Just Another Apocalypse in Maracaibo

Under quarantine because of COVID-19, Venezuela’s second city is now dealing with that “beginning of the end” feeling… again.

Photo: Antonio Matheus.

Last Saturday my friend from Houston asked me how the city was. He obviously wanted me to paint a picture of Maracaibo under the pandemic frenzy that’s engulfing the world. I said to him, “to be honest, nothing feels different.” This does not mean normal, of course. For all intents and purposes, Maracaibo is a city that hasn’t functioned at full capacity ever since the blackout one year ago. A compelling argument could be made for saying that things weren’t functional even before the blackout.

When I said to my buddy, “nothing feels different,” I meant that we had the usual; several kilometers of long lines in gas stations, with a sprinkle of power outages and electric fluctuation and no water day in, day out. Coronavirus (as it’s commonly referred to, regardless of the lack of precision in the term) was not on most people’s radar. I mean, everyone talked about it, but just as a topic of conversation, not affectation.

On Sunday, I went out to ride my bicycle as usual  and saw more of the same. The long lines of parked cars with people staring at me with jealousy, like I’m cruising in a brand new Cadillac. I even saw one of my neighbors, in his car, waiting in the very same spot I found him Friday afternoon. He had been waiting to gas his tank for 48 hours in the very same spot, still at least one km away from the station. But by the end of my ride, things had definitely changed.

Maduro had announced quarantine in six states of the country, Zulia being one of them. There was an immediate, generalized feeling that this decision had nothing to do with the COVID-19 spread, and everything to do with gasoline supply. It seemed obvious in a country where no one believes the authority at the helm. Even the news across the globe, and the fact that a considerable percentage of the world was taking similar measures, could not bring a ring of truth to Maduro’s message. Most citizens are at a point where, if Maduro announces that it’s raining, and raindrops are falling on their heads, they would collectively decide that someone is spitting on them.

“For all intents and purposes, Maracaibo is a city that hasn’t functioned at full capacity ever since the blackout one year ago.” Photo: Antonio Matheus.

On Monday morning, that collective suspicion was confirmed by the announcement that there wouldn’t be gas dispatching in the state during the quarantine. The city that was working at half capacity if not less, was suddenly stopped in its tracks. Lines disappeared. My neighbor and hundreds of others wasted three days of their lives with nothing to show for them, again. Now there’s only one gas station open in the city, just for official personnel use. But you definitely can find gas, if you can spare around $30 for 25 lts., a high jump considering that gasoline is still (inexplicably) free. 

An Uneasy Sunday

Monday’s bike ride was quite different. In terms of population on the streets and overall traffic, it felt again like a Sunday, an uneasy Sunday. Not a Sunday where your football team played and won, but a Sunday with the prospect of a disaster around it. Granted, that prospect of disaster is just a subjective feeling (even with facts and experience feeding it), but that feeling is very much alive, and that’s what counts.

The surgical mask made a grand entrance. Of the few people I saw on the streets, a considerable percentage were wearing masks. Many of them in their cars, with the windows up, a clear sign that not everyone has gotten the memo. Wearing a mask if you’re not showing symptoms is pointless at best and detrimental at worse. An asymptomatic person not surrounded by anyone wearing a surgical mask is the equivalent of putting on a swimsuit to dive in an empty pool. But masks are in. It feels like we’re in Carnival season, and the theme for this year’s troupe is the doctor’s costume.  

Food stores were generally open, especially bakeries, also a few restaurants, and even a liquor store here and there. The influx was surprisingly low. Not a lot of nervous shopping. There were no big lines to buy groceries, but it’s quite possible that’s not a sign of a calmed collective, but people worried about gas and hesitant to use their cars. The bigger bakeries had more clients, but still not at full capacity. The mask-wearing was enforced efficiently in these big establishments in terms of their employees, but the story is quite different in the dozens (if not hundreds) of bodegas that were still open. Not many masks are on sight, and, unlike people riding alone in their cars, handling food and customers is a whole other scenario.    

In the poorest neighborhoods, people sat in front of their homes to talk, as usual, albeit in smaller quantities than the day before. There are also a few homeless people that I see almost every day: for them, it’s business as usual. The most vulnerable are already in a spot so tight that a little pandemic makes no difference. For them, impending doom is where their next meal will come from, and that’s a tall order no matter what else is going on.   

“The most vulnerable are already in a spot so tight that a little pandemic makes no difference. For them, impending doom is where their next meal will come from.” Photo: Antonio Matheus.

There was one major absentee in my 30 km bike ride, and it’s not the gas station lines. The total number of police and military presence in my path was a resounding zero. None whatsoever. There wasn’t a single person in uniform, not one police car, nothing. Not in the best parts of the city, not in the slums. I even went out prepared to be stopped at some point, but there was absolutely no need. The only authority I encountered on my ride was a little kid that, when seeing me yelled: “Hey mister, if you don’t wear a mask they’ll throw you in jail.” That made my afternoon. 

All in all, I’ve gathered more questions than answers in these last few days, especially on Monday. The “more questions than answers” premise seems to be a constant with this regime. The main thing is: How many of these “uneasy Sundays” can we take? Can we handle 45 of these in a row? How about when food is scarce? How can food arrive without gas? This situation has “recipe for disaster” written all over it.