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It might reasonably have been labelled the Tower of Goliath in recognition of its scale and the scare stories that abound about life inside. But, instead, it has become known as the Tower of David, in homage to the man who conceived its construction: the Venezuelan banking tycoon David Brillembourg.
Once the eighth-tallest building in Latin America, the Tower of David overlooks its immediate neighbour, the Venezuelan capital’s financial and administrative district, and the rest of the Caracas skyline. The unfinished 45-floor skyscraper of bare concrete, bricks and cement began life in 1990 as the intended headquarters of Brillembourg’s bank and home to a hotel, shops and a heliport.
Then, in 1993, Brillembourg died, and his Confinanzas group passed into the hands of his son. A year later, a banking crisis brought the company to bankruptcy. Construction of what was due to be called the Confinanzas Complex ceased. In 2001, the Venezuelan government held a public auction but nobody wanted to buy the incomplete giant. Soon after, it was looted; not even its windows were left behind.
In 2007, the first of around 2,000 families began moving in.
” Many of us settled here because we didn’t have a place to live; others came after being denied the possibility of renting a house because of the fact that they had children ,” explains William Gatian , who has lived in the tower since 2008.
As rents increased across the city, others joined their ranks – the empty complex offering their only option.
” The latest census counted 1,156 families , that is 4,438 people living in the tower ,” says Ernesto Villegas , the minister for the urban transformation of Caracas, who is now overseeing the relocation of those residents.
At first they lived in tents, and some of the earliest inhabitants talk of high rates of crime and violence. Then, Alexander “el Nino” Daza, a former convict turned evangelical pastor, moved in, imposing order upon the community.
Now, certain rules govern life in the tower. Men, for example, cannot enter its corridors bare-chested, walking barefoot is not permitted, and children may only play in the corridors – several children are alleged to have fallen to their deaths from the tower, which lacks walls and windows in places – during fixed hours and under the supervision of an adult. In addition to these, all of the residents must make a monthly payment of 200 bolivars (about $30) towards the cost of cleaning crews and maintaining security.
While some didn’t have to pay anything to move in, others say they were charged. Ms Mary, a former resident who has already been relocated, says she paid 2,000 bolivars (about $315). Lisbeth Tailor insists she paid 7,000 bolivars (about $1,102) in 2012.
Once allocated a space in the building, most residents set about transforming it into a home – putting down flooring and decorating walls. Some of the apartments have been divided into two – with one section serving as a living space and the other as a business in the form of a hairdresser’s or shop. None of them has running water but there is ample electricity.
The government began relocating residents from the tower, which has been featured in the US series Homeland, in July, 2014. By mid-August of that year, Minister Ernesto Villegas explained: “Four hundred and thirty-four families were voluntarily resettled in houses provided by the social programme Gran Mision Vivienda Venezuela . This is a total of 1,690 people, 38 percent of the initial population of the tower .”
The residents are being moved to government apartments on the outskirts of Caracas. Some have already been transferred to Ciudad Zamora, in the satellite city of Cua, an hour’s drive from downtown Caracas. Others will be resettled in Charallave and Caucagua – a similar distance away.
The relocations began with the upper floors. A s the families left, the apartments were demolished and the storeys closed down. Here, doors now open on to empty spaces littered with the abandoned objects of former residents – odd shoes and children’s bicycles; remnants of the lives once lived here.
What the future holds for the tower is unclear and President Nicolas Maduro has suggested a public debate on the matter . Villegas explains: ” There are several options on the table, ranging from demolition to rehabilitation, but this decision has not yet been made.” Just what will become of its residents appears just as uncertain.
Meet the residents
Luis Alfonso – ‘Every man for himself and God for everyone’
Luis Alfonso observes the horizon through a glassless window in the Tower of David. He can see every detail of every corner of Caracas from here, although he has barely walked the streets below in the few months he has been in town – not even to buy the supplies he needs to make the food that reminds him of his homeland.
As he looks off into the distance, the man from the coastal city of Cartagena in Colombia says: “I dream a lot. Miss, a lot. I dream to distract myself, to imagine, to occupy my mind so it doesn’t dwell on bad things.”
He daydreams as he walks along the Tower of David’s 17th floor, where he sits to feel the breeze and tries to recall the smell of the sea. He lives on the floor below, with his daughter, son-in-law and 10-year-old grandson. Today, these two floors are his world, for he rarely leaves them. With no lift, the trek downstairs is a mission for anyone, but for Alfonso and his troublesome left knee, it is an ordeal.
“They are 65 years old,” he says of his knees. In Cartagena, his other daughter’s insurance covered his medical expenses. In Caracas he goes to an Integral Diagnostic Centre (CDI) provided by the social programme Gobierno Mission Barrio Adentro. There, Cuban doctors see to him. “Little by little, I believe I’ll improve and then I can go for a walk,” he says, smiling.
Alfonso’s lilt is reminiscent of a gentle tide but his large, leathery hands are restless. Decades ago, they kneaded bread. “Do you know the Pan de Bono? The recipe is very simple,” he asks, recalling from memory each ingredient and the amount that should be used.
Before leaving Colombia, he had a fruit and vegetable stand in a market but says “the work situation is not very good” there. He hoped Venezuela would open up new possibilities.
So after obtaining a passport, he travelled overland to Caracas. He does not have a residence permit, and his three-month tourist visa has expired. That is another reason why he does not go out on to the streets.
“There is no question of going out without papers,” he explains. Otherwise, he says he would have explored the capital and sought a girlfriend to accompany him during his lonely days. “We could dance vallenato and salsa too,” he says.
Of the women living in the Tower of David, he says, it is best simply to “be polite, say good morning and that’s it because you never know if they have a husband and it’s better to stay out of trouble”.
His philosophy, he explains, is: “I live peacefully [and] mind my own business. I don’t get involved in the affairs of others. Every man for himself and God for all. In this way, problems are avoided.”
Although he has not witnessed any violence in the tower, he does not like the building much, except for “el fresquito – the breeze that always flows through”.
The apartment where he lives with his daughter and her family is, he says, “a little thing” but they manage.
They will soon have to move, however. “They will give a new home to my daughter. They say they are large with several rooms, lots of light … and running water. They need that more than anything, because what we have here is a water pump that fails every so often,” he says.
Alfonso says he hopes that when he is relocated, he will receive the promised residency card. “They said they were going to give it to us, that if we have no problems with the law, there would be no problem.” This would make it easier for him to get work doing “whatever”. If not, he will be forced to return to Cartagena, to see what remains of the fruit stand he left with a friend.
For now, however, he watches the chaos of Caracas from far above as others go about their business, moving their feet to the beat of ‘Altos del Rosario’.
Lisbeth Tailor – ‘It’s my house, it’s peace of mind’
Before she was relocated to a state-subsidised apartment in Ciudad Zamora, an hour’s drive from downtown Caracas, 31-year-old Lisbeth Tailor lived with her two sons, her mother, her sister and her partner, Ender Puertoreal ‘el Negro’ in a small, 20 square metre apartment in the Tower of David.
She grew up in the largest barrio or slum in Latin America, Caracas’ Jose Felix Ribas, before leaving with Ender for another state in search of work. Most weekends they travelled the 390 miles back to Caracas to see their children who stayed with Lisbeth’s mother.
When they moved back to Caracas, they struggled to find somewhere to live. “It was very difficult to find somewhere to rent, because nobody opens the door if you have kids, or you have to pay a seven-month deposit and we didn’t have the money,” Lisbeth explains.
For a few days, Lisbeth and Ender stayed in a hotel that charged by the hour – checking in at night and leaving in the morning with just the clothes on their backs and what little they could carry in a backpack. Their most valuable possessions remained, like their children, with Lisbeth’s mother.
Then in 2012, Lisbeth and Ender moved into a friend’s room in the Tower of David. “One day a friend told me they had a room in the tower. It scared me at first because of all the stories I had heard,” says Ender, a former boxer.
As soon as they found their own place in the tower, Lisbeth and Ender brought their children. Her mother and sister followed later.
They quickly set about making a living. For Ender, who had learned how to tattoo while in prison in the United States and had perfected the art back in his native Puerto Rico, that was easy. He estimates that during his two years living in the tower, he tattooed more than 1,500 people.
For her part, Lisbeth, who sells sodas and sweets, says she is not ashamed of scrubbing floors, cleaning and waitressing. “Shame is not working. Shame is stealing,” she says, adding: “But I know that with ‘el Negro’ there is no problem. He knows everything and we find solutions.”
When Lisbeth walked through the door of her new home in Ciudad Zamora, she says she could not believe how big it was. Her room alone was larger than the entire space they had left. Her children who could previously only play outside when watched, and therefore spent most of their time indoors, are now able to run in the streets. The oldest has even joined a football team organised by the new inhabitants of Ciudad Zamora.
“I have my privacy and, after so much time going from here to there, I have my house,” Lisbeth says as she prepares for a Sunday barbecue. “I’ll pay for little by little, but it’s my house. It’s peace of mind.”
Belkis and Saturnino – ‘A roof of my own’
Belkis touches the place where the lumps used to be. “They just took the bad. They didn’t have to remove the entire breast,” explains the 49-year-old Colombian.
Just a few weeks ago, she lived in a small room without windows and into which sewage would sometimes leak. Now, she proudly shows off her new home. “A roof that is finally mine,” she declares.
Her new ground floor apartment in Ciudad Zamora has “an enormous window” and overlooks a garden. It may be just a patch of grass but to Belkis it is the Garden of Eden when compared with her former home in the Tower of David.
She was happy to leave the tower and was, because of her health problems and those of her diabetic partner, one of the first on the list for relocation. “It was very hard to live with those sewage leaks,” she says, still smiling.
Belkis is nothing if not a fighter and has refused to be intimidated by either cancer or her economic circumstances. When the restaurant where she worked closed down, Belkis used the settlement she received to buy a fridge-freezer from which she started selling homemade ice cream. Later, she bought a larger one, which is now filled with a range of flavours.
Then she expanded her business: selling clothes that customers pay for little by little, according to their economic means.
From the shade of the common staircase, Saturnino watches Belkis as she talks. The 58-year-old Colombian has lived in Venezuela for more than 30 years. But it was on a trip to his native Barranquillas in Colombia that he met Belkis. “She fell in love with me, so much so that she came to Caracas with me,” he says.
“If he wants to live with that illusion, we’ll let him believe that,” Belkis responds, giggling.
For Saturnino, who is prone to seeing the positive in most things, the move to Ciudad Zamora has been for the best – even if he has to get up at 4am in order to start his job as a security guard at a bank. “Before I was always late, always owing 20 minutes to my colleagues,” he says. “Now I get to work two hours early. It’s a big difference.”
His commute involves walking to the bus stop, taking a bus to the train station, then an hour-long train ride into the capital. Once there, he has to take the underground. If he makes the trip after 5am, he encounters congestion and will be late for work.
“I close my eyes and open them again to realise that, my God, it’s true, I have my own home,” Saturnino says. “After 30 years of fighting in this country, I have my own home. This is something I will never forget because no government in the world gives homes like this to people, much less to foreigners. I thank God every day for this project initiated by President Chavez.”
Then, when he isn’t watching, Belkis takes out a photograph of the two of them at a wedding. “Look at those eyes he’s giving me in this photo, just there behind me waiting,” she says. “He was the one who fell in love with me.”
This article first appeared in the September 2014 issue of the Al Jazeera Magazine.