From ‘Red-Tiled-Roofs’ to ‘Gray Facade’ Caracas

The vice president of Citizen Safety ordered that all facades in downtown Caracas must be painted in a specific shade of gray to commemorate the Battle of Carabobo.

Photo: Luis Morillo

Year after year, the government of Nicolás Maduro insists on beautifying Caracas. It’s never a real rehabilitation of the city, although the broad strokes of paint, new greenery, and new light posts on the highway help renew the atmosphere. We, as citizens, are never aware of the criteria, who decides how things are done or which is the ruling body: different offices jump on it with no apparent organization or unified criteria, like when you sweep the house quickly because an important visitor is on their way and you want to give a good impression.

The most recent episode of public ornamentation began at the same time in several squares, Buscaracas stops, walkways, municipal markets, and roads. What many didn’t know was that behind this “beautification” there was another resolution, N° 0007-2021,  which goes beyond guaranteeing protection and preservation, as established by the Facade Conservation Ordinance from June 1994. Suddenly the alarms went off when citizens realized that these weren’t just “major” public works part of a plan by the Executive led by Carmen Meléndez, vice president of Citizen Safety, but that deep down it’s also an intervention that affects personal interests, without really solving the city’s true problems.

Now, the Caracas Mayor’s Office, through a May 11th, 2021 ordinance, intends to regulate the conditions for urban decoration and aesthetic where public office buildings, side facades or spaces of buildings that can be seen from the streets, with institutional or residential use as well as commercial shops, have to submit to in order “to preserve the environmental, architectural, and urban aesthetic of the city’s spaces.” 

Building fences have to be painted light gray 560-625 in the RGB chromatic scale, and they must include the logo or text celebrating the Battle of Carabobo, in a specific size.

This resolution has to be implemented as soon as possible (30 days after the decree was published), and according to the Caracas Mayor’s Office, the Instituto de Patrimonio Cultural,  and the Fundación para la Protección y Defensa del Patrimonio Cultural de Caracas, Fundapatrimonio were consulted.

Building fences have to be painted light gray 560-625 in the RGB chromatic scale, and they must include the logo or text celebrating the Battle of Carabobo, in a specific size.

This doesn’t just apply to fences of businesses and buildings visible from the main streets changing their color, gray already dominates the kiosks, lamp posts, and walls of municipal markets. Business owners are already putting money aside for this, to prevent being fined or having their stores closed down. Others are waiting for support to afford the paint and vinyl logo which is required by city hall. “I pay my municipal taxes,” says Norberto Cáceres, the owner of a shop that sells spare parts for appliances. “If they want to change my facade, tell me where I should go pick up my gallon of paint and the sticker I have to display on my fence.” 

The City As a Political Laboratory

Every business owner in Venezuela has to deal with the ongoing regulations and cover their stores with signs they have to pay for, like the one banning carrying weapons in a country filled with them, or no-smoking signs, or the one about carrying facemasks now, but we know how many actually follow that rule. But the capital, because of its symbolic value, has a particularly intense history of forced renovations.

In 2010, with the Bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence celebration, Jaqueline Faría, who was the then imposed Head of the Capital District, said “Caracas is now beautiful, it’s now pleasant.” When Jorge Rodríguez was mayor of Caracas, he ordered all the storefront roller shutters to be changed and to have the shop signs removed. He also changed the sidewalks and confiscated entire commercial blocks. In 2016, Maduro launched a plan for “beautiful and socialist” Caracas. The following year, Maduro himself brought up another plan “for the love of Caracas” in which even prisoners participated. In 2019, he created the Gran Misión Venezuela Bella for the 50 most populated cities, which of course, included the capital, and he mentioned an investment of one billion euros.

In 2020, came the Beautiful Caracas plan, and the most recent one, in April 2021, the launched the Patriot, Beautiful, and Safe Caracas plan, to “commemorate the history of the caraqueño people and remember that unique moment when the Liberator Simón Bolívar came to Caracas with his victorious army from Carabobo,” according to Maduro.

A Lick and a Promise

For José Gregorio Ochoa, environmentalist and community leader, it’s a totalitarian gesture: they want to dress up the squares, avenues, and boulevards in uniform, where the supreme leader and his special guests will go through during the commemorative events of the Battle of Carabobo.

“We’ve seen how every year they change the tiles or paint the tunnels in El Silencio,” says José Gregorio Cáribas, former council member for Caracas. “We saw the huge amount of money they spent on the facades of these buildings and we haven’t seen a plan designed to rescue the architecture. They’re painting what’s in sight. However, the neighborhoods are abandoned, with destroyed public utilities, there are areas where they haven’t had running water in two years. All this is done without planning, there’s no public spending observation, and no one knows the amount spent on these works, there isn’t a bidding contest. Why paint it gray? Was this taken to a public consult?”

“East Berlin was all gray and sad, filled with monuments of communist heroes,” city chronicler Guillermo Durand warned. “Maybe they’re setting up Caracas as the communal city,” Durand warns that the old Caracas used to have white walls, because they were painted with slaked lime, under those famous roofs because of which Enrique Bernardo Núñez called it the city of the red-tiled roofs. But what’s happening today “is part of a plan for the 24th of June, two hundred years after the Battle of Carabobo, to have the Law for Communal Cities approved and Caracas is the model to follow. This is the purpose and the intention behind dressing up walls like an improvised swarm of bricklayers,” Durand says.

Cáribas recalls that, as much as these plans aren’t a new thing, neither is the chavista obsession to change the meaning of things. “Painting fences gray might seem superficial, but deep down it’s the loss of references, like the names of roads and highways that were modified, the removed monuments or painted like the statue of the native in the entrance of Caricuao, which was dyed in pink. All that transformation modifies the sense of belonging of its citizens.”

A Gray Uniform That You Have to Pay For

“Taking away the colors of facades and giving them a gray uniform is nothing more than another red corruption stew,” adds Kadary Rondón, former council member of the Libertador municipality. “Some might say that it’s part of the controlling nature of communist regimes. I see it more as scraping the bottom of the barrel.” 

Zulma Bolívar, who was director of Urban Planning of the now-defunct Metropolitan Mayor’s Office, sees this resolution, first and foremost, as invasive, and second, she believes that during these times there are other public investment priorities: “It turns out that maintaining the historic and cultural image of the city is essential, but you also have to invest, with the reduced budget there is, in raising the quality of non-politicized public spaces.” 

Architect Vilma Ramia thinks this is an anti-urban resolution. “After you paint an entire country the same color, no matter if it’s institutional or residential, you won’t standardize things at a pedestrian level of the city, what you’re actually doing is putting the city under a uniform,” Ramia says. “And in a uniformed city, nothing else matters, the only important thing is having your uniform pressed and clean and making sure you don’t forget your badges: the vinyl logo requested by the Mayor’s Office.”

She thinks it’s a sad homage to a battle that gave Venezuela its freedom. “To uniform the city is an incoherence of an enormous magnitude in which people will also try to reap benefits off of someone else’s back: telling the affected citizens to pay for it is like victim-blaming a rape victim.”

As usual, there are unanswered questions, on so many matters.

Will there be enough gray paint in Caracas, or in Venezuela, so that the several thousands of buildings in 433 square kilometers can comply with the ordinance?

If this is related to the communal cities project, which will end with the mayor’s figure, why would the regime call for the “mega-elections” for mayors and governors at the end of this year?

“To uniform the city is an incoherence of an enormous magnitude in which people will also try to reap benefits off of someone else’s back: telling the affected citizens to pay for it is like victim-blaming a rape victim.”

How many facades in Caracas will end up being gray, and what will happen to those who can’t manage to comply with the order?

Only time will answer those questions, or not. In the meantime, in the city of the tri-colored macaws, green mountains, and blue skies, people have more pressing concerns as they watch the black market dollar on its way to 4.000.000 bolivars.

Mabel Sarmiento

Mabel Sarmiento is an UCAB-trained journalist with more than 20 years' experience covering community news, the environment, health, education and infrastructure.