Caracas leaves the bubble: the ordeal of living where all services fail | International

Caracas leaves the bubble: the ordeal of living where all
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A valve hidden under a sidewalk, and separated several kilometers from different middle-class residential neighborhoods, it is closed and opened every week by an official from the state company that provides water to Caracas. In the hands of that worker, and of others like him throughout the city, is the water supply cycle of thousands of families, who live from rationing to rationing, breaking the laws of physics to try to do what would be done during a weekend. normal weekdays: bathe, wash clothes, water the plants, clean or cook, in the thirty minutes or hour of supply that they will receive on the day under the neighborhood agreement they have reached in their condominiums. If a pipe breaks a few meters away, everything can change. If the power fluctuates too much or goes out permanently, too, and they will surely be disconnected from the internet and cable television. Every day in Caracas begins with those fragile certainties.

Children play on their phones during a power outage.Hello Gaby

A few meters from that key, in a middle-class neighborhood, this week two police officers were acting as a traffic light. They waved their arms to drain the traffic jams from El Cafetal boulevard, a housing estate packed with the elderly, where a stretch of about eight buildings had lost power the day before along with streetlights and traffic controllers. Neighbors surrounded a crane that was bringing a second emergency power plant to give them three-hour shifts of power for groups of buildings. The enormous device had the name “La burra” written in marker. It is an operation that has become routine. The city's transformers explode, stop working, age until they die and the electricity company, also from the State, is putting patches after each breakdown as best it can.

In a small meeting that was formed in the street, they shared the small personal tragedies due to the collapse of the infrastructure of services in Venezuela. Among the causes is the lack of maintenance and investment for its modernization and, above all, a lot of corruption. José Antonio Rodríguez says that he left her 90-year-old mother with a battery-powered radio so that she could distract herself from her, since she cannot move her to take her somewhere with electricity and water. Carolina González is worried about the inventory of cupcakes for sale that she has prepared in her freezer. It is one of the businesses she makes a living from and she prefers to fry them and give them away rather than lose them due to the blackout.

As the neighborhood manager of her building, during the first few hours, she had already coordinated the connection of a cable from one building to another so that the neighbors could charge their phones. She also made sure that the person surviving with an oxygen cylinder in the building was taken to another location. Hugo Pimentel does not stop much to talk. He quickly returned to his apartment to monitor the operation of the small power plant he bought 15 years ago for his beach house, and which is now converted into a large cell phone battery in the hallway of his building.

These neighbors have just spent 22 days without water due to a broken pipe. When the pipes began to fill, the power went out and the pumps to open the taps no longer worked. "This is told and not believed," said Senith Ocampo, a 69-year-old widow who ran out to get ice so as not to lose the week's purchase. But this story is told almost every day in Caracas and in many cities in the country. “One goes through a lot of work,” added Virgilia Romero, with a frying pan with a fish in her hand and a pot in front of her neighbor's door. The woman, 69, works caring for another 92-year-old woman. With no electricity, she had to knock on doors looking for a gas stove. Virgilia spends work where she works and also in Mariches, the informal neighborhood where she lives. The water arrives there every two months.

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Workers fill private water service tanker trucks in Caracas, Venezuela.
Workers fill private water service tanker trucks in Caracas, Venezuela.Hello Gaby

The crisis in public services is one more dimension of the emergency that Venezuela is experiencing. That is why there is an agreement so that part of the resources abroad, which the Government of Nicolás Maduro hopes to be defrosted soon as part of the negotiations with the opposition, are allocated to improving the supply of water and electricity as a priority matter.

These are the two services that work the worst and those that most affect the quality of life. And the problem goes further. The mood of many Venezuelans is modulated when they arrive home and see the clocks on their appliances flashing, the mark left by the blackout that disconnected them for a few hours. Or with each downturn that makes light bulbs, televisions and fans creak. A fluctuation in the current that turns off everything, but that connects Venezuelans to the same anguish, that of another great general blackout like the one in 2019.

Or when half of Caracas is left without water for more than a week because one of the branches that supply the city broke down and you have to wash your dishes and face with the water collected in tubes. In a country with 7.7 million migrants abroad, there are those who think about leaving every time this happens. “Here we are prepared for any war. What we know is to survive”, says Carolina.

It wasn't always like this. “Twenty years ago, 80% of the city received continuous water every day at all hours. We may have the same people or less but now half the water arrives and it is not enough. We also had robust electrical and telecommunications systems managed by model companies. But a process of vertical, progressive and deep deterioration has come, ”explains the engineer José María De Viana in an interview with EL PAÍS. “The deterioration of public services is the most tremendous dimension of poverty, since citizens cannot change that reality. The private provision of a public service will only be possible for those sectors of society with the greatest income capacity”, adds the specialist in an academic text.

In the interior cities, this deterioration is worse and with extreme measures and electricity rationing - such as the one that is now beginning in Mérida with the reduction of the public administration's working hours to save energy - but it was not the norm in Caracas. That privilege, that idea that the city that is the seat of all powers is armored and is the place of opportunities, stimulated a migration of Venezuelans from the interior in search of better conditions, a phenomenon that is difficult to account for and has created social tensions. But with the multiplication of failures, life for a large part of Caracas residents no longer occurs within the bubble with which they compare the capital.

A private water service tanker truck supplies water to a residence in Caracas, Venezuela, on September 8, 2023.
A private water service tanker truck supplies water to a residence in Caracas, Venezuela, on September 8, 2023.Hello Gaby

Spending a few hours at a cistern filling station is enough to put an end to the mirage. Sixto started in the business eight years ago, when he left a neighborhood in western Caracas and bought land to build his own house in a mountainous area on the outskirts of the city. He bought a truck to supply himself and saw that he could also supply his neighbors. Today he has four vehicles and regular clients, such as a residential complex of about 200 apartments near the area of ​​nightclubs, luxurious towers and restaurants in Las Mercedes that every week hires him 20 offices for a 10,000-liter truck of water, which have a price minimum of 50 dollars each. He has been doing this for two and a half years. He dispatches trucks to thirsty neighborhoods and also to fill swimming pools. There are sectors of the city that have practically been disconnected from the aqueduct, since they are supplied only with tanker trucks that must enter the family budget.

A system has been imposed to regulate the intake where trucks load water, which is guarded by the Government. In order to be supplied, truck drivers must make one or more “community deliveries” for free. For each trip to an area that has not received water for days —it can be a neighborhood or sometimes the house of someone with power—, they are given space to make another three to private clients, for which they do charge. This is how the authorities manage the shortage.

Businesses near the fault remained open even when they had no electricity in these days when the heat suffocates all day. It is the pressure to achieve some sale in the midst of the recession that hits the country again, after a slight rebound in the economy registered last year. “It can't be closed,” said the owner of a hardware store in a hurry to install a small plant for emergency operation. They rented a generator from another business in the area. Instead, José Solórzano and his appliance repair technicians played a game of dominoes while receiving clients with equipment damaged by downturns. Refrigerators, televisions and air conditioners are the ones that suffer the most from the instability of the current in Venezuela, they commented as they moved the chips.

This weekend the residents of El Cafetal remained in the dark five days after the failure began. “We are living like animals,” says José Antonio angrily and tired of going up and down several flights of stairs while the elevators are stopped. No one came there to supply diesel to the emergency plant or to bring news of the restoration of service.

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