Peruvian squatters get attention at election time

With seven weeks until he runs for a third term, President Fujimori promises land to the poor.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

A doubled-over straw mat and some blue plastic is what Maria Salazar has called "home sweet home" ever since she and 1,200 other families occupied the lot near Libertadores High School in the city's Villa El Salvador district last month.

Alongside Ms. Salazar's makeshift home are hundreds of similar constructions - many hung with Peruvian flags - a volleyball net, and a snack bar selling soft drinks and popcorn. The squatters are committed to staying here until the government recognizes this land as theirs or relocates them.

"I am a widow with two children, and I have always had the dream of having my own house and getting ahead in this world. I know what we did is illegal, but perhaps this way the government will pay some attention to us," says Salazar.

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The Libertadores occupation is just one of a recent wave of massive land invasions around the country. People who cannot afford land or a home band together and occupy private or state lands - until the government recognizes the land as theirs.

In response to this phenomenon, President Alberto Fujimori recently announced the inauguration of the Family Lot Program, where the government makes state lands available to those in need at reduced prices. This announcement has brought a halt to invasions, but has also unleashed widespread criticism. With only seven weeks left before the presidential election (when Mr. Fujimori hopes to clench an unprecedented third term), some people call this another of Fujimori's populist campaign ploys.

"I don't think that this is a serious program that responds to the deficit of housing in the country," says Villa El Salvador City Councilman Jos Failoc. "This program is a response to electoral pressures."

While the shortage of affordable housing is a problem facing much of Latin America, where cities are growing at rocketing rates, urban planners say it is only in Peru that invasions have become something of an institution.

Most of Peru's cities are located on a desert coast where they are surrounded by vacant sand dunes and where weather conditions make squatting in precarious homes possible. Many districts of Lima were originally formed by invasions.

But this wave of land invasions is unprecedented in the country's recent history. It all started Jan. 22, when 10,000 families invaded private farmlands in Villa El Salvador. In the conflict that ensued five squatters were killed. The government then announced that it would relocate the squatters to vacant state lands in northern Lima. That reaction spurred a wave of massive invasions by squatters demanding the same treatment.

"In the face of the invasions that were taking place across the country and to stop [them] from continuing, the government has launched the Family Lot Program," says Congresswoman Carmen Losada. "This is not an electoral strategy."

At first it appeared as if the government would give out the lands for free, but later government officials clarified that the land would be priced according to the income of those in need. In the first six days of registration, 150,000 people signed up. Officials say there is a deficit of 1.5 million homes in the country.

Critics insist that the government engineered the first invasion as a campaign stunt, creating a pretext for this program.

In a survey conducted by local polling firm Apoyo, 30 percent thought the government organized the invasion, a charge the government denies doing so.

One thing that is certain is that election politics works both ways.

Squatters in some of the massive invasions adopted the name of Fujimori's party as the name of their newfound communities and hoisted high banners supporting him. Many say that the squatters took advantage of a campaign season, invading at a time when the government would be most likely to attend to their demands.

But politics aside, the program worries many urban planners.

"Giving away these lands with minimal or nonexistent amenities and without any planning, seriously threatens the chances for organized development of cities and will generate enormous ghettos," says Carlos Williams, professor emeritus of urban planning at the National Engineering University in Lima.

According to Mr. Williams, until now the Fujimori administration has done nothing to deal with housing deficits or the question of urban planning in general.

The program's registration process will last a total of three months - until after the elections. Once the registries are closed, the government will spend two more months analyzing and weeding through the applicants before giving out land.

The government has not said how many lots are available nor how much they will cost. These uncertainties are some of the reasons why Libertadores squatter Francisco Valencia and his neighbors are sitting tight on their newly claimed land and staying away from the lines at the registration centers. They say they will not be lured away by promises from the Family Lot Program.

"I hope one day that the government will fulfill its promise of giving away lands," says Mr. Valencia.

"But we are also scared that this is just an election-time promise and nothing more."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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