Living in Their Cars: Gasoline rationing in Mérida

After getting used to spending days and nights queuing up for fuel, Mérida citizens must now adapt to the classic socialist move of setting restrictions in every service station.

Photo: Alejandro Rojas

4:00 a.m. You get a bunch of sweaters in your backpack, along with a book and a flashlight. You stuff the back seat of your car with several blankets for the cold, and fill the co-driver’s seat with small portions of food in recipients, perhaps some bread to eat. You secure the cap of the two 1-litre water bottles and check how much gasoline you have left in the car: about a quarter of a tank. That should be enough to reach the service station. You start the engine and check your mobile’s battery: 67%; you couldn’t fully charge it because there was no power in the area throughout the night. You send a WhatsApp heads-up to the person who’s going to replace you at noon. You hope that starting your day this early and taking the risk of driving in the dark to the station will be worth it and that you’ll manage to get in line among the first 600 cars. You may be looking at two or three days of waiting for fuel and living inside your vehicle; rumor has it gasoline tankers are coming today to supply stations, so hopefully, it won’t be that long.

You start driving.

This is the post-apocalyptic routine of many citizens in Mérida and other cities bordering Colombia to be able to get fuel. However, after people spent nearly two months sleeping, eating and building communities in the endless lines for fuel, regional authorities have come up with a rationing system to “solve” the problem.

Gasoline queues usually have pretty exhausting and dramatic dynamics. Every service station is militarized with armed soldiers and overseen by regime supporters, members of local communal councils, militia men, socialist youths or teenagers from the Chamba Juvenil mission. They typically write down lists including plate numbers, ID cards and drivers’ names, marking the vehicles with the numbers according to the list. Nevertheless, these lists are easy to tamper with and soldiers have been charging in dollars (between $15 and $20 per car) to draw out VIP lines, sparking conflicts, protests and violent clashes among drivers, sometimes with lethal results.

Special lines just for motorcycles have been put in place to avoid any trouble. The bikers have to wait in sun or rain to fill in stations assigned specifically for them. Doctors, farmers and funeral parlors have priorities in the lines.

Jehyson Guzmán, Mérida’s “protector”, is leading fuel management. The regime made up his post to delegate administrative functions that rightfully belong to the opposition governor elected by the people, so as to strip the office of any authority. In other words, although the opposition won the Governor’s Office and the Mayor’s Office, these posts are symbolic and the true power is held by the dictatorship.

Gasoline queues usually have pretty exhausting and dramatic dynamics. Every service station is militarized with armed soldiers and overseen by regime supporters

To “solve” these gas issues, the “protector” created a digital platform where every car in the city must be registered, but since Mérida is a rural state, many inhabitants don’t have emails or even internet connections, so the registry’s mostly carried out manually in the gasoline lines, recording plate numbers in small posts with laptops and radios. Drivers will only be allowed to fill their tanks every four days and the system will reject them if they try to visit another station.

“It’s a short-term makeshift solution. We don’t live in our vehicles for four days, but they still apply the rationing however they want. What happens when there’s no electricity and system’s down? What if there’s no internet? What if the fuel tanker arrives that day to supply the station and people just start to line up again? Not everyone’s registered yet, there’s no period for that. They create the crisis and then they “solve” it; we’re still under control,” my dad told me when I asked him what he thinks of the system.

Anyone in need of more gasoline must buy it smuggled at $1 per litre. This control experiment is at a local scale for the time being, but we may yet see it in other areas in the country.

Meanwhile, drivers wait in line to get registered as they buy coffee from street vendors. As they try to adapt to the new measures, unnerving rumors take hold of conversations: “I heard about a guy from a funeral parlor who took an unclaimed body from the morgue, loaded it in his hearse, and toured every service station to fill the tank. Since he had a body in the car, they let him go first. He drove the body all over Mérida, telling soldiers that he was late for the burial. The police is already looking into it.”

The collapse of the system turn my city into a breeding ground for creepy pastas.

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.