Photos: Omar Mesones
Ramón Díaz talks about his life like he’s had several, although he divides it in two: before and after the tragedy. “To me, Venezuela’s tragedy began with the Vargas landslides,” he says, while pouring us a glass of papelón con limón.
Ramón is thin, white hair and golden skin. His talk and movements are charismatic, his voice brings me back to my childhood, to the memories of my grandfather, in the living room, watching the news in the ‘90s.
When he was 36, Ramón was the first mayor of Vargas, standing in for Acción Democrática, the first one to step up after voting for the post was allowed in 1990, years before Vargas itself became a state. He dedicated his first life to improving the quality of life of his townspeople. He has spent his second one fighting destruction and decay.
Born in Naiguatá in 1952, on a strip of land between two cemeteries, Ramón had a mother interested in community relationships and a father who couldn’t read nor write but believed in the power of the vote. Ramón grew up learning about the needs of his community, convincing his neighbors to help each other out. “Vargas has always been a place of broken promises,” he says, making a long list of issues gone unsolved, poorly devised plans, and politicians who approached the most affected communities to get compliments and presents —and then disappear before the sunset.
As a teenager, in his first job, Ramón’s was in charge of turning on the Channel 8 antenna in La Guaira. He later turned to politics, after experiencing his first professional disappointment at the La Guaira port, Vargas’ first symbol of economic strength: “It was all disorder, corruption and abuse.”
His victory in the regional elections of 1990 was partly a matter of luck. Several empty posts in the party aligned with the hunger for change. Ramón wanted to campaign for a councilman spot, but ended up as mayor. “With Ramón” was his slogan, so calm and matter-of-fact that it almost clashes with the natural tropicality of local politics. His administration’s biggest accomplishments were bringing electric power to Chichiriviche and Carayaca, building La Esperanza cemetery and the Macuto Children’s and Maternity Hospital, which covered women in the region who depended on Social Security.
All of that was lost after the tragedy. “A new phase came, and we convinced ourselves that this disaster could mean change. We could finally have the Vargas we wanted. We thought that even in the worst of times, Vargas would do well because it could offer great tourism for the country’s capital. But the promise of rebuilding the state was in vain. Today, Vargas is still a huge sewage disposal pit.”
Not the Sea: the Mountain
When it started raining at the end of 1999, Ramón was AD’s local secretary and his wife, Amelia Villadiego, worked as a Banco Caracas manager, in Chacao. Valentina Sifontes Villadiego, Amelia’s daughter, was a high school senior. “In early December, my wife helped me when I went to Catia La Mar to guide folks affected by the rain. That’s how we started, ignoring what was coming.” Ramón says that it’s easy to be afraid of the sea; his fear, and many others’, was a tsunami. Before the tragedy, nobody was afraid of the mountain.
On December 15th, the day of the Constitutional referendum, Ramón was in charge of coordinating his party’s agenda. A few hours after noon, he gathered his team and sent them home. The river in La Guaira was already flooding. Ramón went home, in Cerro Grande, and to bed, with his arms around his wife. Around midnight, Amelia woke him up. The rain wouldn’t stop. They grabbed their things, got on the SUV and went out to check up on their neighborhood. “There was something off in the air. You could feel it in your skin.”
A little after they left, still in Cerro Grande, they ran into a group of neighbors. Ramón was focused on the color of the water, already carrying traces of fine sand that you can see when rivers flow off their course. The rain worsened and they couldn’t leave, so they sought refuge on a roof, except one person who had to stand petrified on a mango tree. They could only wait.
At 1:00 a.m., a call from his assistant: “Ramón, I need your help. My daughter is trapped in Macuto and I need you to help me find the firemen.” Before losing his phone in the water, Ramón asked her to tell the firemen that he was also trapped with his family. They heard children crying a while later, a neighbor’s kids, whose house was flooded. They managed to rescue them and take them in, and they prayed, looking at the electric storm lighting the mountain.
Ramón, Amelia, and Valentina saw how their house dissolved in the water. When the river caught up with them, he describes what trampled them with his eyes, not with words. They hugged and held hands, until Amelia tried to take her sweater off. “That’s when we got separated.”
He remembers the river like a vortex that swallowed him. He prayed to his mother and lost consciousness over and over again, until he finally opened his eyes. He was naked, covered in mud, next to a German shepherd in Arturo Uslar Pietri’s beach house in Tanaguarena. Ramón is afraid of animals, but he still caressed the dog, walked inside the house and broke down in tears.
“We were a group of 18. Only two of us survived.”
A Soldier, a Polling Station
The helicopters woke him up on the night of December 16th. He opened the door to find neighbors planning an escape. It still rained. He walked outside with them. While they checked out the roads, they came across a soldier. “We yelled for help and he said he was only guarding the polling station. What freaking polling station? There was nothing left, there were bodies on the street, and the polling station was still there. The soldier was there, too.”
Ramón’s parents lived in Carmen de Uria. The river took their home too, pushing them into a dead-end street. Alive yet buried, they were rescued and evacuated, ending up in a Maracaibo hospital. Ramón’s sisters found them after looking for almost a week. Meanwhile, Ramón was dealing with his personal tragedy: “So many people told me that they’d seen Amelia and Valentina, that they talked to them. I always knew they were dead. I had a hard time understanding why people would say something like that.”
Cerro Grande was devastated. “165 people disappeared on the night of December 15th to December 16th.” Ramón met the other survivor from his group of 18 some time later. He had lost Laura, his wife. Beatriz, Laura’s sister, eventually asked, enraged, how could this other survivor make it alive. Ramón didn’t know. He’d find out that this other man and Laura were having problems, and he once threatened to kill her. Beatriz thought he pushed his wife and children into the river. She was convinced of it, nursing the notion over the years. “Surviving is a very complex thing,” says Ramón.
A Neverending Story
The tragedy hasn’t ended for Ramón—and many others.
He remembers the grueling visits to the ministry, to ask for the homeless-middle-class credits. “They recognized me as an AD supporter, so they told me that they wouldn’t process my request because I was a thief. But I didn’t have anything, I lost it all in the disaster.” The commission that was in charge of looking for missing people was disbanded in 2001, and they never contacted him to investigate or register any of the 16 missing people of his group.
This October, Ramón and Elio David Sifontes Villadiego, Amelia’s son and Valentina’s brother, were reunited. He survived because Ramón asked him not to come to Vargas to vote. Elio David now lives in Colombia with his wife. Together, they started the process to find Amelia’s official missing person declaration. They brought the paper to Maiquetía’s Saime (the institution in charge of civil registry services), to introduce it in court and prove her disappearance. “A rude, loud, incoherent man saw us and told us that, to introduce these documents, the person had to be there. I explained: ‘This woman was my wife, his mother. She’s missing, we lost her in the tragedy. We have to declare it. It’s been 20 years.’ He just couldn’t understand.”
Today, Cerro Grande is cinder blocks factories and cargo trucks. Ramón’s new house has a view to the Caraballeda Golf Club and the sea. In the middle of his home, there’s a family altar. On the left, Amelia and Valentina. On the right, the grandchildren born after the tragedy; one is 15 and the other is two years old. “This is the life we’ve got. I take comfort in knowing that we always fight so we can live better in the future.”