Triple bogey

Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez recently implied that US president George Bush was the devil. But Chavez’ close ally, the mayor of Caracas, may be making even more incendiary statements, at least for golfers and real estate investors.

If the mayor of Caracas has his way, it may get a lot tougher to play a round of golf in the Venezuelan capital. In late August, Mayor Juan Barreto, a close ally of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s populist president, announced plans to expropriate the Caracas Country Club and Valle Arriba, home to two of the most exclusive golf courses in the country, in order to build housing for the city’s poor. Both clubs lie in ritzy suburbs at the south end of the city, but still within sight of some of the city’s notorious slums.

With the city’s population swelling as more people pour in from around the country, Caracas faces an acute housing shortage. Not only does the city need housing for the largely poor arrivals, the ballooning demand has driven the price of real estate out of reach of even many middle class Caraquenos. To address the housing crunch, the Venezuelan capital may need close to two million units, and officials have their sights on more than just golf courses. Barreto has identified abandoned buildings around town that could be turned into public housing and has allowed squatters to occupy homes and apartments the government classifies as unused, some of which may even be second homes or rental properties.

Chavez: more of a baseball fan

Venezuela’s constitution allows the government to seize land it deems “underused” if it is in the public’s interest. The mayor says his plan is merely in line with the Chavez administration’s policies, which have targeted millions of acres of cattle ranches and farmland for redistribution to poor farmers. “It is shameful to see people playing golf and just right there in front of them is a shantytown,” Barreto told the BBC recently.

“This isn’t an expropriation aimed at collective benefit,” Oscar Garcia Mendoza, a banker who lives at the Caracas Country Club told the Associated Press. “It’s a violation of private property rights that appears an extension of the communism these people want to impose on us.”

But, when it comes to the golf courses, Barreto may have gone too far even for Chavez. A top deputy in the Chavez administration issued a statement critical of the move and said the government would respect private property rights after the furor surrounding the seizures. The golf course owners have 30 days to present themselves at the mayor’s office and object to the appropriation, which they have said they will do.