VENEZUELA

Emptying the Tower of David, the World’s Tallest Ghetto

VENEZUELA
Dec 10, 2014 at 7:56 AM ET

CARACAS, VENEZUELA—The four large moving trucks idled outside the Tower of David as hundreds of people loaded up everything they owned: plasma TVs, stoves, mattresses, even a few pet parrots. After eight years, residents were finally leaving one of the world’s most notorious slums—a place that’s long mirrored the country’s hopes and failures.

Surrounded by green mountains and hillsides of modest homes, the Tower of David can be seen from almost every corner of this densely populated capital. And from a distance, the building looks like any other skyscraper.

Look more closely, however, and it’s clear that the Tower is anything but ordinary. Nearly half the windows are missing on one side, so from certain angles, the building looks like a jagged carcass. Satellite dishes congregate like vultures on the Tower’s flank, and rather than sleek elevators, a staircase winds up 28 floors, transporting thousands of squatters to their makeshift homes.

The Tower is a vertical ghetto so aesthetically grim that the producers of Homeland once used it as a plotline. In the show’s third season, Sergeant Nicholas Brody, one of the main characters, is on the lam when a CIA-paid thug named “El Niño” imprisons him in the Tower and later protects him from the U.S. government. In this fictional world, the Tower is a den of sin, a refuge for criminals, rogues and runaways.

In the real world, it’s a far more complicated place. Just ask Luiselmy Reinoso, a 31-year-old hostess with long brown hair and electric blue nails. She’s one of the tower’s 5,000 residents. For seven years, she and her boyfriend have lived here and raised five children. “We spent three weeks in a tent before they assigned us space on the 20th floor,” Reinoso said. “The place we got was full of rubble and garbage, and I was about to give birth. They relocated us on the 18th floor, [and] that’s where we built our house, little by little: first the outer walls, then the dividing walls, two bathrooms, a living room, dining room, kitchen and balcony.”

On a warm day in August, Reinoso and her family were finally saying goodbye to the building. The government was transporting them to Zamora City, a town located roughly an hour away in the Tuy Valley, one of the country’s most dangerous areas. Earlier that day, rain clouds had hovered over the capital, but now they’d disappeared and a fresh breeze was blowing as Reinoso led her children down the Tower’s steep concrete steps. When they arrived at the bottom, they boarded one of four red buses idling nearby and watched as the tower disappeared behind them. “The important thing is to have a stable home,” Reinoso said. “Everything else is manageable.”

The Tower itself has shown a similar ability to adapt. It started as the dream of David Brillembourg, a banker who wanted to make the building the centerpiece of a Latin American Wall Street. It was to be called the Confianzas Tower, but Brillembourg died unexpectedly in 1993. The next year, the country experienced its worst financial crisis in history, and most of Venezuela’s banks were wiped out. The government took over the Tower, and for a decade, the building was nothing more than a concrete skeleton wrapped in glass panels.

In 2007, amidst a terrible housing shortage, hundreds of squatters—most of them from the city’s poorest neighborhoods—broke into the building. Over the next four years, as the country struggled with a massive housing shortage, the government of Hugo Chávez encouraged roving bands of squatters to construct makeshift homes in more than 150 vacant buildings across the capital. Chávez had promised to lift millions out of poverty and create a more just, equitable society. The poor benefitted from his socialist revolution, as their incomes rose in part because of the largest oil windfall in the country’s history. But for many, Caracas had become a lawless city, and the Tower became an emblem of the revolution’s shortcomings.

So last summer, when Nicolas Maduro, Chávez’s handpicked successor, announced his plans to evacuate the building and relocate its residents, the Tower was once again set to become a symbol of the state of the country. Indeed, as Venezuela reeled from months of heated protests, a battered economy and spiraling crime, the new president seemed to be banking on the idea that moving the building’s residents into modest new homes would help improve their lives, cement his legacy, mend the revolution’s image and shore up his political base.

***

Though the government announced its relocation plans in July, behind the scenes, the negotiations with the Tower’s residents began months earlier. Organizers dubbed the effort “Operation Zamora.” The transfer program was spearheaded by Ernesto Villegas, Venezuela’s minister of urban transformation. That spring, he held a series of secret meetings with members of the housing cooperative that organized the Tower’s residents. His goal: to convince the squatters that the building was unsafe and that their lives would be improved if they moved to modern new homes in Zamora City.

Convincing residents to leave wasn’t easy. Initially, they rejected the moving plans. They felt Zamora was too far away and too dangerous. Living in the Tower wasn’t ideal, but it was far better than living in the slums, and many worried the move could make life harder.

Villegas reminded them that the Tower itself had its own problems, its own tainted reputation. A 4-year-old girl fell to her death from the 25th floor in 2010 while her mother was selling coffee downstairs. Two years later, the police raided the building on suspicions that residents had kidnapped a Costa Rican diplomat. They never found him, but the incident only added to the Tower’s notoriety.

What ultimately convinced the Tower’s residents, however, was a trip to the countryside and the promise that everyone who left would have their own home. In the end, roughly 800 of the building’s 1,157 families agreed to move in August. The rest would be relocated by the end of the year.

The negotiations were a rare victory for the Venezuelan president. Since Chávez’s death in the spring of 2013, Maduro has been forced to deal with a host of problems—from his predecessor’s daughters, who wouldn’t leave the presidential palace, to bogus rumors that he’s actually Colombian, an insult to many here in this nationalistic country.

Maduro’s main problem, however, has been the economy. Chávez left him a country in severe decline. But under Maduro’s stewardship, things have gotten even worse. After winning a highly contested election, the president has been plagued by spiraling inflation, climbing crime rates and shortages on everything from airline tickets to toilet paper. Most economists say the country needs to reduce the government’s massive subsidy on gas, which sells for less than 10 cents a gallon. But Maduro has resisted that move, fearing it would disproportionally hurt his political base, poor people like those living in the Tower.

***

Perhaps because so much is riding on the move to Zamora City, security was tight when I visited the building in August. Guards patrolled the entrance, and most residents were wary of speaking to me. Many said they couldn’t be seen talking to strangers without permission from the building coordinators—longtime residents who unofficially help manage the floors. These coordinators tried to follow me from the moment I entered the Tower to the moment I left.

From the inside, the Tower of David felt like an ancient ruin. Gusts of wind blew candy wrappers across the building’s atrium, and clusters of flies buzzed overhead. The scent of rotting garbage and raw sewage permeated the air. On some floors, residents painted the walls in various colors and hung posters of Chávez, who many remember with love and admiration.

Not all the Tower’s residents are poor, and the differences in wealth are obvious. On one visit, I bumped into Mayra Castillo, a 26-year old government employee with an undergraduate degree in education. Her husband works for Venezuelan state television, and the couple owns a car and a nice two-bedroom apartment with ceramic tiled floors.

They came to the Tower in 2011 because the nicer parts of the capital were too expensive. Since they moved into the building, they’ve spent thousands of dollars turning their apartment into a middle-class home. Because they both work normal business hours, moving outside the city will mean spending considerable time stuck in the capital’s notoriously bad traffic. But they still signed up for the move. “Buying an apartment in Caracas would cost more than $100,000,” Castillo said. “And there’s no way we could afford that.”

Other residents aren’t so fortunate. Carolina Moreno, 43, moved to the Tower in 2012. Previously, she lived with her husband in a four-bedroom house in a low-income neighborhood in the western part of the city. The couple owned a small security-guard company, which Moreno managed. Now she’s divorced and unemployed and takes care of her granddaughter. “We made good money until my husband left me and kicked me out of our business,” she said. “I ended up here, thanks to the pastor of my church.”

Moreno’s early life in the building wasn’t easy. And as we chatted on our way to her apartment, I could see she was holding back tears. “It was horrible at first,” she said. “Come and see the space I’m living in. I can’t call it a house.”

Moreno was living on the ground floor of the Tower in a tiny room she created between two hollow concrete pillars. The only light in her apartment came from a single 60-watt bulb hanging from a sewage pipe on the ceiling. Inside one pillar there was a two-ring stove beside a toilet bowl. Near the other pillar were a headboard, a mattress and a computer. These were all the belongings she had left from her marriage. “I try not to think about the way I’m living,” she said. “When I look at the cooking stove right next to the toilet bowl, I beg God to give me the strength to keep on living.”

But the promise of a new life in Zamora City has given her hope. “God appointed Hugo Chávez to bless this Tower,” she said. “Thanks to him, they’re going to give us a house. The minister said no one will be left behind.”

***

Moreno may be right. But at least one of the Tower’s residents has disappeared. Like the gang leader from Homeland, he’s known as “El Niño,” but his real name is Alexander Daza. He’s an ex-convict turned evangelical minister. A short, solidly built man with a handsome baby face, Daza spearheaded the invasion of the Tower and the early efforts to organize the building’s residents. Many of those who arrived after the takeover had to pay him between $1,000 and $4,000 for a place to build their homes. As Jon Lee Anderson explained in a story for The New Yorker last year, Daza also charged residents about $20 a month for maintenance. These fees, he said, were required to cover utilities.

Many who lived outside of the Tower saw Daza as a criminal and a thug. And he did have it better than most in the building: He lived on the first floor, owned a Ford SUV and another home in Caracas. He may have taken a cut for himself, but many residents say the police used to kidnap Daza and extort him for money, and that’s where many of their payments went. El Niño insisted he wasn’t a millionaire running a criminal enterprise. “We have order here,” he told The New Yorker. “These places aren’t prison cells, but homes. No one’s forced to collaborate. No one’s a tenant. We’re all inhabitants.”

Despite Daza’s fame, or infamy, most of the inhabitants acted during my time at the Tower like he was a ghost. One Saturday afternoon, I went to the building for a wedding in the lobby. A flood had delayed the ceremony for several hours, and as I waited, a woman named María Avendaño appeared.

Like Daza, she was a member of the original group that came to the Tower. She’s proud of how she and the other residents helped to create rules and regulations that improved people’s lives, how they installed a water tank in the building and electricity on most of its floors. She scoffed at the Homeland-like perception of the Tower as a nest of criminals and kidnappers. The building’s security force does have guns, she said, but to keep criminals out, not to protect them; the bad guys left because Daza kicked them out. “All of El Niño’s efforts were towards getting people decent housing,” she said. “It’s sad he’s not here to see this.”

The way many in the Tower recall Daza is similar to how many in Venezuela remember Chavez—with a mix of fondness and nostalgia that borders on melodrama. “El Niño is an emblem of the Venezuela Chavez represented,” Anderson, the New Yorker reporter, told me. “He wanted to rise in the world but didn’t know how. His past and his origins in the slums didn’t prepare him, but his intentions were to seek good in the darkness surrounding him. There’s no doubt he had killed, but he didn’t seem sinister or cruel like other criminals I’ve known.”

As the guests at the wedding milled around, I told Avendaño I’d heard rumors that Daza was in prison. She looked at me with pursed lips, then gestured to a guard standing nearby. It wasn’t, she mumbled, the right time or place to talk about such things.

A few days later, a resident of the Tower, who asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, told me that Daza had been arrested in December 2013 and was taken to the penitentiary of Aragua state. Known as Tocorón, this is one of the most violent prisons in Venezuela. It’s not clear what he was charged with. But during his first few days in prison, a source told me that Daza was sad and desperate behind bars. “He begged me for help,” the source said, also asking for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. “He was in constant fear for his life and couldn’t believe he was back in a place where there were continuous riots and deadly fights between inmates armed to the teeth, a place he thought he’d never return to.”

Yet the source said Daza managed a few days into his sentence to establish a good relationship with the rest of the prisoners. He also became the pastor of the prison church. Much like the Tower itself, Daza apparently understood he had to change to survive.

***

Back on that warm day in August, just before noon, the bus carrying Reinoso, the longtime Tower resident, arrived in Zamora City. What she saw was a kind of oasis. Surrounded by mountains, Zamora City is built on 289 acres. It consists of dozens of apartment buildings painted in different pastel colors and connected by concrete paths and tree-lined gardens. The buildings had real bathrooms, real walls, real windows, bannisters and balconies. Each complex was only five stories high, so residents won’t have to climb up and down hundreds of stairs. Some of the work was unfinished, but the goal is to build 174 buildings with more than 3,400 apartments. Those who agreed to the move had to sign a document swearing that they wouldn’t lease or sell their apartments.

For Reinoso and her family, the agreement wasn’t a problem. They truly felt that the worst was behind them. “It’s spectacular!” Reinoso said as she stepped foot into the apartment. “It’s so beautiful.”

As we strolled through their new home, the family seemed mesmerized. As streams of sunlight poured in through the windows, Reinoso said she would put the plasma TV in the middle of the living room. Her boyfriend smiled slyly. A moment later, he slapped an empty wall exclaiming euphorically, “And here’s where we’ll put a great big photo of the commander, Hugo Chávez.”

Elsewhere, hundreds of other new residents scurried to their apartments, too. Only one person, whose apartment was flooded, seemed disappointed. Though some complained about the distance from Caracas, their jobs and their social lives, the atmosphere was celebratory.

But as people unloaded their belongings, the press secretary for the local mayor told me that a group of homeless people had invaded 20 apartments nearby. “The government can’t let this continue,” the official said, asking for anonymity. “It’s contrary to the message we want to convey. We have to get them out of here, by force and with the National Guard if necessary.”

Other problems arose as well. A few miles away, locals were demonstrating against the newcomers, who they feared would bring drugs and crime along with them. Several hours later, a round of shots rang out, and I later learned the man who had fired them was a former resident of the Tower who had been trying, along with a few friends, to break into apartments and rob his new neighbors. That night, the former residents of the Tower met and all agreed that they had to prevent such incidents from happening in Zamora City.

***

Over the next few months, most of the people who left the Tower did so voluntarily. Despite a few complaints, Venezuelan officials said the evacuation process had gone well. “We’re not perfect,” said Gustavo Villapol, Villega’s assistant, “but we’ve shown we’re humanitarian and capable of dialogue.” All the Tower’s residents will have to depart by Dec. 31, and most of the remaining people are illegal immigrants who will need to acquire citizenship before the government would give them new homes.

Now speculation is rising about what will become of the Tower. Some say the Chinese government will buy the building and use it as their financial headquarters in Latin America. Venezuela owes billions to Beijing, and relinquishing the skyscraper could help service it. Others say the Tower needs to be repurposed for patriotic means. “The people’s true opinion on what to do with the Tower hasn’t been explored yet,” said a Chávez supporter and community leader from the Tower who asked I print his name only as Carlos. “This is a space won with blood and fire for the revolution and it should still belong to the revolution.”

In the meantime, everything isn’t as rosy in Zamora City as it once seemed. Many complain about the long commute through rush-hour traffic, which can last two to three hours. Other parts of their new lives still seem familiar. Running water comes only twice a week, and in September a baby fell from a fourth-floor stairwell. After weeks in the intensive care unit, the child survived.

The fate of Maduro’s country, however, is even less certain. Since the move in August, the president’s popularity has plunged further—right along with the economy. Chávez used his charisma and the threat of foreign imperialism to deflect criticism at home, but Maduro hasn’t been able to follow suit. As the price of oil continues to fall, pushing Venezuela’s economy closer to the brink, the price of nearly everything else—from cookies to coffins—continues to spiral. In other words, life for Venezuelans—whether in the Tower of David or Zamora City—is only getting harder.