Teleférico Shuffle

Barely reopened, Mérida's Mukumbarí cable car is already the object of some controversy. What fate awaits the newly recovered attraction?

Late in the afternoon of April 29th, the Merida Cable Car system (teleférico) was formally re-opened. Well, I say “re”-opened, but an anthropologist from Mars who knows about Planet Earth only by what he reads on TeleSur could be forgiven for thinking the thing was entirely new: the official announcement simply vanished all evidence that there was ever a Teleférico in Mérida before last week…just another little case of #OrwellianismoEndógeno.

In fact, of course, the Mérida Cable Car had been there since 1960, it’s just that the original infrastructure was on its last leg, so the system had to be be closed down back in 2008. (In the event, teleSUR was almost right: the new system really is a new cable-car more so than a refurbished one. But still.)

Tourism Minister Marleny Contreras (she who is married to God-given) personally presided over the event on cadena nacional, under the supervision of Nicolas Maduro, who preferred to use the capital’s own teleférico and supervise the renovation works on the Humboldt Hotel located on the Ávila.

With this re-launch, Maduro pushed the idea that Venezuela should become “a tourism powerhouse” in order to diversify the economy.  He mentioned again and again that tourism will allow Venezuela to secure foreign currency the government and the people really need.

But seems like the event didn’t have the media impact Maduro hoped for. One week later, he was still complaining that neither national nor even local Merida outlets cover the news at all.

From the news perspective, Maduro faced a big problem: the signature drive to launch the recall referendum was getting all the attention, to the point that he mentioned it in the very same cadena, creating a special commission in order to “review every signature, one by one”.

The claim that Merida outlets didn’t cover the teleférico re-opening isn’t true. I was there, local papers and channels reported it. The thing is that at the time, Merida residents were busy lining-up outside supermarkets or struggling with their share of four-hour blackouts.  Some locals didn’t even know the reopening was happening. It was a real shock.

On April 29th, I was in Merida. As I went downtown, everyday life was busy as usual. The only ones who seemed at all clued-in about the event were a group of public employees who came out to support it and a small student protest in Los Andes University (ULA) against a possible Maduro visit.

But the other problem is that the highly-touted re-opening has been delayed for years and years.  When the teleférico was closed in 2008, then Tourism Minister Titina Azuaje promised that it would be ready in 18 months. No luck. Her successor Alejandro Fleming promised first in 2011 and later in 2012 that everything will be ready for 2013. No dice. Then Fleming’s successor Andres Izarra promised that all would be wrapped up for 2014 (first for July, then for December). The opening was delayed again for 2015. Then Izarra’s replacement Marleny Contreras said that 2016 would be the year. In the end, it only took five Tourism Ministers.

For those who want to get tickets to Merida and ride again to Pico Espejo right away, all I can say is: not so fast. The teleférico is not fully opened to the public yet. Instead, the system is now in a “pre-commercial” stage. Pre-selected groups will be enjoying the cable car for the next twelve weeks, according to State newspaper Correo del Orinoco.  

Like Willie Bank’s casino in Ocean’s 13, it’s having a soft opening, to test the place before the grand opening. Of course the Teleférico doesn’t run on pixie-dust, it runs on electricity, and the government has already announced that it won’t be spared from the nationwide electricity rationing plan already in place, so there’s that.

During the April 29th re-opening, Maduro stressed in that this teleférico is completely new. That is hardly surprising, as it builds on the legacy of the Comandante Eterno of rebooting all aspects of the country related to the B.C.-era (Before Chavez). They even gave it a new name, Mukumbarí.  Let’s not forget that they even tried to change Merida State’s name several years ago.

Regardless of all the troubles, one part of me is really happy that the teleférico is once again up and running. Back in the late 80s, I went all the way to the top and it’s one of the best moments of my childhood. I have a picture in my living room as proof. As I saw the cable cars going up and down again the day after the opening, my heart felt content. I hope that I can ride it again soon.