CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ Thousands of homeless Venezuelans, energized by a new president who champions the rights of the poor, are taking over vacant buildings and lots, provoking concern about respect for private property.

President Hugo Chavez's refusal to call in the National Guard has outraged state governors and local police who say they don't have enough manpower to evict the squatters. And critics say the president, a former coup leader vowing to shake up the country's institutions, is sending the wrong message: that it's OK to skirt the law.

``I'm not going to send in troops,'' Chavez said during a trip last week to visit squatters in eastern Monagas state. ``I will not rest until every human being who lives in this land has housing, employment and some way to manage his life.''

Well over half the country's 23 million people live in poverty, and the housing deficit is estimated at more than a million homes.

No one knows for sure how many people are involved in the land invasions. Some officials have said the news is being exaggerated to discredit Chavez, who took office Feb. 2, seven years after his coup attempt.

But virtually every Venezuelan state _ from the oil-rich jungles of the east to the Andean highlands near Colombia _ has reported a surge in squatting in recent days, with totals easily passing 3,000 families, according to media reports.

In the western state of Zulia, several hundred indigenous tribesmen burned tires and hurled bottles before police with tear gas evicted them from a lot they invaded. In the eastern city of Barcelona, 300 families turned the airport into a makeshift shantytown.

``It's not that we want anything for free,'' said 31-year-old Margot Arangure, who along with 34 other single mothers ``invaded'' an abandoned, government-owned building in downtown Caracas. ``We just want a home for our children.''

Sporadic takeovers of empty buildings and land is nothing new in Venezuela, but the latest invasions are taking place on a scale never seen before.

Chavez says the squatters can be made to leave through persuasion and, if that fails, gentle force by local police.

Unlike his predecessors who answered squatting with sticks and bullets, Chavez is traveling the country to talk to the squatters in person.

``They are not invaders, but brothers in a desperate situation,'' the president said.

For poverty-stricken Venezuelans, Chavez's actions signal a hopeful break from the past. Critics say he has incited the masses.

By insisting that local governments restrain squatters without help from federal forces, some also say the president is trying to wash his hands of the problem.

``He wants all of the scorn to fall on the governors,'' said former Defense Minister Gen. Fernando Ochoa Antich.

Venezuela's business elite fears the invasions will exacerbate Venezuela's economic recession by jeopardizing the integrity of private property.

``This is devastating to the country's image,'' Antonio Herrera, president of the Venezuelan-American Chamber of Commerce, told reporters Wednesday.

Venezuela can ill-afford to scare away foreign investors. A precipitous drop in world petroleum prices is wreaking havoc on the country's oil-based economy.

The government is prepared to turn over 6 million acres of farm land to qualifying families, Vice Agriculture Minister Francisco Visconti told reporters this week. But the proposal won't likely quell invasions because most squatters are from the city and have no farming experience.

Antonio Jose Bastide, a 32-year-old magazine vendor, owns a house in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Caracas that has been invaded. He said he complained to three different government offices.

``The law here has not lent me a hand,'' he said. ``So I've been thinking about taking the law into my own hands'' and setting the house on fire.