When a Failed State Punches You in the Face Every Day

Spending more than 12 hours a day without electric power, carrying tons of gallons of water, walking hundreds of miles due to the lack of transport, and standing in long lines for gas is the daily life of the people of Mérida. A city in the border that has been emptied.

Photos: Alejandro Rojas and David Parra

From my building’s rooftop, my current workplace during the daily blackouts of six to eight daily hours since March, I watch how a column of smoke rises in my very block, in downtown Merida. Peering over the ledge, I see a two-story building burn right in the astonished faces of half a hundred bystanders.

There’s no safety perimeter, no evacuation alarm, nothing. People record with phones just a few meters from a beauty parlor fire, right beside a restaurant, the huge windows of the place now hidden by black-as-ink fumes. The employees flee in panic with the help of neighbors climbing over a rickety metal ladder to a parking lot’s roof.

I can hear the explosions within and the sirens of a small fire truck. The firemen immediately pour water into the building but in less than half and hour, they’re dry. None of the block’s standpipes work: there’s been no water downtown for about four days. Helpless and anxious, the firemen leave to find more water in the station, while the fire slowly does its thing. This is the only fire truck in the state’s capital, the rest are out of order for lack of parts, or fuel.

The wind fans the flames and the building’s roof collapses. Around 15 minutes later, when I finally go out and approach it, a GNB riot control vehicle, like the ones used to repress anti-Maduro protests, arrives to supply water, along with aeronautical firemen who work at the Alberto Carnevali airport (closed for commercial aviation for years now, it only works with private flights) and they establish a safety perimeter. “Please go down a block, because if a gas cylinder explodes we’re going to roll you over. We’re all humans here and we get afraid,” a policeman tells the crowd.

The fire broke out in the beauty parlor’s deposit, where the fuel for the thermoelectric generator was stored. They also had gas cylinders. The fact that a building burns down amidst a blackout due to an accident for hoarding fuel, and that there’s no water to put it out, perfectly fits the macabre and absurd Venezuelan day-to-day under chavismo.

I return to my rooftop and keep writing, while I struggle to send the rest of the chronicle to my co-workers at Caracasover WhatsApp, because I have no mobile signal. Merida has been falling to utter collapse one step at a time, for several weeks.

The long wait

Endless lines of cars have been waiting for four days outside every gas station in Merida. Last week, fuel ran out and since then, many drivers live, sleep and eat in their vehicles, waiting for the fuel tankers to resupply the stations. Their relatives bring them clothes, food, water. Some make friends in the queue to care for each other’s cars when one has to leave or they set up watches to prevent anyone from sneaking in front of them in the line.

In some gas stations, people write lists. “I’m number 354, I’ve been here since Monday,” says Ariana Cortés (23). “People are exhausted from staying here every night and it’s very dangerous. The guards (The GNB supervises all gas stations) want to set up a ‘VIP’ queue and they’re charging $10 per vehicle. It’s a mess.” This is the situation in a line close to Ejido. In the streets, containers of smuggled fuel are sold for 50,000 Colombian pesos, or $15.

In Merida, there are around 20 gas stations but only a handful are being resupplied right now. Many will wait until tomorrow, having another night outdoors. “How long will these guys hold on? This isn’t about what Guaidó or other countries can do, it’s about having no gas because they ruined PDVSA. Without gas, there’s nothing, no power generators, no public transport, no way to bring food. How long before this happens in Caracas?” says a mototaxi driver who chose to remain anonymous, in a queue “only for motorcycles” in the La Hoyada de Milla sector, where hundreds of motorbikes block the street like a swarm. “I hope it doesn’t rain, because at least a car has a roof.”

The soldiers watch out for anyone taking pictures of the lines in gas stations and intimidating them.

Public transport is almost non-existent since last week. The Drivers Union of Merida were already on strike, due to the student protests against the hike in bus fares. The fare here ranges from Bs. 400 to Bs. 1,000 depending on the route, but finding cash to pay is quite complicated, as you can only withdraw between Bs. 1,000 and Bs. 5,000 from ATMs. Many have to walk long miles, resort to mototaxis with card readers, or get creative.

The blackout continues

Without gas, there’s nothing, no power generators, no public transport, no way to bring food. How long before this happens in Caracas?

With the power rationing plan proudly announced by regime vice-president Delcy Rodríguez a few days ago, we only have a few hours of electricity during the day and pray that there won’t be blackouts at night. The periods of darkness oscillate between six and eight continuous hours, to 12 and 16, divided in random blocks throughout the week. While there’s power in a part of the state, there’s none in the other; while some have electricity during the day, others will only have it by night. Wireless connections are a lottery because if antennae and signal repeaters shut down, phone companies stop transmitting. So internet connection comes and goes, and even worse, if you manage to get online, the regime has already blocked several pages, like Twitter, YouTube or Google.

The anxiety of living without power is overwhelming. We don’t know where there’ll be an outage and, when it happens, we have to accept that we lost half our day. Many depend on energy to cook (due to cooking gas shortages) or use wood. “All of this so that Miraflores can have electricity!” is now a common saying. The sound of power generators in stores is common every morning, a long, deep, repetitive, hellish hum that echoes across the desolate city.

Most people I talk to have a vague idea of what’s going on politically in Caracas, but it all looks like a far-off, abstract idea, disconnected from the daily drama of living in a failed state. Merida never succumbed to chavismo and citizen opposition is more an ideological stance than a concrete leadership. The same happens in other states like Zulia and Tachira, where the regime’s worst punishment has been abandonment.

I find it very hard to describe the death of my city. But Merida’s dying. It went from being a prosperous, easygoing place full of college students and tourists, to this dark, empty husk, a border town where only smugglers, thieves and pimps thrive.

David Parra

Mérida-based writer, who won the Monte Ávila Editores Contest for Unpublished Authors in 2014 with my book «La Coleccionista». Some of my poems are part of the poetry anthology «Amanecimos Sobre la Palabra, Antología de Poesía Joven y Reciente Venezolana» (2016). 'm interested in writing chronicles and make investigative journalism focused on the west side of the country.