The Tragedy of Choroní: Tears of Neglect

What used to be a paradise getaway for many has turned into a living hell. The worst part? It all could have been avoided.

Last Monday, the state of Aragua was struck with disaster. After weeks of heavy rain, many of the rivers that flow from the Henri Pittier National Park flooded, leaving, so far, nine dead and several missing, cutting off Choroní from the rest of Aragua State and affecting over 600 families.

The narrow, infamous road that connects Choroní with Maracay, the state capital, was restricted by a landslide and, although the nearby Romero and Tremaría areas were affected, the actual town of Choroní was spared the catastrophe.

Government control over information has been almost airtight, making it impossible for reporters to, um, report, so journalists are left to quote tweets from the national director of Civil Protection, the state governor and the PSUV governor candidate Rodolfo Marco Torres. Because what’s a disaster if you can’t take advantage of it?

Jeanfreddy Gutiérrez, journalist and activist, says that, as many other times, any information that doesn’t come directly from an official government source, including witness accounts, is being being treated as rumor. This includes the number of missing people.

“It’s ironic” Jeanfreddy says, “that for four days they’ve been searching for people missing, but they insist on downplaying the incident. Sources claim that there are between 16 and 30 people missing but, officially, they’re ‘lost’.”

Soon after the landslide, there were “rumors” of food shortages, fallen power lines, and serious damage on the road, so the effort to feign normalcy backfired. According to a Whatsapp testimony — published by SIBCI, of all people! — these issues aren’t the aftermath of the flood: It’s just how Choroní is.

The small towns along this coast, like Ocumare de la Costa and Cata, are generally overlooked by the government, despite the income they bring from fishing and tourism. Chuao, the village that grows what has been called the finest cocoa in the world, is right next to Choroní.

Technically, Choroní is not an independent town, but a parish of the Girardot Municipality, meaning it heavily relies on Maracay for services and communication, while providing tourism income. Of course, this is trouble when emergencies happen.

“There are two protective measures ruled by the Supreme Court and one by the State Legislature; none of them have been applied.”

On Wednesday, two days after the landslide, the government deployed a contingency plan involving 250 Civil Protection agents and 350 other agents, including forest rangers, the National Guard and the PNB, who deliver resources through Consejos Comunales.

So far, over 900 tourists have been evacuated from the town and taken to nearby Ocumare, after being stranded for several days. But there are many problems with the town’s infrastructure: the water system is a couple of decades old and a few years back, the townsfolk protested its collapse. Power is no better. The grid traverses the extensive, mountainous national park that separates Choroní from the city, and blackouts are common, lasting for days. In Choroní, this can mean up to three days per week in the dark. This, of course, translates into a declining tourism industry which, according to a local hotel owner, is down 40% compared to previous years.

And it’s not like these beach towns have remained quiet. Blackouts in Ocumare de la Costa, the largest seaside community in Aragua, which heavily depends on fishing, spurred the fishermen to throw rotten fish to local offices of the state-run power company. The second time, they set the town hall on fire.

Yet, Ocumare, Choroní and other communities in the Aragua coast remain steadfastly chavista.

Though you can’t blame the authorities for heavy rain, you can’t help but point to the busted Choroní levee, which may have caused the roadblock, and the irresponsible farming and deforestation, all of which contributed to the landslide.

“There are two protective measures handed down by the Supreme Court and one by the State Legislature; none of them have been applied” says Jeanfreddy, who is heavily involved with local environmental groups. “And don’t forget about the lack of warning systems or community training.”

In a country falling apart, tragedy goes from news to monotony very easily. But the gubernatorial neglect is known too well and it now includes Choroní, a place that most, despite the crisis, still associate with a carefree beachside weekend.

Paradise indeed.

José González Vargas

Freelance journalist, speculative fiction writer, college professor, political junkie, lover of books and movies and, semi-professional dilettante. José has written for NPR's Latino USA, Americas Quarterly, Into and ViceVersa Magazine.