Fri, Dec 03, 2010 - Page 7 News List

Venezuela’s Chavez opens his palace to flood victims

NY Times News Service, CARACAS

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, center, greets residents at “La Pedrera” neighborhood in Antimano, Caracas, on Wednesday.

PHOTO: AFP

Miraflores Palace, designed in the 1880s by an Italian count for one of Venezuela’s 19th-century dictators, has been home to presidents here for more than a century. In recent years, it has welcomed a lively medley of foreign leaders, including presidents Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil.

But on Wednesday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez opened the doors of the neoclassical building to a new set of residents: flood victims.

Appearing on state television at Miraflores clad in an olive drab military uniform, Chavez welcomed 26 families who had been displaced by torrential rains in recent weeks. The rainfall has caused flooding and landslides that have killed 25 people and forced more than 30,000 Venezuelans to flee, civil defense officials said.

“I have a proposal for you families: Stay here for a year,” the president told the refugees who became his housemates on Wednesday.

He then led them on a brief tour of a palace wing where beds and cribs had been set up next to a barbershop and salon.

“When you leave,” he said, “it will be to an apartment of your own.”

Beyond offering a helping hand, Chavez was once again displaying his facility at taking hold of the public discussion during a time of crisis, and he blunted criticism over his government’s handling of flood-prevention measures and its response to the rains.

His offer to allow families into Miraflores also plays into the fierce debate over a housing shortage that has forced many Venezuelans to live in hillside shacks that are vulnerable to the rains.

Chavez has seized housing tracts to alleviate the shortage. Private developers, in turn, have been hesitant to invest in new projects out of fear that they could be taken by the government.

If the rains continue, a great deal more could be at stake. A similar period of rainfall in 1999 led to landslides near Caracas, the capital, killing thousands of people. Ruins of buildings near the Caribbean coast that were destroyed in 1999 serve as testament to the destruction.

The president’s critics, pointing out that thousands of the flood victims will not have the chance to move into the palace, responded to his move with reactions varying from amusement to outrage.

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