Chavez to seize homes and hotels for the poor on idyllic Los Roques

Venezuela president Hugo Chavez's policy of nationalising strategic private businesses has taken a new twist with his announcement that his government will expropriate hotels and holiday homes at an upmarket Caribbean resort.

The president plans to turn Los Roques, an idyllic archipelago of deserted beaches of perfect white sand with swaying palms and dazzling coral reefs, into a state-run getaway for his country's urban poor.

Speaking on national television, he said that yachts and speedboats confiscated from fugitive bankers would be used to transport holidaymakers from the mainland. "There are some houses there that were illegally built. We are going to expropriate them."

Talking by phone link rather than appearing in person – a tactic the president has increasingly used since starting chemotherapy for cancer – he added that the archipelago, a national park, had in effect been privatised by Venezuelan and foreign members of "the upper bourgeoisie".

The measure may turn out to be one of Mr Chavez's least controversial nationalisations. Los Roques was declared a protected area in 1972 and it is unclear why local authorities permitted any private properties on the islands, effectively allowing the archipelago to become one of Latin America's most exclusive beach destinations. Lying 95 miles off Venezuela's northern coast, Los Roques is a paradise for bird watchers, snorkellers and scuba-divers.

Since assuming office in 1999, Mr Chavez has overseen widescale nationalisations in Venezuela, including cement makers, steel mills and large swathes of land belonging to international corporations but deemed idle by the government.

He has also forced some of the world's largest energy companies to renegotiate drilling contracts for the country's highly-prized oil fields. Venezuela now has the largest crude reserves in the world, according to the president.

However, this would be the first time that Mr Chavez has targeted private homes. Not all the nationalisations have gone smoothly. Mr Chavez's government took over several supermarket chains, justifying the move by saying they were not catering to the country's poor. The stores now sell food at heavily-subsidised prices but often lack basic staples, and shoppers frequently have to queue for hours.

Expropriating Los Roques could help position Mr Chavez, 57, who had surgery to remove a malignant tumour from his pelvis in June, for presidential elections next year. He is massively popular with Venezuela's poor but his poll ratings, now hovering around 40 per cent, are some 30 per cent below their historic high.

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