Blackout night in Maracay, a mid-sized city two hours west of Caracas. Downtown avenues and side streets mantled by darkness, interrupted occasionally by a building—a hospital, a bodega, a closed bank—with eerie-white emergency lights or a noisy backup generator.
The city is lifeless like a moon crater, except a place where it’s not just business as usual, it’s actually a booming hub.
I’m talking about Maracay’s Círculo Militar, located in the upscale commercial district of Las Delicias—think of a smaller, cheaper Chacao—and just in front of the ZODI (regional defense) headquarters.
Here you have the expected amenities of a military social club: a hotel, some rooms for events, an internet café, a bar and a restaurant. What’s the big fuzz? The steakhouse, the sushi and ceviche place, something called “gastrobar” and, crossing a fence to what technically is part of a gas station, a cutesy donut shop and an “organic pizza parlor”. It’s some of the best restaurants in the city, most of them with their own power generator.
The city is lifeless like a moon crater, except a place where it’s not just business as usual, it’s actually a booming hub. I’m talking about Maracay’s Círculo Militar.
“I think there are more restaurants now in Maracay than in Valencia,” a friend from college was telling me a few months ago during lunch. She’s from nearby Valencia, far larger and wealthier than Maracay.
What marks the difference between these two? Maracay, the so-called Cradle of the Revolution, was designed as a stronghold with garrisons, barracks, academies, factories, and facilities of every type, all dedicated to the Armed Forces and its needs, including leisure.
“See that place?” a frequent client tells me. “It’s owned by (Army General Commander José Suárez) Chourio’s wife, that’s why you always see soldiers guarding outside.” Regardless if it’s true or not, there are soldiers around, mostly watching over rather expensive trucks. In one of my excursions, I saw them dragging away a small-time malandro trying to rob cellphones.
I venture to the pizzeria, since it’s been ages since I’ve had a good slice. It looks like one of the more accessible joints and one of the most popular. Despite the lack of electric power, families enjoy large pizzas and big bottles of soda without worrying too much. You can pay via transfer, some apps and, of course, U.S. dollars. It’s the kind of locale hack journalists and pro-Maduro propagandists love to visit to say things are normal in Venezuela.
“Paying with dollars has become very common in most places,” the waitress tells me. This is the first time I pay something in Venezuela with U.S. currency, so I’m nervous. As much as we’ve resisted to use greens, the blackout seems to have killed the bolivar.
“Of course, we prefer singles. Change can be quite a headache,” she adds.
For $9, or about a month and a half of minimum wage, we enjoy a family-sized cheese pizza and three soda bottles. It’s far better than trying to make arepas with a flashlight, of course, and ham, cheese and tomato sauce taste like heaven compared to a steady diet of margarine, fried eggs and plantain.
But what you’re really paying for, behind fences and guardhouses, is a sense of normalcy that’s been gone for way too long. Leaving the Círculo Militar through an arch where a Hugo Chávez banner hangs, one can’t help feeling like leaving an oasis of light and sound to return to a bleak desert of silence and darkness. With the exception of some bodegas and restaurants, even the lit places have a disturbing calm, as if the rest of the world stopped spinning.
Leaving the Círculo Militar through an arch where a Hugo Chávez banner hangs, one can’t help feeling like leaving an oasis of light and sound to return to a bleak desert of silence and darkness.
We return to our apartment and sit, filthy, tired, in the dark, in constant expectation. We’re used to a routine of flushing toilets, doing the dishes and mopping the floors when there’s water, and with this power thing, we’ve developed another of plugging/unplugging devices and charging phones. These are our lives now.
It’s hard to say for how long can you hold on, but while we go through the real pueblo de a pie experience, there’s a whole sector of our society, those in charge of protecting us from tyranny, chaos and this type of mismanagement, that go as they usually do.
Meaning, in utter, astonishing luxury.