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For years, Jhoana Mendez and her husband struggled to find secure housing in which to raise their two children, the younger of which, Wuil, age three, suffers from skin cancer. Though they survived on the low salaries that accompanied their jobs as a haircutter and fire-fighter, it was never feasible to save much money. Like many in Venezuela, the young couple was forced to contend with inadequate and unstable living arrangements for years. Then one year ago, they got their home.

“I went to the Miraflores Presidential Palace and they solved my housing problem in a way that I could not imagine,” explains Mrs. Mendez. “After 15 minutes, they told me ‘Don’t worry; you already have a home.’”

Now settled into the Pilar Neighborhood in the western Venezuelan state of Merida, Mrs. Mendez enjoys the safety and comfort of her new community. The government housing consists of 14 four-story apartments buildings, with a total of 116 units. Clean and spacious, the apartments are typical of many middle-class residences found throughout Latin America. Children run and play in the grassy courtyards, while salsa and techno music pour out of the open windows of the sturdy orange buildings, fringed with a rainbow of bright colors. A parrot cat-calls passers-by.

Up a small flight of stairs, along the grass-lined sidewalk, Carmen Contreras is talking with two neighbors under the shade of trees. She gladly agrees to an interview in her apartment, where two of her children are playing with toys and listening to American pop music. She explains that she is unemployed, and that her husband, Obduver, was injured in an accident and is unable to walk.

“We were trying to find a house for 15 years,” begins Mrs. Contreras. “It was very difficult before for poor people to get a house, but they are more accessible now.”

Pilar Neighborhood residents receive possession of their new homes with an initial deposit of about $400. The $10,000 cost per unit is subsidized by the government, based on an assessment of the family’s financial situation. Residents are expected to make modest monthly payments.

“Before, I had to send the children to my mother’s house, which is five hours away in Pregonero, and that meant a lot of sacrifices,” says Mrs. Contreras. “It’s been a relief to have this stability. For us, it’s like a blessing.”

Both Mrs. Mendez and Mrs. Contreras are beneficiaries of a series of housing programs initiated in 1999 by the Chavez Administration in its efforts to improve the quality of life of struggling Venezuelans. Thus far, an estimated 20,000 homes have been built, and another 10,000 reconstructed.

In the run-up to last month’s referendum, public housing received a boost when President Chavez announced that more than half a billion dollars would be pumped into a new “Housing Mission,” or Misión Vivienda. And this past Friday, President Chavez began to deliver on campaign promises when he told the National Assembly that he would create a new Ministry of Housing to coordinate and accelerate the housing projects.

Funding for the new initiatives will come from the “Special Petroleum Fund,” generated from Venezuela’s nationally owned oil industry, PDVSA, the world’s 76 largest company, and its network of 14,000 Citgo gas stations in the United States. Venezuela ranks as the fifth largest oil exporter in the world, with a net profit of $4.2 billion in 2003. According to Alí Rodríguez, PDVSA’s president, the government is seeking to translate those oil revenues into “an instrument of sustained development and welfare for the country” through PDVSA-funded health, education, food and housing programs.

“The government is really doing something for the people, and that is a change,” said Mendez, grateful that many more would be benefiting as she has. “The president is not just for the Chavistas,” as his base of supporters are known. “He is in charge of the country. And we are the country. And that is the hope.”

Néstor Guarín Acevedo contributed to this story.