Transport Sector on Edge Amid Protests and Calls for a Strike [Updated Twice]

If it looks like a strike, sounds like a strike, smells like a strike, tastes like a strike and feels like a strike it's to petition the Transport Minister for a fare hike.

UPDATE 8:30 p.m.:

The nationwide strike called mere hours ago is suspended pending “negotiations.” I suppose this is what they call a “developing situation.”

UPDATE: 6:15 p.m.

This escalated quickly: from a non-strike caravan to a full on paro nacional. After the so-called caravan of buses was parked outside the Ministry for Surface Transport for seven hours and received no answers from the Ministry, the drivers launched a paro nacional –national strike to demand a fare hike.

Today, commuters from every part of Caracas and Los Teques were left stranded waiting for transport from as early as 5:30am, as buses joined a caravan headed to the Ministry for Surface Transport to demand a fare hike.

Needless to say: Caracas colapsó.

By 9:00 am, dozens of buses began turning up at the headquarters of the Ministry for Surface Transport.

The caravan — officially not a strike — was called to deliver a document to the Minister, Ricardo Molina, restating all the agreements reached during work sessions with the vice minister for Transport, Christopher Martínez, and with the Executive Vice President, Aristóbulo Istúriz. Among the agreements was the fare increase to BsF.60 in all five blocks of the capital.

By 9:00 am, dozens of buses began turning up at the headquarters of the Ministry for Surface Transport.

According to Braulio Cedeño, secretary of the West-Side Block of Transport of Caracas, Istúriz had approved the fare hike, but Molina is saying that the increase is a no-go and that y que si queríamos guerra la íbamos a tener — “if we want a fight, they’re up for it”. After the strike (um, “caravan”) began, Istúriz himself said that the buses involved would be taken over by the “Poder Popular” if the protest was to go on, while inviting the drivers to establish technical working groups to agree on a fare.

Pedro Jiménez, representing the South-West Block of Transport of Caracas, said that the vice minister proposed a meeting at two in the afternoon and that “la concentración se va a levantar únicamente cuando tengamos respuesta del ministro” — the rally will be lifted only when we have a response from the minister. .

Unlike in most first world cities, buses aren’t run by a central authority.

So should the fare be increased? It’s tricky.

On the one hand, we know fare hikes hit average pocketbooks hard. But, what about the sustainability of the public transport business?

Unlike in most first world cities, buses aren’t run by a central authority but are privately owned by a patchwork of small and mid-sized businessmen. They have bills to pay like everyone else, and if they can’t, they go out of business. The last thing we need is yet another shortage: this time for bus seats.

According to Hugo Ocando, president of the 45 lines of the West Block of Transport of Caracas, “they [the Government] have the resources, tires and spare parts, but don’t want to hand them over. The government wants to make us disappear, but they will not succeed”. If this is partly true, then the government seems to be winning: according to Ocando, by September 10, between 30% and 40% of the Block’s fleet was out of service due to breakdowns and/or difficulties purchasing spare parts.

In any case, the public transportation drivers are demanding and increase in the controlled fare. Anyone who’s ridden a bus in Caracas recently and seen the terrible state of they’re in knows the sector is on the brink. Anyone who remembers February 1989 can understand the sensitivities involved.

There’s nothing easy about this problem.