Hugo Chavez, rum, generosity & the built environment

From an NPR story earlier this week, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez has used rhetoric which encouraged squatters to move onto the properties of wealthy land owners. Dozens of squatters squatted on the Hacienda Santa Teresa back in the year 2000. Instead of becoming angry, however, owner Alberto Vollmer welcomed the landless poor. Santa Teresa, a sugar cane farm known for producing some of South America’s best rum, has been in Vollmer’s family since 1885. He offered land and “home building expertise” to these homeless, working alongside Chavez’s government which is usually hostile towards the rich.

The Camino Real community, photo from Santa Teresa’s website.

Instead of the squatters just throwing up shacks of found objects, Vollmer talks in the NPR spot about designing how this community would look. The neighborhood now contains 100 houses. In exchange, the homeowners pay state sponsored mortgages and see that their children go to school. From Santa Teresa’s website:

    What began as an invasion of private property in February 2000, was transformed into a low-income residential development project. With the cooperation of the organized community, the Aragua state government and the leadership of Ron Santa Teresa, an agreement was reached to offer their own dignified homes to 100 families from Revenga County.

Vollmer’s actions are a breath of fresh air. Sure, a lot of wealthy people are philanthropically involved, but a project like this on his own property seems to be born of personal conviction more than social obligation. I may be stretching a bit, based on the few details the story actually conveyed, to make this statement, but for what it’s worth that’s my two pesos.

What if something similar were to happen in Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay), where a completely new city — Navi Mumbai — is being built next to the poorer old city. Navi Mumbai was planned back in 1972, and is a picture of wealth by any country’s standards. Real estate prices rival those of New York City and London. The new city took off during the recent economic boom in India. People are flocking to the city and making good money according to NPR’s Morning Edition. “Where will they spend that [money]?” asks the news editor at Navi Mumbai’s daily newspaper. “They need the malls. They need the food courts. They need the multiplexes. They need the theaters.”


Much of the city’s recent success can be attributed to Reliance Industries, which is investing “vast sums” of money in the metropolis. While I very much appreciate the attempt to create one of the largest planned cities in the world, I have to ask, “What is Reliance and its leader, Mukesh Ambani, doing to help the thousands of landless poor in old Mumbai? According to the NPR story, squatters’ shacks line the railway through the city — the most efficient way to navigate the Mumbai, if you can keep from falling out of the overcrowded trains. The new city destroyed the livelihood of poor fisherman by building, at sea level, on top of swamps they used to fish. Pollution in the nearby waters from the burgeoning area doesn’t help either.

I don’t know if Reliance and Ambani are or are not helping out the poor in their native India. They may already be. Regardless, they should look to Venezuela’s Vollmer as a good example.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

One Response to Hugo Chavez, rum, generosity & the built environment

  1. Julie says:

    I’ve heard lots of negative things about how Chavez… I suppose this is just one more. It’s wonderful that Vollmer responded with generosity, responding to what Chavez meant as an invasion with an act of hospitality.

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