A tourist in my hometown

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I spent Christmas and New Years in Maracaibo, and I promised CC readers I would take a ride on the Metro while I was there.

The Metro opened in 2006, just in time for the previous Presidential election. The above-ground train “system” is made up of a single line and six stations. Chavista sources put the cost of the initial line on the order of $400 million.

Nobody I know had ever been on it, and I decided to go see it, with an open mind.

That's me, with an open mind

The Metro is not located in the city’s most heavily populated areas. The first of the two terminal stations is in the outskirts of town, while the second one is close to the historic center – about five blocks away, surrounded by unpaved parking lots and the low-grade commerce of the Mercado Las Pulgas. None of the stations are located in important commercial, industrial, or residential areas.

Bustling Libertador station

The first thing I noticed when my brother-in-law dropped us off at Libertador terminal station (sight of a horrific near-miss a few months back) is how difficult it is to actually get to the platform. The access stairs are surrounded by busy streets from all sides, marked by a crazy maracucho intersection where pedestrians are considered walking road-kill. Right off the bat, the first impression is a bad one.

The fare costs 50 céntimos (12 US cents at the official rate). Above the ticket counter, I was greeted by multiple pictures of Chávez, lest I forget who to thank for this wonderful example of public policy.

Gracias, mi comandante!

I waited for the train in the warm late-afternoon breeze. I was expecting a packed train, since it was close to five, but did I mention it’s not located in heavily urbanized areas? That means that few people use the darn thing, even at a heavily subsidized price.

“If you build it, they will come” – except they didn’t.

The next thing I noticed was that there is absolutely no private advertisement on the train. All the ads are from the government, a trend repeated all over Venezuela.

During my ride, I went through lower-middle class neighborhoods. A lot of them have dirt roads. There is no new business to speak of, no new housing developments that I can recall. Instead of bringing economic activity to its location, like many Metros do, this one seems to have sucked the life out of the places it goes through.

A neighborhood, divided

Perhaps it is because the Metro, by going above the surface, actually prevents people from crossing Sabaneta Avenue, thereby dividing previously integrated neighborhoods. It’s like the Maracucho version of the Berlin wall.

Boomtown, Edo. Zulia

I noticed few people getting on an off. In one of the intermediate stations, you could count the number of people on the platform with one hand.

We got to the Terminal station in a short amount of time, and since we were waiting for my brother-in-law to pick us up, I decided to take some pictures of other things I found interesting.

Rush hour

For example, the station has an elevator, but it’s gated up, and has probably never been used. The metallic structure in the station is showing evident signs of rust, so typical of this city surrounded by petrochemical plants. Finally, the signs themselves are horrendous. One sign in particular warned against violence, but they do so by quoting articles of some law that most of the people using the Metro cannot understand.

Elevator to Hell

The most painful part of all of this is witnessing the rest of the city. It really didn’t need a $400 million white elephant. Its public transportation outside of the Metro is, literally, in shambles.

¿Entendiste, mija?

After getting off my train, I saw lines of people waiting to board forty-year old Bella Vista and Veritas carritos por puesto. I didn’t go on them this time, but I hear some of them are so beat-up, they don’t even have a floor in the back seat.

Dirt roads, garbage piling up all over the place, no business to speak of, and no money left over for actual public transportation that people use. But hell, doesn’t this shiny Metro to make us feel developed?

Nice going, chavistas.

The train is here, but the city is there
Rush hour, Altos de la Vanega
Rust everywhere
The neighborhood next to Altos de la Vanega station
My verdict

1 COMMENT

  1. Will any of these locations (on the drawing board) service the more populated areas?

    Padilla
    Falcón
    Baralt
    Calle 72
    Indio Mara
    Universidad
    Galerías
    Polideportivo
    Panamericano
    Mercado Periférico
    Curva de Molina

      • It’s disingenuous for you not to even mention the latter stages of development of this metro system. (Not candid or sincere, typically by pretending that one knows less about something than one really does.)

        • Sorry to say I agree, Juan. Lo cortés no quita lo valiente. Just takes a throwaway line about how “sure, on paper there are plans to extend the system into places where people, y’know, live and work, but there’s no sign of that work even starting…” to innoculate yourself against this kind of rebuttal.

          • I don’t understand. What does this have to do with the Metro as it stands? The current line was built five years ago and there is nothing happening on these other supposed stations. I can’t be called to task for failing to analyze the effectiveness of imaginary train stations.

          • Well, you give the impression that the system as designed was totally insane – which is a fun story, but not really true. The system as *implemented* is totally insane, which is a slightly different thing. It’s not a big thing, and all it would’ve taken is a 10 word rejoinder to head off…

          • So, these stations in the middle of nowhere were not designed to be there? I’m sorry, this discussion is meaningless. I don’t care about what the design is or was. What I want to know is whether the $400 million they spent on the Metro were worth it.

          • Oh you’re just being churlish now – outlying stations in residential areas that make no sense if not connected to the rest of the system WOULD make sense if the planned central stations had been built. But your post totally elides the story of how this crazy system came into being…

  2. This is a very good post. It exactly matches my perceptions of the system from my last trip to Maracaibo about 15 months ago. The mid-street, elevated subway system is all the rage around the Americas — you see it here in Santiago, and in Denver, and in other places. And it’s inherently suspect. You have to really control the vehicle traffic to make access work. And then, because the station is automatically separated by at least one major street crossing from anything you’d want to do, it becomes all the more important to do serious focused transit-oriented development (TOD) at the station site. However, the local, state and national governments of Maracaibo have all been at one another’s throats for years. Each one does what it can to make its enemies look bad. So I would be unsurprised if the initial plans included talk of TOD but that it has been stalled by politics. I am pretty sure it was local politics that kept the government from starting system construction in the city center — isn’t there something about there being two different municipalities covering Maracaibo?

    • There are two different municipalities, but I think the subway is concentrated in the large Maracaibo municipality. Regardless, I don’t think mayors have much say on traffic patterns – at least opposition mayors, that is.

      • And there’s a posibility of a third municipality in the future. For years, there have been proposals for West Maracaibo to split of the main city.

        Great article, JC. During my five years living in Maracaibo while I was in college, I found the public transportation to be quite a experience. Many of the “carritos” have holes in the floor, where you can see the pavement in motion.

  3. Oh Juan… I’ve seen carritos por puesto CHORREANDO gasolina (“peeing” gas :p) everytime the start and stop at a red light…

    If I ever become “beloved leader” one of my first commands would be destroy all carritos :p, don’t like it? you’re also destroyed too, that’s what a “beloved leader” usually does on this kind of stuff :p

    Oh, and I almost forgot about bachaqueo, at the texaco gas station near engineering faculty of la universidad del zulia, I saw a truck with an improvised tank (covered by wood on the outside) and it was being loaded with gasoline, for about ten minutes!!! and the damn thing had a WATERFALL of gasoline beneath it…

    WWBLD? shoot on sight :p

    Siento una emocion tan grande que se me nubla la mente…

    • It’s sad, but the solution is not to destroy Carritos, it’s to replace them with a modern transportation system.

      You know, something just occurred to me: perhas the reason this Metro is in such a strange, low-density place is because … it’s Avenida Sabaneta!

  4. I need an historical context, Juan.

    1. what responsibility does the Governor of Zulia have in the face of all this decay?
    2. has the decay (say, with the carritos por puesto) long been thus, say pre-Chávez?

    • I might as well jump in here to congratulate Juan for this post and to answer Syd.

      Metro are supposedly designed between the mayor, governors and the state. The Maracaibo project was designed, if memory serves me well, under Caldera 2 and thus Chavez had no other option but to finish, belatedly, these first two stations. Since it is a mostly state funded project there was absolutely no incentive fr chavismo to pursue it until chavismo gained Zulia or at least Maracaibo.

      And yet this is not enough of an explanation. Yaracuy has also its white elephant of sorts, a much needed highway to link Barquisimeto to Valencia via Puerto Cabello. when Lapi was ousted 7 years ago, a big trunk, about 7 Km, to Urama was done and ready to be inaugurated. and yet, in spite of the election of Acosta Carles in Carabobo, it was never officially inaugurated and its remaining 5-6 km to bypass Moron never made. Yet, through dirt country side roads people started using the built portion to the point that 2 years ago they had to repave the non-inaugurated highway…. With the loss of Acosta Carles eventually they relented anyway and opened the redone part though without a formal inauguration and it seems that now they are working on the final portion. Hopefully done in by October 7.

      My point is that it is almost useless to consider the responsibility of governors in such projects because in the end they will done according to political criteria. Zulia is lost for Chavez no matter what so fuck the metro. But Yaracuy and Carabobo are not lost causes and maybe finishing the highway with an 8 years delay is justified.

      AS for the general decay of public transportation. Mayors and governors do share responsibility but in my opinion not much of it. The main culprit, paradoxically, is the free gas policies of Venezuela who are an excuse for not allowing the increase in transport fees. The customer is willing to put up with lousy public transportation because they know that better transport will be more expensive and they thus get stuck in that vicious cycle where the price of transport does not allow for renewal of the fleet and even less for its adequate maintenance. If there is something that illustrates to the tee the evils of populism it is public transportation in Venezuela! And coming from the “4th republic” already as Juan points out.

      Because there is a well kept secret in that there is really not much of public transportation in Venezuela. Most “carritos” and “busetas” are privately owned and the state or municipality supposedly regulate the price charged and the safety of the vehicles, allowing for some form of subsidy to avoid sharp transport price increases. Since Chavez has cut the money due to the states and municipalities, these have very limited budgets and thus everyone is letting public transportation go to shit since price cannot be increased as needed and the local authorities can only afford subsidies to guarantee drivers pay checks and basic mechanical maintenance. At best, chavista or not local authority.

      So yes, Zulia authorities have some of the blame but the origin of it all is Caracas (and Chavez these days) but more importantly the guilty part is that culture of lambucios we are where all is a right, and we have no duties.

      • Daniel, a couple of comments
        1) I don’t think something is a White elephant if it’s much needed. It sounds like that highway was greatly needed. The Metro de Maracaibo – not so much.
        2) As for public transportation, you’re right in that the low fares take away the incentive to invest in the new units. But why doesn’t the government donate the new units to the drivers, just like it gives away chicken and free ges? How many new cars could $400 million buy? How many new buses?

      • “Because there is a well kept secret in that there is really not much of public transportation in Venezuela. Most “carritos” and “busetas” are privately owned and the state or municipality supposedly regulate the price charged and the safety of the vehicles, allowing for some form of subsidy to avoid sharp transport price increases.”

        I think this is key to understand the problem; the “public” transportation is not public. Therefore, I am not understanding why the local authorities are to be blamed and not the owners of the buses? If the authorities are to be blamed for something, it would be about enforcing some sort of maintenance to the units, but with regulated fees and lack of parts, how do you enforce that?

        I think this is one thing I would agree to expropriate and put fully in the hands of local authorities, that way an actual system, a combination of busetas-bus lines and metro can be implemented.

        • Yes, but expropriating requires money, and they have no money because they blew it all in a $400 million train to nowhere.

          • 1) white elephant is something in the middle of no use. that it is needed but does not function is another thing. but still, i will graciously concede the point ’cause i am too tired to find an appropriate expression for what i meant. the hyway is BADLY needed but the Maracaibo subway is needed to help increase the city density, a much needed thing in Maracaibo
            2) buying new “busetas” is not necessarily the solution, even if they are given away. the problem is that there is a culture of “drop me/pick me up where i want which works dramatically against the efficiency of motor transportation in venezuela (amen of potholes and bus stops occupied by “buhoneros”)

            what is needed is to enforce the concept of bus stop, increase gas price to give the incentive for bus drivers to drive better buses and then, only then, will it be worth to improve the bus equipment. as far as i am concerned, people are getting the service they are paying for and if it satisfies them, who am i to promote change……

  5. As you said- “the Metro is over here and the city is over there”
    those stations and surrounding areas certainly are empty and I am wondering
    if some of those areas would have developed had Chavez not been in power
    the past 12 years..
    I noticed the extremely tall flagpole – and the rather small Venezuelan flag
    (and who was the genius that wrote something “bolivariano’ on the flagpole …)
    The Chavez propaganda drives me nuts everywhere, too.
    I hate rust too.
    Thanks for the photos.
    Also, you look good!” Healthy as a horse”
    Maybe gained a few pounds?

  6. It’s unbelievable. While the rest of Latin America can only dream of installing new metro lines (and many capitals in the region have no rail transport at all) the Gobierno Bolivariano can afford the luxury of installing a crappy line to nowhere. Probably loads of graft was carried out while building it which would explain why it leads nowhere and doesn’t particularly have much ridership.

  7. Juan, nice post! The Line 1 of the Metro of Maracaibo will be a worldwide reference on how NOT to implement a street level LRT (Light Rail Train). As you drive from the airport to the city through Sabaneta, is amazing the chaos the metro has brought (did you notice the improvised two-way traffic on both sides of Sabaneta?).
    Transportation problems can only be solved with a common approach. That said, we are far, very far to achieve a solution to this problem in Maracaibo. Trying to align the Federal, state, and local government, with the interest of Transportation Unions, and the real needs of the people is an utopia.
    One last thing, I have heard numbers up to $1300 MM, for the cost of the line 1. Normally the cost of a street level (with some elevated parts) LRT system is between $65-$70 MM/mile, but this one is something between $93-$303 MM/mile. Show me the money….!

    • Thanks Bieler. If you have a source for that figure, send it my way. The only figure I could find was the $400 million Aporrea was talking about.

  8. When I first moved to Maracaibo in October I literally didn’t leave my house because public transportation is so bad in this city (especially when compared to my home-base of Washington, DC where you could eat off the floor of the Metro if everyone else in the car didn’t yell at you for eating). The buses get you where you need to go, but they wind around so much that it takes too long. Carritos are efficient, but I feel like I need to buy some carbon credits every time I reach my hand out the window to open the door and get out. I also feel that their designation of “patrimonio cultural” stalls the city from truly modernizing the transportation system. The Metro is just absurd and you’re completely right in your sentiment that it goes nowhere. Literally. Nowhere. Great post, great blog that has been very helpful to me as I continue to learn about politics here. Check out mine for some everyday observations of a new “gringcucha!”

        • Oh-my-God!
          “While there are many problems with the way Chavez has gone about his reform project, I think that, on the whole, it can be characterized as an inevitable, ultimately beneficial period in the history of the country. I am BEYOND excited to see it unfold in person.”

          • Normally I’d say ‘haterz gonna hate,’ BUT, I’ll point out two things. First, as you can see, that was written before I got here and my perception of the way things are has changed a lot. My blog has changed accordingly. Second of all, I maintain that the Chavez period needs to be kept in historical context and that support for democracy and the legitimacy of the Venzuelan government have, according to various, respected surveys, increased substantially during his time as president. I’m not the only one who says so: http://www.brookings.edu/opinions/2010/1213_latin_america_poll_casaszamora.aspx.

          • Oh, dear!
            Do you actually know some history of my country? What? Tell me the courses you followed.

            Again, the Latinometro…what a way to draw conclusions…

            Perception of democracy? Do you equate that with democracy?
            In 1998 a lot of wallies voted for Chávez. Do you know what many of them thought ? That a guy who was openly praising bloody dictator Pérez Jiménez and said, among other things, crime would go down with him, would be good for the country…”to bring back those days”. Now they think, I suppose, differently.
            So: what’s your conclusion?
            Tell me something: do you think Chileans in 1972 – had they had such a “wonderful” poll, would have been more or less likely to say a dictatorship could be a good thing for Chile than now? And what would you then conclude?

            In another poll people in the Americas and Europe were asked what they thought about their education system. Venezuelans had the best opinion, more so than Chileans, who had a much better opinion about their education than Scandinavians.

            Oh, please.

            Noam Chomsky was a brilliant scientist when he developed his ideas on formal languages.
            When he started to talk about Venezuela he was as senseless as Einstein about the Soviet Union.
            And he also used the blessed Chilean Latinobarómetro. And he said Venezuelans in 200? (forgot the year) said they were happier than US Americans. Hence…hence what?

            For Goodness sake…hello, science?

            Was there a similar poll about the same question in 1999? In 1990? In 1980? No, there wasn’t. What if the same or a similar answer would have been given in 1850?

            Geez…I wonder what they think the scientific method is…I wonder if they actually follow logic classes.

            Respected my foot. Carter is respected. Carter has praised Ceasescu and called Iran’s Shah one of his best friends and a true democrat (no, I don’t go into 2004 Venezuela and I think it doesn’t matter…but “respected” is very relative)

  9. I think Bieler-Romer has an important point, and he makes me think that, if the Maracaibo Metro, just as it stands today, is a study on HOW NOT NO BUILD a street-level subway system, we would do well without the rest of it. I, personally, do not dare to wish it finished.

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