Rigel Sergent is a spokesperson for a powerful anti-eviction movement called Movimiento de Inquilinas e Inquilinos (henceforth “Inquilinos”). That movement’s parent organization is the Movimiento de Pobladoras y Pobladores (henceforth “Pobladores''), a combative Chavista platform for urban struggle, that occupies unused urban land. Sergent has been a part of Inquilinos since its early days in 2004 and is currently a member of the National Assembly. In this interview, we ask him about tenants’ rights in Venezuela and how they have evolved over time.
During the lockdown period and up through October 2021, the Venezuelan government issued decrees expanding the rights of tenants. In legal terms, what is the situation of tenants in Venezuela today?
In the context of the pandemic, the Venezuelan government issued a series of measures to protect tenants, including suspending rent payments. However, this suspension needs to be qualified. Let me explain: the policy stated that, since many people were not working due to the confinement, tenant families could reach an agreement with the landlord regarding the form of payment during confinement, and rent payments could be suspended in cases of economic emergency. As it turned out, 90% of the tenants continued to pay their rent.
In Venezuela, there is a legal framework that favors housing rights. When it comes to tenants, how does it express itself? First, the 2011 Law for the Regulation and Control of Housing Leases establishes limits to rental fees and other rights for tenants. Also, if a landlord wants to proceed with an eviction, the law lays out well-defined procedures that they must follow.
We also have other protection mechanisms such as the 2011 Decree Against Arbitrary Housing Evictions. Further, in 2015 the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber made a pronouncement that extends protection to long-time tenants.
Finally, more recently, the same chamber stated that, as long as the state of alarm is maintained (because of the pandemic), there can be no evictions.
In short, when it comes to our legal framework, Venezuela has very advanced laws that favor tenants’ rights.
You are part of Inquilinos, a movement fighting for tenants' rights. In recent months, Inquilinos has claimed that there has been an increase in evictions. In fact, Pobladores, the parent organization, marched on February 22 to denounce “the grave situation of arbitrary evictions in which the rights of thousands of tenants are being violated.” Can you tell us what is going on?
Pobladores has been successfully promoting housing rights for more than a long decade. When compared to other countries, our laws are exemplary, although we should not claim to be the vanguard. For example, in Berlin, a recent referendum ratified the expropriation of large real-estate owners in favor of tenants. There are also powerful struggles for tenants’ rights in Argentina and in other Latin American countries. Finally, in Los Angeles and other U.S. cities, there are tenants' organizations that have been fighting for more legislation protecting tenants and for the right to housing.
The truth is that, in spite of Venezuela’s progressive legislation, the economic situation of the country – including the blockade, hyperinflation, and dollarization – has generated many problems for tenants and has affected the de facto application of the law. One issue is that rents are being dollarized, despite the fact that the Leasing Law explicitly forbids it. This means many families are unable to pay their rent.
The protection decree implemented during the lockdown meant that evictions were fairly controlled. However, in recent months we have witnessed a new wave of evictions. We are also concerned about the issue of repression: families fighting for their rights are being criminalized.
In Venezuela, long-standing tenants have the option to acquire their homes on favorable terms. It is their right. Unfortunately, these people are being criminalized. In fact, several long-standing tenants have been charged with trespassing under Article 471 of the Penal Code even though they are up to date with their rent and have a contract. The object is to keep them from acquiring their homes.
Capitalist real estate mafias – in cahoots with political actors and public opinion operators – are the ones criminalizing tenants. In short, what we are witnessing is people with economic interests using the state against the poor. In the end, the real estate mafias (operating in coordination with sectors of the state) end up criminalizing poverty.
We denounced this situation during our February 22nd rally in front of the Attorney General's Office. Our aim was to put a stop to repression when it comes to the right to housing. This is especially important when it comes to tenants, a sector that was invisibilized in the past.
In the National Assembly, you are promoting several laws, including the Law for the Right to the City and the Law on Self-managed Production of Popular Habitat. Can you describe these legislative proposals, and tell us how far the AN has advanced toward getting them approved?
The National Assembly has been debating two laws on habitat and housing. The first one is the Law for the Right to the City, an initiative advocating a cluster of progressive rights, such as the right to housing. The proposal is based on the idea of democratizing the city and the principle of non-segregation in the urban context.
This law was approved in an initial discussion and then a public consultation was carried out. We are currently waiting for it to be approved in a second discussion. At the core of the law is the idea that the benefits and advantages offered by cities should not be the privilege of only a few. It also raises the issues of access to land, the right to housing, universal access to services, and the continuity of the Housing Mission.
Then there is the Law for the Self-Managed Production of Popular Habitat. Unlike the Law for the Right to the City, this one is being promoted by popular power, particularly by Pobladores. The text of the bill proposes a new form for the social production of habitat which goes hand in hand with democratic management of the land and recognizes the right to self-organized housing construction. This is already being done in the Pioneer Camps [self-organized construction projects that are part of the Pobladores Movement]. The draft law also states that the state must generate conditions to promote democratically-produced habitat.
Further, the draft promotes community organization, participatory habitat planning and design (which includes housing but is not limited to it), access to the land, resource management, and collective ownership.
Finally, the text recognizes popular power as a subject in co-responsibility with the state. This means that the state must support the construction of new habitats by providing materials and financial resources.
As a representative in the National Assembly, your practice is informed by long-standing participation in the popular movement. How do you balance grassroots activism with your parliamentary responsibilities?
I have tried to maintain my practice as a militant of the popular movement, but doing this is not easy now that I am a representative. The National Assembly has an institutional agenda, plenary meetings twice a week, commission meetings, and a bunch of responsibilities that go hand in hand with the position.
Looking back at 2021, my first year as a representative, I came to the conclusion that about 50% of my time goes to parliamentary actions of an institutional nature, while the other 50% goes to street parliamentarism.
I believe that one of the pending tasks of the current National Assembly is to bring down the barrier that exists between the institutional parliamentary sphere and the people. In this sense, we must be self-critical: National Assembly deputies need to have more connection to the masses, more links with the barrios.
I believe that street parliamentarism – Chávez’s slogan that proposes to take the National Assembly into the street – requires a close and permanent relationship between the institution and the popular sectors, which are the epicenter of the revolution.
Pobladores fights to build a new kind of city that is not organized by the logic of capital. Could you summarize the organization’s main objectives?
Our objective is not to open a space for the pueblo within the existing societal model. We struggle to build a new kind of city with people, not capital, at its center.
As Pobladores, our focus is on the society we have. This led us to a realization that, although cities are built by the social majorities, by the pueblo, not everybody has the right to the city. In capitalism, the model works as follows: a few have the right to everything and the vast majority have the right to nothing. That is why, as a movement, we do not propose reforming the existing model by opening spaces for the working class in the existing city. Instead, we struggle to build another model with new social relations not only in the sphere of work, but also in the communities, in the spaces where people live.
The city, as organized by capital, is profoundly undemocratic. By contrast, democratic self-management is very important for Pobladores. We make a practice of it. However, it should be noted that when we talk about self-management, we are not just talking about housing construction. Self-management generates a new societal model: when people live side by side and take decisions collectively in assembly, that is when a new society begins to emerge.
To sum this up, for us the socialist horizon is equivalent to the political, economic, and social self-management of society. That is why, as Pobladores, we wager on the communalization of society.