing can swiftly take it away. Our system of social housing is also likely to be unsafe and not reflect the needs of the poor in Britain, since there isn’t a truly democratic process behind it.

In Venezuela the poor and oppressed know that the struggle is the only way forward for them. We need to build socialism here in Britain, and support the revolutions that fight for the oppressed around the world.

¡Viva Venezuela! ¡Venceremos!

[1] See Venezuela: imperialist pressure mounts as Maduro is re-elected, FRFI 264 June/July 2018

[2] See Venezuela: defeated coup, FRFI 167 June/July 2002


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