San Juan: The Venezuelan city where nothing works anymore

‘There have been times where we’ve had no electricity for 24 hours’

CARACAS: Employees of a shoe store are pictured during a power cut. —AFP

SAN JUAN DE LOS MORROS: Power blackouts are daily fare, running water comes only once a month, cash machines are empty and waiting for a bus can take hours. Welcome to San Juan de los Morros in Venezuela, where nothing works. “They send (running) water once a month. The rest of the time we have to buy it,” moaned Florimar Nieves, a 39-year-old primary school teacher. “There have been times where we’ve had no electricity for 24 hours.”

This is not some sort of remote village outpost but a city of 160,000 inhabitants, 150 kilometers southwest of the capital Caracas. Yet every corner reeks of the stench of Venezuela’s acute economic and political crises. Nieves lives with her two daughters and a granddaughter on the outskirts of San Juan, in a neighborhood of small, unfinished houses, dirt roads and skinny dogs.

She spends a quarter of her income buying water while her medical student daughter has to go to a neighbor’s house to use the internet. Yet protests in San Juan are as scarce as food, medicines and sanitary products. Many residents seem resigned to their fate. Some collect rain water, while others pray that frequent power cuts won’t damage their electrical appliances.

Tired of waiting

Venezuela’s economic crisis that saw the International Monetary Fund predict inflation would reach one million percent this year, has hit San Juan hard. And this in the country that was once one of the top 10 oil producers in the world. Adults and children alike, dressed in shabby, ill-fitting clothes, walk long distances to get to work or school, tired of waiting hours for one of the few buses still running. Those who cannot buy water and haven’t received any for weeks face trips to the “tap” in the center of town, supplied by a system of pipes leading from a well.

“We come here two or three times a week. We haven’t had water for 12 days,” said Arelis Oliveros as she filled up several containers. The problem has reached such desperate levels that 17-year-old Alejandro often washes in rain water because his grandfather’s house, where he lives, regularly goes days without receiving water. “Sometimes I get fed up with washing this way because I smell bad, so I treat myself, blowing 10,000 bolivars on the bus to go and wash at my mother’s house,” he said.
It’s luxury in a country where the currency is losing value at such an alarming rate that the largest denomination bank note, 100,000 bolivars, which once would buy five kilograms (11 pounds) of rice, is barely enough for a single cigarette. Cash has practically vanished from circulation throughout the country, but in San Juan the cash machines don’t work anyway and residents have to queue for hours at banks to withdraw money. In any case, they are only allowed to withdraw a maximum of 100,000 bolivars, half the price of single egg.

‘You have to punch and kick’

President Nicolas Maduro’s government has announced it will try to ward off economic collapse by stripping five zeros off the currency, but a similar move by his predecessor Hugo Chavez 10 years ago — he knocked off three — didn’t stop the country descending into today’s crisis. Earlier this week, Maduro admitted he and his government were at fault for failing public services. He vowed to quadruple oil production, which has dropped from a high of 3.2 million barrels a day 10 years ago to a 30-year low of 1.5 million in 2018, but predicted it would take two years to see “the first symptoms” of “economic prosperity.” That won’t cheer the residents of San Juan, though.

Carolina Azuaje, a 17-year-old medical student, leaves home at 6:00 am to try to get on one of the free buses supplied by her university, but often has to wait hours to do so. “You have to punch and kick your way onto the bus,” she said. “Last week, I broke a finger.” It’s no exaggeration. When the bus arrives, she jostles with around 100 people to try to board. Many don’t make it, but most just laugh. Nieves says there’s no point complaining as it will only lead to greater hardship. When people do protest the lack of services, they are threatened with the loss of food subsidies while the government and military “lash out against them.”

‘The biggest orphanage’

Sociologist Francisco Coello says parts of society have accepted the crisis because “they’ve not seen anything else” after two decades of chavista governments. Maduro usually blames opposition “sabotage” for the failings but the government “has left the population in the biggest orphanage, with two options: leave the country or depend on benefits,” said Cuello. “An underfed and uneducated population ensures that the regime stays in power.” Nieves is thinking about joining hundreds of thousands of others in fleeing the country. “Living in Venezuela is a struggle, an anguish, a great despair,” she sobbed. – AFP


This article was published on 01/08/2018