Ghost Town A Venezuelan El Dorado Hits Rock Bottom

Maracaibo used to be the Dallas of Venezuela, it's wealth fueled by oil. But today, residents are fighting for survival and the city is experiencing an exodus. The collapse of Maracaibo is emblematic of what may lie in store for the country at large.

DER SPIEGEL/ Adriana Loureiro Fernandez

By and Adriana Fernández (Photos)


The day on which residents of Maracaibo destroyed their own city out of sheer desperation began relatively normally, considering the circumstances. It was March 10, 2019, and for the preceding three days, the power had been out across almost the entire country. Fernel Ricardo, a resident of Maracaibo, the second-largest city in Venezuela, remembers how his city took one step closer to the abyss that day.

The 40-year-old father of three girls, Ricardo relates how he was standing in his kitchen that morning trying not to completely lose his sanity. "Food was rotting in the refrigerator and there was no water coming out of the tap," he says. They were unable to make money transfers or withdraw cash, meaning they couldn't buy anything.

Because much of the telecommunications infrastructure had collapsed, making calls was also difficult. "We received no information, no explanation from the government," Ricardo says. There was just one state radio station that continued to broadcast, with people in Ricardo's neighborhood able to listen in with the help of a generator. "Nobody told us what was going on," Ricardo recalls. "The station just played music."

Soon, panic began to spread in San Jacinto, the impoverished district where he lives, one that is considered a stronghold of former Chávez supporters. "What kind of country isn't able to deliver electricity to its people in the 21st century?" he found himself wondering.

A couple of hours later, Ricardo saw his neighbors marching through the district carrying bags and armed with sticks. "Let's go! To the supermarket!" they were yelling, according to Ricardo. "Enough is enough!"

A Bona Fide Dystopia

In the days that followed, the residents of Maracaibo plundered 523 shops. They raided 106 stores in a shopping mall and ransacked a gigantic supermarket, grabbing food and destroying the structure itself and even stealing the roof paneling. The looters also completely stripped a five-floor hotel, walking off with toilets and sinks in addition to taking the water out of the hotel pool.

A city of 2 million located near the border with Colombia, Maracaibo was once considered one of the richest cities in Venezuela. It was the first city in the country to receive electricity several decades ago, and the modern agricultural industry developed in the state of Zulia, of which Maracaibo is the capital. Huge oil deposits discovered beneath Lake Maracaibo further fueled development and turned the city into the Dallas of Venezuela's oil industry -- a city built on the wealth of the world's largest known oil deposit. The oil workers were known for their expensive cars while executives flew in private jets to gamble away money in the casinos of the Caribbean.

Today, Maracaibo is a ghost town, a bona fide dystopia reminiscent of the apocalyptic film "Mad Max." The limited resources at the disposal of President Nicolás Maduro's government tend to be reserved for the capital city of Caracas, located 700 kilometers (435 miles) away.

A walk through Maracaibo reveals a city where almost all of the restaurants and shops are closed. Stoplights don't work, bus service has been suspended and even schools are largely closed or, if they are open at all, only hold classes for a few hours at a time. "For sale" signs stand in front of many of the houses.

Children rummage through the garbage on the sides of the road on the search for something to eat as people in torn clothes walk past pushing shopping carts -- leftover from the days of plundering -- loaded with canisters full of brackish water. Butchers sell bits of unappetizing-looking meat. Some 6.8 million people in Venezuela are currently suffering from malnourishment. On the outskirts of the city, an emaciated man is taking an evening walk with his mother. When asked what the two of them have eaten that day, he responds: "Mangoes. Nothing else."

After years of neglect under President Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013, the source of the city's and the country's wealth has run dry. The state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) is in terrible shape and oil production has plunged by more than two-thirds since 2013, a result of corruption, mismanagement and sanctions applied by the United States. Recently, the country has only been putting out a million barrels per day, roughly the level of 1945. Hundreds of drilling rigs in Lake Maracaibo have deteriorated, power plants have fallen silent and tankers are sinking.

The Need for an About-Face

Four weeks ago, the U.S. imposed additional sanctions against the Maduro government, a way for Trump to exert more pressure on the Venezuelan president following the failed putsch launched by opposition leader Juan Guaidó. The sanctions have led to an additional one-third drop in oil production even as they have primarily hit the people of Venezuela. The country is hardly earning anything from oil exports anymore and the consequences for the already disastrous economic situation have been catastrophic.

Many in the country see the almost complete collapse of Maracaibo as a harbinger for the ruination of the entire country under President Maduro. If there is no political about-face, all of Venezuela could end up looking like Maracaibo.

In recent years, fully 4 million people -- more than a 10th of the country's population -- have left Venezuela and many thousands more continue turning their backs on Maracaibo and the surrounding region. If current trends hold, around 8 million people will have emigrated from Venezuela by the end of 2020 -- many more than the 5.6 million people who have fled Syria in recent years. Already, the Venezuelan exodus has become the largest mass migration in Latin America and is perhaps destined to become the biggest in the world.

DER SPIEGEL

Almost five months have passed since the huge wave of plundering and Fernel Ricardo is sitting in front of his home on a day in August, watching the sand blow across the pothole-filled road. The neighbors across the street are playing dominoes. Ricardo has just asked them for a couple of tomatoes so that his wife can cook something for them in the evening. They don't have any running water and electricity is spotty.

"I used to work in the PDVSA cafeteria," Ricardo says. Since the state-owned oil company basically ceased functioning, he has been repairing electronic devices, though it doesn't provide a regular income. Parked in the garage behind him is an old car belonging to neighbors who have emigrated. Next to it is an iron and a suitcase full of clothes that were also left behind.

"I'm trying to sell everything," he says. "Nobody here can survive off their job. The minimum wage of USD 3 per months is only enough to buy just a single chicken." By the end of the year, the hyperinflation plaguing the country could rise to an astronomical 51 million percent, making the national currency, the bolivar, essentially worthless. Those who can try to get ahold of dollars, or they survive on remittances from family members who have emigrated.

Blinded by Chávez

Back in the days of chaos, when desperation and fury drove the people of Maracaibo to ransack the city, Ricardo was briefly among them. He says he initially saw hundreds of people on the streets. "They had grabbed everything, as if the world was ending. Noodles, rice, shoes, watches, mobile phones and even refrigerators from the shops." Ricardo says he grew fearful when he saw stores burning and heard gunfire, but the police didn't intervene." I quickly grabbed four bottles of water," Ricardo says, "and then I went home."

Right in the middle of the chaos, the government issued a statement claiming that "opposition sabotage" had been responsible for the power outages. Following the most recent outage in July, Maduro blamed an "electromagnetic attack" from the U.S. Now, though, it is thought that a wildfire caused it.

Ricardo says he is ashamed of the plundering, but he also feels partially responsible for the situation in which the county now finds itself. "I voted for Chávez," he says with tears in his eyes. "I allowed myself to be blinded by the good deeds he performed." He says he never thought that Chávez would destroy the country.

These days, it isn't uncommon for lines stretching several kilometers to develop at gas stations in Maracaibo. Because state fuel reserves are running low, and because the Maduro regime is no longer receiving any supplies from the U.S. due to the embargo, many people wait for up to 12 hours to buy a bit of gasoline. People also crowd around in front of the banks, but nobody is allowed to withdraw more than 50 U.S. cents a week.

A strained silence lies over the city, with hardly anybody daring to protest against the government out of fear of being locked up and tortured. A United Nations report alleges that security personnel loyal to the government murdered at least 6,800 people across the country between January 2018 and May 2019. Many districts of the city are controlled by gangs who make their money through smuggling. Anyone who walks along the street with a bag full of groceries risks being attacked. Indeed, Venezuela is now considered to be the most dangerous country in all of South America.

During the days of plundering, hundreds of people were injured by knives or gunfire and doctors were forced to operate by the lights of their mobile phones. Due to the lack of equipment, many amputations were performed that otherwise would have been avoidable.

'We Lost Many'

"In the nights of the plundering, panic broke out among the doctors," says a doctor in the city's central hospital. Hundreds streamed into the operating rooms in a single night, she says. "We lost many of them."

She asked that we refer to her here as Dr. López to protect her safety. The government doesn't want journalists to learn about conditions in the state-run hospitals and doctors put themselves in danger if they allow access. But López is furious about the collapse of healthcare in the country. When the guards head out for lunch, she leads us inside.

The hallway in front of her office reeks of blood and urine. A man is lying on a stretcher and screaming. Everywhere, there are patients waiting to be tended to. "The five beds we have in intensive care are all full," López says. "That's why there are patients lying in the hallways."

The hospital used to be one of the best in the country. "We performed heart surgeries and computer tomography scans," she says. "But now, almost all of the specialists have emigrated and young doctors aren't coming up to replace them." A total of around 22,000 doctors have left the country since 2017, around half of the country's erstwhile total.

López earns the equivalent of $10 per month, but she has remained in the country anyway to "serve the people," the doctor says. She adds that she wouldn't be able to survive without the help of relatives in the U.S. -- part of the up to $2 billion in foreign remittances sent to Venezuela every year.

But the patients have an even tougher time of it. "Families who bring their relatives must provide the things we use to treat them," López says. "Medicine, latex gloves, even clean water." The patients aren't even provided with food any longer and the doctor says she just bought cleaning supplies on her own dime. "Because most families have no money for treatment, many patients just lie here and don't get better."

The huge, half-empty building has essentially become a gigantic homeless shelter as a result of the crisis. Maracaibo residents bring people by who they have picked up on the street and already, a dozen homeless people have simply moved in. A few days ago, López says, an emaciated man was found standing in the doorway. Nobody knows who he is or where he came from and now he is just sitting on a bed, confused and naked. "It is increasingly the case," López says, "that families simply drop off their older relatives because they can't afford to take them along when they emigrate."

At the beginning of the year, many hoped that the Maduro regime was coming to an end. Juan Guaidó, the young president of the National Assembly, invoked the constitution on January 23 and named himself the interim president of Venezuela. Around 50 countries, including Germany, recognized him as such, in part because in the presidential elections the previous year, when Maduro was re-elected, there were massive irregularities. But hopes among Western countries that the country's powerful army would throw their support behind Guaidó and turn away from Maduro proved to be in vain.

Complete Economic Destruction

Now, a kind of political trench warfare has developed between the regime and the opposition, a situation that has contributed to the complete destruction of the country's economy.

With the help of the Trump administration in the U.S., the opposition continues to work on a strategy for toppling the current government. The sanctions are designed to undercut the Maduro regime economically while Guaidó continues trying to get the military on his side. Back in January, he promised amnesty to those in the military who turn away from Maduro.

Guaidó also blasted the government for being responsible for the power outages this spring and residents of Maracaibo took to the streets at his request. It was a time when the opposition seemed to have momentum on its side, but since then, it seems to have faded. Following the introduction of stricter U.S. sanctions in early August, Maduro broke off talks with the opposition aimed at agreeing on a process of transition.

It is currently unclear what a solution to the crisis might look like. Thus far, it is primarily the people themselves who are suffering from the oil boycott. All accounts belonging to the state-owned oil company PDVSA in the United States have been frozen. And because the regime lacks sufficient hard currency, it is becoming increasingly difficult to import food and medical supplies.

In Maracaibo, five men have pulled up their chairs to a table in the backroom of a hotel, all of them hoping that a worsening of the crisis could lead to the fall of the Maduro regime. One of the men has brought along a photo showing himself -- smiling at the camera -- in a group at a Juan Guaidó event. "I was fired because of this picture," says the man, who worked for PDVSA until recently. Now, he is required to stay at least 800 meters away from any refinery in the country -- "as if I was a terrorist." His colleagues shake their heads, all of them bitterly disappointed by the government in Caracas.

"The government has driven the oil industry into the ground," says Carlos Labrador, a 52-year-old with carefully combed hair and a purple shirt. "Venezuela's working class has been destroyed." Twenty years ago, early in his career, he says, it was a privilege to work for PDVSA. "Today, though, it is something to be ashamed of." Labrador used to love the company and said he could have worked eight more years there had he not been forced into retirement.

"The oil industry promised me stability," Labrador says, adding that before Chávez destroyed the system, a normal worker could earn the equivalent of at least $1,200 per month. "We received allowances to buy homes. There were supermarkets and hospitals for oil workers along with stipends for our children who went to school. We saw it as our right to a good life," he says. "Today, an oil worker makes just $5 per month."

A System of Patronage

The collapse of the state oil company started to become palpable around 10 years ago, the men say. Chávez began pumping the billions in oil earnings into social programs, but he failed to invest in the maintenance of the facilities responsible for that income. Following an oil worker strike that threatened both the economy and Chávez's own presidency, he fired more than 15,000 workers in early 2003 -- including many experts -- and replaced them with tens of thousands of people loyal to him. "He politicized the industry and continued hiring more and more people even though production was falling," one of the men says.

The system of patronage drove the company into ruin and production began falling due to the lack of knowledgeable engineers. When the price of oil collapsed in 2015, PDVSA had no financial buffer anymore and Chávez's successor Maduro inherited a ruined economy. The military was given responsibility for PDVSA and Maduro began printing money to prop up the state. Predictably, the result was hyperinflation, which drove the economy into the abyss.

Those who work for PDVSA today say the former oil workers in Maracaibo, cannibalized the company. "They stole motors, adhesives and tools. Recently, a ship apparently sank because someone stole a seal that was made of bronze." Should Maduro resign one day, the U.S. and other Western investors could earn a pretty penny refurbishing the ramshackle oil infrastructure. "Assuming that there is anything left at all," one of the workers adds.

Following our conversation, they stand up and head outside. Not, though, to proudly work in the oil industry, but to continue selling ice cream or water in an attempt to make ends meet.

According to the architects of U.S. sanctions against Venezuela, which were tightened significantly under the guidance of U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton, they were never intended to harm the populace. The hope had been that they would quickly lead to Maduro's fall, or that the military would sweep him out of office before the economy collapsed. But that isn't what happened. Indeed, the sanctions have turned into a welcome means for local politicians in Maracaibo to pose as victims of foreign powers.

The situation in Maracaibo is essentially "controlled chaos," says Juan Romero, the 50-year-old vice president of the Legislative Council of the state of Zulia. A close confidante of the governor, Romero receives his guests at the seat of state government in the center of Maracaibo. A medallion bearing a likeness of Chávez hangs on his necklace. On the table in front of him are several blank sheets of paper that he will fill up during our interview with numbers, arrows and circles to illustrate his points.

What the Government Says

Why is the infrastructure in such bad shape in and around Maracaibo? Romero explains that due to climate change, the state of Zulia has to deal with temperatures of more than 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit). "The electricity grid isn't prepared for that." Furthermore, he alleges, "external elements" severed an underground telecommunications cable to destroy the system.

Who exactly does he think was responsible? "Colombia, because it has an acute interest in the oil beneath Lake Maracaibo. And the United States of America, which wants to destabilize Venezuela."

Who is to be blamed for the high rate of inflation? "Currency distortion in Colombia." He never fully explains what exactly he means by that. Romero needs more paper. On his desk are several rubber figurines of important members of government, with Maduro in the middle.

Why did the people of Maracaibo plunder 523 shops? He says that "sleeper cells from Colombia" were responsible. And Juan Guaidó also bears responsibility, because the opposition leader is intent on seizing power in Zulia. "He wants to divide the territory controlled by the Maduro government and establish a parallel regime here in Maracaibo."

Is it not a sign of the government's failure that 4 million people have left the country? "For historical reasons, the border between Venezuela and Colombia has always been extremely permeable," Romero says. "Plus, we have calculated that it is 2 million people at most. And many are returning."

Romero doesn't deny that there is a crisis. But as far as he is concerned, his government bears no responsibility for it. Meanwhile, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations believes it possible that a famine could break out in Venezuela.

Those most threatened by starvation live in the district of Alto del Milagro Norte, one of the city's most dangerous slums. In every third house, an elderly person is lying motionless on a bed, many of them hardly more than a skeleton. Babies with the distended bellies of hunger scream in their mothers' arms. Many undernourished residents of the slum have died recently.

Buried in a Wardrobe

Some 50 men and women have gathered on a recent morning in front of the house belonging to the Sánchez family. They are here to pay their last respects to Guillermo Gallue, who died at the ripe old age of 95, something of a miracle in these times. He is now to be buried.

The Sánchez family has put the dead man's coffin on display inside their corrugated metal shack and Gallue's grandson, David Sánchez, is standing in front of it. "Our grandfather lived so long because he worked on a farm," he says, where he was able to eat meat and drink milk. That made him strong. In the slum, though, they were only able to give him a mixture of flour, sugar and water. "But he needed protein." For years, Sánchez says, he got thinner and thinner. Every now and then, Sánchez relates, he would dig a worthless banknote out of his pocket and whisper: "I would like some chicken."

The grandson smiles wryly, saying they never told him what had become of Venezuela. "We wanted him to die in peace." Sánchez himself sells mangoes to make a bit of money, while his children collect plastic and scrounge through garbage. Together, they earn the equivalent of around $4 per month.

"We can't afford a funeral," he says, adding that he already had to borrow money from several sources to afford the wake. He is ashamed that he is unable to offer anything to eat to the mourners who have gathered at his home.

At midday, the vehicle arrives to take his grandfather to the cemetery. Before he is taken away, the mourners march through the streets, with four men carrying the coffin up front. The grandfather, who only ever knew Maracaibo as Venezuela's proud oil metropolis, is lying in a narrow wardrobe that his family has converted into a coffin.

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