Back in 1912, a massive drought forced thousands of people away from the Paraguaná peninsula, the northernmost point of the country, separated from the rest of Falcón by a thin strip of land. They walked through the Médanos de Coro (Coro Dunes), a majestic, inhospitable patch of sand brought by the Trade Winds directly from the Sahara, occupying most of Paraguaná’s isthmus. Many died devoured by sand, and their benevolent spirits —the Ánimas de Guasare— are still remembered and revered.
It might be time to pray to the ánimas again, since problems have piled up and the dunes threaten to consume Troncal 4, the only motorway connecting Paraguaná with the rest of the country.
Building a highway in the middle of a dune-filled desert is hard, but keeping it functional is strenuous. To stop the dunes from piling up on the highway, a small fleet of heavy Caterpillar trucks is needed to regularly push the sand out of the road. A simple, yet vital task that the regional chavista government is responsible for, and in which it has failed.
I talked to Valeria, a friend from the peninsula currently living in Mérida, to get a glimpse on the situation: “I lived in Paraguaná for years, and I regularly visit my family there. I found the road blocked once, due to heavy rain, years ago. Now, that’s normal.”
Video: Adriana Vega
Blocked roads have been reported for years, but the situation grabbed the nation’s attention for the first time last August, when the initial portion of the road was completely swallowed by dunes. Last April, in a scene taken directly from Mad Max, a PDVSA truck heading to the barely functional Amuay Refinery got stuck blocking traffic for hours. Last week, just as the government-run International Tourism Fair of Venezuela publicized the médanos on Twitter; the road was buried again.
— FitVen (@FitVen_Oficial) July 4, 2018
PARAGUANA SE QUEDA INCOMUNICADO CON EL RESTO DEL PAÍS, POR FALTA DE MANTENIMIENTO LOS MEDANOS SE TRAGARON LA AUTOPISTA CORO PUNTO FIJO. #03Jul2018..SIN AGUA, SIN LUZ, SIN COMIDA, SIN SERVICIO TELEFÓNICOS.. S.O.S pic.twitter.com/ZP1OWgxwgT
— Berenice Monasterio (@berenmonasterio) July 4, 2018
And life in Paraguaná was already hard, man. Public services are practically non-existent, with access to clean water being particularly bad: “The last time we got running water at the house was about five years ago,” Valeria tells me. “Now Hidrofalcón only connects it during electoral campaigns.” Her family must pay about nine minimum wages for water trucks, and have completely given up hope on keeping their small garden alive.
Problems with the water supply come from an outdated pipe system that can no longer serve the population, even though a $500 million aqueduct was inaugurated in 2009. Nonetheless, it stopped working a couple months later. The electric grid, public transportation and garbage collection services have also collapsed, sparking a series of small protests.
#Falcón | Sectores populares de Punto Fijo se concentran en la avenida Bolivar y trancan el acceso a Guaranao para exigir el vital liquido que no les llega desde hace dos meses #30Jun – vía @irene_revilla pic.twitter.com/oNY7BYd0qT
— El Pitazo (@ElPitazoTV) June 30, 2018
— Diario Nuevo Día (@nuevodiaenlinea) July 4, 2018
Regional economy looks like what you’d expect: Amuay and Cardón refineries (the largest refining complex in the country) have the combined capacity to process almost a million oil barrels a day, but after chronic underinvestment, and an explosion in 2012 that left 35 casualties, the industry collapsed. Today, Amuay only refines about 130,000 barrels per day. And let’s not talk about tourism: the beaches that hosted the 2012 Kitesurf World Championship are now deserted and littered.
As Leo, my cousin who recently moved to Mérida from the peninsula, described in a family lunch last week: “I was waiting for a bus that never came in downtown Punto Fijo when I saw a huge line outside a supermarket. The dude next to me told me they were waiting for a truck, which I thought was a food truck. A few minutes later, I saw the people in the crowd throw themselves into a trash truck. Kids were fighting for bags of trash and not-completely-rotten food.”
Just like in 1912, people risk their lives to escape Paraguaná, but this time they do it on boats headed to Aruba and Curaçao.
“Paraguaná is an empty desert now,” Valeria says.
A desert where ghosts care more about people than the government ever will.