Image: Sofía Jaimes Borges

Can you imagine New Year’s Eve in the dark, dining under cellphones’ flashlights and hugging at midnight without the typical Venezuelan gaita playing in the background? 

That’s how the residents of northern Táchira, in the Venezuelan Andes, started 2020. This is the reality in the region, several states going through severe powercuts, gasoline shortages and poor internet service daily. 

Ever since the oil strike from late 2002 to early 2003, the population of Táchira got used to long lines at gas stations. As life got more expensive, selling very cheap gas on the Colombian side of the border turned out to be a very attractive business idea and many tachirenses would buy it in San Antonio del Táchira, Ureña or Puerto de Santander, to later sell a 20 lt. canister of gas in Colombia and make a bit of a profit. The end result: fuel scarcity in the Venezuelan Andes, and lines to ration it.

Ever since the oil strike from late 2002 to early 2003, the population of Táchira got used to long lines at gas stations.

Eighteen years later the story is the same, except for how smuggling gas (the sole source of income for many tachirenses) no longer means extra cash. Today, a 20 lt. canister can go for 40,000 Colombian pesos, which translates to $13, or a mid-sized grocery list that can last two weeks for a family of four.

This is a business that survived every plan chavismo had, from electronic chips for cars, to rationing how many liters you could get each week. It’s finally dying down because of poor fuel production.

In La Tendida, a town located on the border between the states of Mérida and Táchira, the lines at gas stations surpass the whole infrastructure for roads and the stations themselves. In northern Táchira, where farms abound, drivers walk inside those properties and wait for their turn.

Several mayors’ offices have created their own systems: when the PDVSA tanker truck arrives, they divide the line by plate number, color of the car, or the last number of drivers’ ID cards. There are many options and people must wait to fill their tanks for many days.

In Táchira, as in Mérida, you don’t even hear about bolivars. Whatever you need to pay for, it’s all billed in Colombian pesos; you’ll find shops with signs clearly stating the currency exchange rate for the day and very few stores will accept money transfers as a form of payment; store owners only want hard cash.

Since late 2019, lines in Mérida, once Venezuela’s “student city”, turned as long as those you’d see in San Cristóbal (Táchira’s state capital) years earlier. Merideños have to wait until the break of dawn to get their gas. If you’re lucky, you’ll only spend a night in line and this same scenario plays out in many other states besides the Andes.

In Táchira, as in Mérida, you don’t even hear about bolivars. Whatever you need to pay for, it’s all billed in Colombian pesos.

Energy is another headache. Only hospitals, fire stations and other government buildings aren’t affected by the power outages; the rest of the smaller towns must go eight hours a day without power, divided into two four-hour shifts. Sometimes it’s twelve hours on and twelve hours off.

To pay for food or medicine, merideños deal in Colombian pesos and American dollars; power outages make money transfers in bolivars impossible, although they’re commonplace in cities like Caracas. Some store owners, to not lose a sale, keep the client’s debit card, along with their PIN and information, to charge the amount once the signal comes back. Trust rules business transactions.

You wake up without power and go to bed without it. The tunnels that take you from Mérida to El Vigía are in the dark, the traffic lights are off, you have to be on the lookout for working light bulbs and internet for points of sale. That’s life for merideños nowadays, people who used to focus on tourists coming for the wonders of their state and now fight tooth and nail just to get by.

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