A Chilling account of the brutal clampdown in Bahrain

Published in The Guardian.

sanabis police

Since the Gulf soldiers came to Bahrain, life in the Shia villages and suburbs of the capital, Manama, has been non-stop intimidation, violence and threats. Even trying to move around in normal ways has become life-threatening. They are trying to beat down the opposition with a long campaign against us.

I live in one of the villages near Manama. One night about 7.30pm, I parked in front of my father-in-law’s house and walked towards the door, when at least 50 armed and masked thugs – they were not in security forces uniform – appeared from one of the village lanes and told me to stop, pointing their shotguns at me. I ran away and they followed, but I managed to hide in one of the houses and they did not see me. I heard them talking to each other, saying: “Don’t worry, we will find him.” I was taking a look from the window and they stayed at the car park opposite the house I was hiding in, and they were smashing the windows of parked cars and wrecking and stealing from them. Some had Saudi accents; they are very different from Bahraini and easy to tell.

At 8pm most nights people go up on their roofs and chant Allahu Akbar [“God is greatest”] and the thugs start shooting randomly in the air and at the top of the roofs. That night the area was covered with tear-gas grenades and rubber bullets, while the roads around the house were deserted except for thugs. Later that night (I was unable to leave the house I was in), we heard a group of people, 100 or more, chanting: “Bahrain is free, Gulf Shield out.” I was watching from the rooftop when the riot police ran in from a main road and started shooting rubber bullets and tear-gas cartridges.

I hid inside the house while the demonstrators ran away from the shooting and in 30 minutes I saw riot police, with armed civilians among them, roaming around the lanes and roads by the house I was hiding in. They managed to catch two people, aged no more than 30, and were beating them up badly, swearing at them all the time and cursing the Shia clerics, saying: “Where is al-Khomeini now? Where is al-Sistani, you Shia dogs?” They took them away. I managed to take a photograph of the blood on the floor after the beating and there was so much. I am sure the man must have died.

They [the security forces] can tell the Shias from Sunnis because of the birth town shown on the ID cards, and also sometimes by the name. I get stopped and searched at many checkpoints and always asked the same questions: “Are you Shia? Were you at Lulu Square [the demonstrators’ name for the protest camp at Pearl roundabout that has since been demolished]?” And all kinds of other sectarian questions.

At the checkpoint by Bahrain Mall, which is the entrance to the village of Daih, the man in charge had a Saudi accent, but he was masked, in civilian clothes with an automatic rifle. My card was taken away with another officer to check my name against a list. They have pictures and names of all the people at Lulu and on the demonstrations and have posted them on Facebook with notices saying: “Bring these people to justice, they are guilty people.”

For two weeks after the attack on Lulu we kept seeing a military aircraft (a US-built F-16 type) every day at about 7.30pm, flying low over the villages, backing up the police helicopters which we see over our heads all day long in the villages. We hear shooting every day at 8pm and 10pm when the chanting starts on the rooftops. 

 The army and riot police have begun to destroy the Shia matams [mosques] in some villages, even those where there was no protest that day. They say they are looking for arms, but the only ones they’ve shown were obviously put there by them – they are government-issue weapons. The demolitions took place in broad daylight in the morning, with bulldozers.

In Karanh village at 4pm one day last week, demonstrators marched towards the entrance of the village on the main road, and they were faced with heavy firing from the riot police and masked armed civilians. They managed to get hold of three people whom they handcuffed, covered their faces with a canvas bag (like in Guantánamo) and started beating them up in a very brutal way. In the village of Daih we demonstrated at the front of the village, and as we reached the main road the riot police attacked us with tear gas and rubber bullets and shotguns…

In Sanabis, there was no sign of any protest, and as I was walking I was shocked to see riot police cars followed by unmarked cars entering the village fast and shooting randomly. They stopped near a school and about 100 armed riot police and masked armed civilians came out, roaming around the village shooting at anything that moved. They ran after a group of people who were walking by and they entered one of the houses after seeing someone running inside, and they arrested him and beat him.

Over the past week, three of my cousins have been arrested and they are all teachers, two women and one man, who is the headteacher of a school, along with 50 other full-time teachers. They have all been arrested in their classrooms for joining the strike and signing a petition to remove the education minister. Tanks were surrounding the school and riot police entered and arrested them.

My young brother, 15, was coming back from school last Sunday, and the bus had been stopped at a checkpoint and the riot police entered. The officer had a Saudi accent and he asked the whole bus: “Which of you went to Lulu Square? You are Shia dogs, why is there no photo of King Hamad in the bus?”  He asked the other officers to check the books of random students to see if the photo of King Hamad was there (all school books have his photo) and they found a number of students who ripped or damaged the photo. They started to beat them up inside the bus and then arrested them and threatened the other students. “The bus will be searched every day and we had better see the king’s photo inside the bus tomorrow, otherwise you will not go home.”

The same day I drove by the same checkpoint just after my brother arrived home and saw four teenagers with their heads covered by bags lying on their stomachs at 2pm under the hot sun, with their shirts removed and getting random kicks by the officers. I went towards a backstreet and tried to take a video, but a police car spotted me and started shooting birdshot. I ran away inside the village and they came after me. I hid in one of the private compounds and saw riot police running, looking for me.

Later that day I managed to get home and it was confirmed that the arrested students returned home after they got beaten up. They refused to be photographed, as they were threatened by the police. Now they do not use the school bus, as they are afraid they will be stopped.

I went with my mother to the military hospital by Hamad Town for her regular check-up – she has cardiac problems. That hospital is the only one in Bahrain with specialist heart doctors. When I approached the main entrance, I and my mother were asked by Bahraini security for our IDs and medical cards. When they saw them, another masked officer approached the car with a Saudi accent and asked the officer: “Who is this? What’s going on?” The Bahraini whispered something to him and the Saudi officer shouted at me:“Are you Shia?” And he kicked the car and said: “Get out of here, dog.” I did not reply and turned the car around and went back home. My mother did not do her monthly check-up and we will have to go outside Bahrain for that.

In Salmaniya medical complex [which has been under military occupation for three weeks], a cousin of mine worked at the appointments centre. After his shift he left the hospital and police stopped him at the exit, checked his ID card and noticed his Shia name. They accused him of racism for not giving appointments to Sunnis and beat him up.

He asked his family to collect him because he was bleeding from his eyes and feeling dizzy. He did not get any medical treatment as it was impossible to reach any hospital without being questioned, especially when he is injured. He is still at home and does not go to work and it seems he lost an eye. Many doctors have been arrested for treating injured people. The opposition says that 720 people have been arrested since 15 March. Many have been beaten, four have died in detention and 210 are still missing. But who knows really how many?

They say that we are spies for Iran, but nobody here wants to be ruled from Iran. We are Shia, but we are also Arabs, not Persians. We do not want help from Iran. We want democracy in our own country.

Waris Husain Editorial: The Origin of Pakistan’s Foreign Invasion


The brutal killing of Federal Minorities’ Minister Shahbaz Bhatti this week sends another signal that extremists are brazenly holding power and support across Pakistan. Mr. Bhatti and Benazir Bhutto both offered an alternative to the hateful rhetoric of extremists: that Pakistan could be a tolerant nation that respects its minorities through the democratic process. Their enemies riddled their bodies with bullets on claims that somehow tolerance and democracy were foreign concepts to Pakistan, and that they were saboteurs. However, when we can look back to the 1980’s to find the foreign invasion of the Pakistani psyche, it came not in the form of Western Imperialism, but through Near West Wahabiism from Saudi Arabia.

Extremists have made a choice that democracy will not be the method by which they will bring their “jihad” or revolution. Some fall into the trap these extremists lay in claiming that rejecting democracy is the only way to free Pakistan of the “evil influences” from the West.

However, the logic of this ideology falters when one realizes that there were several institutions implanted during the Colonial Era by the British that still positively serve people to this day, from the railways to the irrigation system in Punjab. Should one close down all these important elements because they were made by people with bad motivations? Or should these institutions be adopted and remodeled by the newly freed post-colonial leadership in order to assist the day to day living of its citizenry? And even this “imperial” argument is a non-sequitor when native leaders like Zulifkar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto lost their lives advocating to bring about a democratic change to Pakistan.

With respect to the “inherent intolerance” of the Pakistani people, right-wing conservatives would have us forget the hundreds of years the Subcontinent had existed, defined by its heterogeneity. One need only look to the provinces of modern-day Pakistan to realize how varied the cultural and spiritual landscape amongst the different ethnicities and tribes has been. One should further remember the composition of the cities like Lahore, pre-partition, where Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims lived amongst each other for generations with a great degree of tolerance shared between them.

The religious embodiment of this heterogeneous culture was Sufiism, which was created by philosophers, saints, and poets all in the Indian Subcontinent, many of whom called Lahore and Punjab their homes. Sufiism attempted to find one common spiritual line amongst all these different human beings living amongst one another. They drew from Hindu and Buddhist philosophies to understand Islam more completely, and preached that one could only reach Allah through tolerating and accepting their fellow man.

Their ideals set the foundation for democracy in many ways, as they both achieve the same ends. Sufis believe that an individual must respect whatever beliefs, political or spiritual, held by any human because they both share the same innate value. Thus, this native South Asian philosophy is a predecsor to democracy, which aims to make all human beings equal and to tolerant of each other’s beliefs.

As we can conclude that democratic principles are not foreign to Pakistan’s nature, we must determine who is behind the foreign invasion that has eroded the spirit of tolerance that once existed in these lands. The Wahabi-type ideology of a chauvinistic form of Jihadi Islam was less likely to originate from the Subcontinent, where there was constant mixing of religious and ethnic groups. These ideas were formulated in Saudi Arabia, which has enjoyed a rather homogeneous population, and were exported to Pakistan. This ideology purports that Sunni Muslims are better than all other human beings, that those inferior human beings wish to destroy “real Muslims,” and thus it is the job of every Muslim to attack anyone who is non-Muslim.

This view was taught in madrassas, mosques, and public schools across Pakistan and slowly began turning the public away from its tolerant past, into adopting a new foreign ideal of militant Islam. Supporters of this agenda claim that politicized Islam is the only way to challenge Western imperialism (and democracy along with it). However, they are attacking democracy not because of its Western origination, but because it challenges their very hold on power which is through fear not understanding.

Rule by democracy requires one to empower the public by answering to it; however groups like Jamiat Ulama e Islam would rather bully the public into following its dictates. These same religious groups cannot even gain 10% of the seats in an open election in Pakistan, and thus they attack democracy not because it is foreign to Pakistan, but because it challenges their ability to unquestionably play God over the people.
            Minister Bhatti, Salman Taseer, and Benazir Bhutto gave their lives fighting against religoius intolerance and to preserve democratic rule in Pakistan: their efforts should not be wasted. One must directly confront those who claim that Pakistan should be a theocratic state, because intolerant impositions like the blasphemy law are indeed foreign concepts in Pakistan’s long-term history. The development of democratic principles has been embded in the heterogenious culture of the Subcontinent. Sufi poet Bulleh Shah best captured the inadquecy of intolerant Islam when he said:

“You run to enter mosques and temples, but you never enter into your innerself.  You fight Satan in vain daily, but fighting your ego you care not. Baba Bulleh Shah says this –  you run after what you’ve lost  but push aside what you’ve got”

American Academic Experts’ Open Letter to Obama

To President Obama:
As political scientists, historians, and researchers in related fields who have studied the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy, we the undersigned believe you have a chance to move beyond rhetoric to support the democratic movement sweeping over Egypt. As citizens, we expect our president to uphold those values.

For thirty years, our government has spent billions of dollars to help build and sustain the system the Egyptian people are now trying to dismantle. Tens if not hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in Egypt and around the world have spoken. We believe their message is bold and clear: Mubarak should resign from office and allow Egyptians to establish a new government free of his and his family’s influence. It is also clear to us that if you seek, as you said Friday “political, social, and economic reforms that meet the aspirations of the Egyptian people,” your administration should publicly acknowledge those reforms will not be advanced by Mubarak or any of his adjutants.

There is another lesson from this crisis, a lesson not for the Egyptian government but for our own. In order for the United States to stand with the Egyptian people it must approach Egypt through a framework of shared values and hopes, not the prism of geostrategy. On Friday you rightly said that “suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away.” For that reason we urge your administration to seize this chance, turn away from the policies that brought us here, and embark on a new course toward peace, democracy and prosperity for the people of the Middle East. And we call on you to undertake a comprehensive review of US foreign policy on the major grievances voiced by the democratic opposition in Egypt and all other societies of the region.

Current signatories,

Jason Brownlee, University of Texas at Austin

Joshua Stacher, Kent State University

Tamir Moustafa, Simon Fraser University

Arang Keshavarzian, New York University

Clement Henry, University of Texas at Austin

Robert Springborg, Naval Postgraduate School

Jillian Schwedler, University of Massachusetts at Amherst

Noam Chomsky, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Chris Toensing, Middle East Research and Information Project
Joel Beinin, Stanford University

Ellen Lust, Yale University

Tarek Massoud, Harvard University
Amaney Jamal, Princeton University
Helga Tawil-Souri, New York University

List of Experts continue: http://www.petitiononline.com/egyltr/petition.html

Zlavoj Zizek- Why Fear The Arab Revolutionary Spirit?

Published in The Guardian.

What cannot but strike the eye in the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt is the conspicuous absence of Muslim fundamentalism. In the best secular democratic tradition, people simply revolted against an oppressive regime, its corruption and poverty, and demanded freedom and economic hope. The cynical wisdom of western liberals, according to which, in Arab countries, genuine democratic sense is limited to narrow liberal elites while the vast majority can only be mobilised through religious fundamentalism or nationalism, has been proven wrong. The big question is what will happen next? Who will emerge as the political winner?

When a new provisional government was nominated in Tunis, it excluded Islamists and the more radical left. The reaction of smug liberals was: good, they are the basically same; two totalitarian extremes – but are things as simple as that? Is the true long-term antagonism not precisely between Islamists and the left? Even if they are momentarily united against the regime, once they approach victory, their unity splits, they engage in a deadly fight, often more cruel than against the shared enemy.

Did we not witness precisely such a fight after the last elections in Iran? What the hundreds of thousands of Mousavi supporters stood for was the popular dream that sustained the Khomeini revolution: freedom and justice. Even if this dream utopian, it did lead to a breathtaking explosion of political and social creativity, organisational experiments and debates among students and ordinary people. This genuine opening that unleashed unheard-of forces for social transformation, a moment in which everything seemed possible, was then gradually stifled through the takeover of political control by the Islamist establishment.

Even in the case of clearly fundamentalist movements, one should be careful not to miss the social component. The Taliban is regularly presented as a fundamentalist Islamist group enforcing its rule with terror. However, when, in the spring of 2009, they took over the Swat valley in Pakistan, The New York Times reported that they engineered “a class revolt that exploits profound fissures between a small group of wealthy landlords and their landless tenants”. If, by “taking advantage” of the farmers’ plight, the Taliban are creating, in the words of the New York Times “alarm about the risks to Pakistan, which remains largely feudal,” what prevented liberal democrats in Pakistan and the US similarly “taking advantage” of this plight and trying to help the landless farmers? Is it that the feudal forces in Pakistan are the natural ally of liberal democracy?

The inevitable conclusion to be drawn is that the rise of radical Islamism was always the other side of the disappearance of the secular left in Muslim countries. When Afghanistan is portrayed as the utmost Islamic fundamentalist country, who still remembers that, 40 years ago, it was a country with a strong secular tradition, including a powerful communist party that took power there independently of the Soviet Union? Where did this secular tradition go?

And it is crucial to read the ongoing events in Tunisia and Egypt (and Yemen and … maybe, hopefully, even Saudi Arabia) against this background. If the situation is eventually stabilised so that the old regime survives but with some liberal cosmetic surgery, this will generate an insurmountable fundamentalist backlash. In order for the key liberal legacy to survive, liberals need the fraternal help of the radical left. Back to Egypt, the most shameful and dangerously opportunistic reaction was that of Tony Blair as reported on CNN: change is necessary, but it should be a stable change. Stable change in Egypt today can mean only a compromise with the Mubarak forces by way of slightly enlarging the ruling circle. This is why to talk about peaceful transition now is an obscenity: by squashing the opposition, Mubarak himself made this impossible. After Mubarak sent the army against the protesters, the choice became clear: either a cosmetic change in which something changes so that everything stays the same, or a true break.

Here, then, is the moment of truth: one cannot claim, as in the case of Algeria a decade ago, that allowing truly free elections equals delivering power to Muslim fundamentalists. Another liberal worry is that there is no organised political power to take over if Mubarak goes. Of course there is not; Mubarak took care of that by reducing all opposition to marginal ornaments, so that the result is like the title of the famous Agatha Christie novel, And Then There Were None. The argument for Mubarak – it’s either him or chaos – is an argument against him.

The hypocrisy of western liberals is breathtaking: they publicly supported democracy, and now, when the people revolt against the tyrants on behalf of secular freedom and justice, not on behalf of religion, they are all deeply concerned. Why concern, why not joy that freedom is given a chance? Today, more than ever, Mao Zedong’s old motto is pertinent: “There is great chaos under heaven – the situation is excellent.”

Where, then, should Mubarak go? Here, the answer is also clear: to the Hague. If there is a leader who deserves to sit there, it is him.

Waris Husain Editorial: Obama’s Berlin Wall Moment

President Obama aptly stated that the U.S. faces a crossroads as a global leader today, as it once did during the Cold War when the Soviets launched a satellite named Sputnik to the moon before the U.S. even imagined such a feat. However, there is a far more important moment from Cold War history repeating itself today and presenting the U.S. with the chance to reclaim its position as a bastion for democracy. Arab leaders have stated that the protests in Tunisia and Egypt are equivocal to the Berlin Wall falling, as the people have toppled their authoritarian rulers. While the U.S. rose to economic and ideological supremacy after the symbolic defeat of the Soviets at the Berlin Wall, the Obama Administration does not see history repeating itself. By attempting to wait out the protests and calling for “reform,” the Obama Administration is implicitly supporting the illegitimate autocratic rule of Egyptian President Mubarak, and is miserably failing this make-or-break challenge.

Obama explained that when U.S. leaders during the Cold War witnessed their Soviet counterparts landing a satellite on the moon, they realized their inadequacy and the impact it would have on the future of the U.S. economy.  Thus, military and civilian branches worked tirelessly and invested billions in technological research and education. This may not have defeated the Soviets, but it certainly strengthened the U.S. empire.  And while the Soviet Union presented a threat to U.S. economic primacy, they also posed an ideological threat with the creation of totalitarian states that limited the freedom of people across Europe.

The Berlin Wall was part of the overall strategy by Soviet leaders to create a physical barrier between the belt of Soviet regimes and the rest of the world in order to limit dissent and the freedom of information. The Berlin Wall itself divided the city of Berlin between the American-controlled Western block and the Soviet East. It was destroyed by protestors from the East who no longer wished to live under a totalitarian regime. For many in the Arab world, watching the people of Egypt taking to the streets elicits the same feeling of elation and hope felt by Americans who watched the fall of the Berlin Wall.

While we gave our full-throated support to the protestors who overthrew their repressive Soviet rulers when it served our interests, liberals and conservatives alike in the U.S. are now unwilling to award the same support for Egyptians. President Obama has claimed that he recommended domestic changes to President Mubarak and more recently called on the dictator to respond to the calls of ‘reform’ by his people. However, just the East Germans were not protesting and risking their lives to ‘reform’ their oppressive system, the Egyptians are calling for a revolution and an ousting of their dictator, not a change in his cabinet.

So one must ask why the U.S. is not realizing the opportunity to aid the rise of a new democratic regime in the Middle East, under the leadership of a President who once campaigned on changing the world and is now speaking of the Sputnik Moment. One reason is that the U.S. would not want to support the protestors only to find out that Mubarak will remain in power and become embittered towards the U.S. However, the U.S. should realize that Mubarak’s time in office is limited; whether one looks at the massive civilian uprisings, the burning of Mubarak’s party headquarters, or the implicit, if not out-right, support of the military for the protests.

Perhaps American policy-makers fear that this revolution could empower Islamist leaders who would have an enmity to the U.S. and its ally, Israel. However, such a presumption could become self-fulfilling prophesy if the U.S. is not vocal in supporting those progressive elements in the revolution who wish to work with the international community and create a just democratic rule. By maintaining a hands-off approach to all opposition groups, the U.S. will encourage those in the movement to gravitate towards more militant elements rather than the progressive ones. If, for example, in Egypt there is a militant Islamist party and a socialist party, but both are considered persona-non-grata by the U.S., then individuals may follow the adage ‘might over right’ and flock to the militant groups.

Yet, the reason why the U.S. has not recognizing calls for regime change in the face of a thirty year dictatorship in Egypt is because the U.S., like the Soviets, wishes to continue to have the support of dictators around the world, especially in the Middle East. The Saudi King has not only given refuge to the deposed dictator of Tunisia, Ben Ali, but also derided the Egyptian protestors calling them “infiltrators.” This explains why the U.S. is unwilling to give its full support for revolution in Egypt, because it does not want to offend its Mid-East benefactor, who should fear his own people as the winds of change sweep the Middle East.

The uprising in Tunisia and Egypt should give hope to those living under oppressive regimes across the world; that a movement for change can come without being led by religious zealots or militants. And while there is much to be said for U.S. moderation in extreme circumstances, President Obama needs to read the writings on the wall which signal a positive, but game-changing transformation of the region.

President Ronald Reagan, a hero of Obama, famously said “Mr. Gorbochev, tear down this wall,” at a rally near the Berlin Wall. This solidified the future of the U.S. as a world leader and protector of democracies across the globe. President Obama has realized his economic Sputnik Moment, but should look at the revolutions in the Middle East as reminiscent of the breaking of the Berlin Wall. These movements will produce the next leaders of the Middle East, and it is up to Obama to decide what role the U.S. will play in this new era. He must decide whether the U.S. should continue to support totalitarian regimes that oppress their people even when a new dawn is spreading the light of freedom to the dark corners of the globe’s dictatorships.

Egyptian Opposition Leader ElBaradei placed under house arrest

Published in The Guardian.

The Egyptian dissident Mohamed ElBaradei warned President Hosni Mubarak today that his regime is on its last legs, as tens of thousands of people prepared to take to the streets for a fourth day of anti-government protests.

The Nobel peace prize winner’s comments to the Guardian represented his strongest intervention against the country’s authoritarian government since he announced his intention to return to Egypt to join the protests. “I’m sending a message to the Guardian and to the world that Egypt is being isolated by a regime on its last legs,” he said.

His words marked an escalation of the language he used on arrival in Cairo last night, when he merely urged the Mubarak government to “listen to the people” and not to use violence.  ElBaradei has been criticised by some Egyptians for the late return to his homeland, two days after the protests began – hundreds of people have already been arrested and exposed to the brutal tactics of the security services. But ElBaradei was keen to stress his solidarity with the protesters.

There is of course a risk to my safety today, but it’s a risk worth taking when you see your country in such a state you have to take risks,” he said. “I will be with the people today.” In an apparent bid to scupper the protests, the Egyptian authorities have cut off almost all access to the internet from inside and outside the country. ElBaradei said the move was proof the government was in “a state of panic”.

“Egypt today is in a pre-information age,” he said. “The Egyptians are in solitary confinement – that’s how unstable and uncomfortable the regime is. Being able to communicate is the first of our human rights and it’s being taken away from us. I haven’t seen this in any other country before.”

He said the lack of communications could hamper organisation of the demonstrations, planned to begin after Friday prayers. “I don’t know what my hopes are for today,” he said. “It would be hard with the communications cut off but I think a lot of people will be turning out.” Organisers of the marches – dubbed “the Friday of anger and freedom” – are defying a government ban on protests issued on Wednesday. They have been using social media to co-ordinate plans, and hope to rally even more than the tens of thousands who turned out on Tuesday in the biggest protests since 1977.

ElBaradei has already criticised the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, for describing the Egyptian government as stable and he stepped up his calls for the rest of the world to explicitly condemn Mubarak, who is a close ally of the US.

“The international community must understand we are being denied every human right day by day,” he said. “Egypt today is one big prison. If the international community does not speak out it will have a lot of implications. We are fighting for universal values here. If the west is not going to speak out now, then when?”

Riot police face protestors in Cairo

The Guardian: Chavez tackles homelessness by encouraging squatting

 Venezuelans left homeless after December’s torrential rains gather in the wealthy Caracas neighbourhood of La Castellana. Hugo Chávez has sent out troops to take over farms and urged the poor to occupy “unused” land in wealthy areas of Caracas, prompting a wave of squats that is rattling Venezuela‘s middle class.

The move by Venezuela’s president to step up the campaign to “recover” land and other property follows a housing crisis that has left millions of people in shabby conditions and affected his popularity in the run-up to next year’s election. Squatters wearing red T-shirts from Chávez’s socialist party seized 20 spaces in a co-ordinated strike in the well-off Caracas municipality of Chacao last weekend, a move which shocked even some government supporters. Additional groups have targeted other cities.

Chávez has also announced a series of laws and deals with China, Russia, Belarus, Iran and Turkey, among others, in a breakneck effort to build 350,000 housing units in Venezuela in the next two years. “The fundamental goal of socialism is to satisfy human needs … the needs of all, equally, without privilege,” Chávez said in a television broadcast yesterday.

Opponents claim the government has failed to build enough houses over the past decade and has been offering “empty promises”. Previous house-building deals with foreign allies reportedly produced just 10% of the promised number.  Emilio Grateron, mayor of Chacao, described Chávez’s exhortation to seize supposedly unoccupied land as demagogic, and a move that would kill what little private investment remained. “There is irresponsible rhetoric without heed of the consequences. This is a very dangerous game.”

The government has stepped up rural expropriations by deploying 1,600 troops at 47 farms in the western states of Merida and Zulia, claiming the farms were unproductive. The state has taken control of 2.5m hectares since Chávez gained power in 1999. The government is now looking at cities in response to the housing crisis and to its fading support in the slums, once Chávista heartlands, which have voted for opposition mayors and governors.

Floods last year ruined hillside slums and displaced thousands of families, highlighting the shortage of 2m or so housing units. Residents have had to erect shacks on top of shacks on precarious slopes. Under Chávez the government has built fewer than 40,000 units a year – some say only 24,000 – in contrast to previous governments, which averaged 70,000. The president admits to problems but rejects accusations of incompetence and corruption. He has said that the rich keep all the best land, especially in the capital, but often leave it idle. The government has closed six golf courses and recently had its eye on the Caracas Country Club, saying thousands of poor families could be settled on its greens.

Such a move would take several years, however, and the presidential election calendar requires speedier results. This month Chávez said the government would take over unoccupied spaces and any incomplete structures. Last weekend he urged the poor to join in, and hours later, at 4am, militant supporters laid claim to 20 areas of Chacao. Police expelled them but the “invasions” caused uproar, with even pro-government newspapers such as Ultimas Noticias voicing concern.

Chávez decided the squatters had gone too far, saying “the middle-class cannot be an enemy of this democratic revolution”. However, the government made clear the squatting would continue, saying the correct term was “occupation”. Even hotels have become skittish since being asked to host those displaced by the floods. They have obliged, but some proprietors now worry they will be the next industry to be nationalised.

Chacao’s five-star Marriott hotel is hosting about 60 displaced families on its third and fourth floors. It has replaced doors with curtains and removed TVs, lamps and other fittings, but Maria Patino, 52, and her sister Blanca, 55, had no complaints. “We’re supposed to use the service entrance and not go near the lobby, but we get treated well. Three meals a day, everything free,” said Maria. “It [was] like being in the desert, and then you get to an oasis.”