“El Puente sobre el Lago” turns fifty

Bridges in Venezuela are making headlines. Last week one collapsed in Miranda State, this week another one went down in Monagas. Others located elsewhere are now in peril.

But when people in Venezuela talk about El Puente, the one that comes to mind is General Rafael Urdaneta Bridge across Lake Maracaibo. It links Venezuela’s second city and the rest of the country, becoming a visual icon (or is that cliché?) of Marabinosity.

Fifty years ago today, the bridge was opened by President Rómulo Betancourt. The event transformed Maracaibo’s relationship with what maracuchos call “the center of the country”…meaning everything from Cabimas on.

As the video shows, times were different back then. But even if cars or official billboards look totally different from 1962, some things remain the same like the tollbooths.

Designed by Italian civil engineer Riccardo Morandi, the bridge was unique for its time thanks to the use of reinforced concrete. Two years after it opened, the 8,678 metres-long structure suffered a heavy blow when an oil tanker crashed into pier #31. The bridge was rebuilt and no other incident of this kind has occurred.

The central government was in charge of the bridge until decentralization came along. Then responsibility was transferred to the Zulia State Government until 2009, when the Chavernment assumed full operational control of the bridge once more. Since then, the bridge has been in decay, according to the head of the Zulia Engineers’ Center.

The overreliance on the Rafael Urdaneta Bridge by the local population usually end up with traffic jams on rush hour. During my college years, I noticed that on multiple times.
When there’s an accident, it gets even worse. The night lighting leaves a lot to be desired.

For decades, there has been a public outcry for the construction of a second bridge across Lake Maracaibo. Before the 2006 Presidential Election Hugo Chavez promised to build that new bridge and called the project “Nigale”, as a local indigenous warrior. As this TV report from late 2011 shows, the Nigale Bridge didn’t advance much on six years but Chavez said recently that he wants to restart the project. But his reelection comes first…

I remember the first time I crossed the bridge. As the popular song says: “the feeling is so strong that my mind goes cloudy”. It’s kinda true. El Puente is not just a major piece of infrastructure, but a major symbol for Zulia and Venezuela.

Feliz Cumpleaños Puente!

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