Maracaibo’s ‘New Normal’

Contrary to what a lot of people thought in 2019, Zulia’s capital isn’t dead. But the patches of prosperity aren’t larger than the ones made by oil spills

Photo: Fidel Guerrero

Early this year, Germain Montes decided to go kayaking in Maracaibo Lake and have fun with his friends. Even though NASA hadn’t released the latest satellite image where you can see the green waters with oil streaks on the surface, pollution has been evident for decades. But Germain didn’t pay attention and today he remembers it as one of the most fun days he’s had in 2021.

“I didn’t want to get wet at first, but once you’re on board, it doesn’t really matter,” Montes says, who is also director of the Fundación Crece. “So much so, that my kayak even flipped over, I had to dive for it, and well: nothing happened to me.” 

A lot of people don’t mind either. Kayaking in the lake has become a very popular activity these days, even if it’s too expensive for many: getting there can cost between $15 and $30, depending on the length of the trip.

“It was a very nice and fun experience, really. I got to see the lake, I went places for the first time, and the company was also amazing,” Germain says. He lives in Maracaibo and admits that two years ago this kayak tour would’ve been unfathomable.

In fact, after the nationwide blackout in March 2019, which went on for five days and also came with electricity rationing in the aftermath, Germain felt overwhelmed and even thought about leaving the country. Among the things that bothered him the most were the nights, when the city went completely dark.

In those days, Maracaibo looked like an apocalyptic city with dirty streets, both because of the lack of efficiency by authorities, as well as the improvised barricades as the result of protests, which no one bothered to remove. Dozens of businesses had to close down because of looting, there were clubs that opened without air conditioning in a city where temperatures can go up to 38°C, internet connection was chaotic, public transportation was practically non-existent because of fuel shortages, and even something as simple as drinking cold water was a luxury, because of the electricity rationing, which could go for over eight hours per day and prevented fridges from working properly.

Now, the city many citizens thought had died forever is quite different.

Although the fuel crisis continues with endless lines at gas stations and a black market where they sell 20 lt. of gasoline for 25 dollars, electricity rationing has gone down considerably, and there are areas where the electricity is even constant, except when there’s a massive failure; all this on top of the rebirth of the internet, since several companies are competing to provide the best satellite or fiber-optic service.

At the same time, dining options have multiplied. In the northern part of the city, where the most affluent live, you can find a large variety of restaurants, where you can eat burgers, sushi, ice cream, or Arabic food, for one dollar and up. Clubs have also adapted and reinvented themselves with the biosafety measures to prevent COVID-19, as well as swimming pools and hotels where you can spend a nice weekend.

Kayaking isn’t the only activity to do in Maracaibo Lake; families can go fishing and you can rent jet skis for 20 minutes for 20 dollars, which, for inexperienced riders, includes falling into the polluted lake several times.

Between Influencers and Food Insecurity 

A guy takes a selfie, smiling in front of a painting where you read the popular phrase “Venite pa’ Maracaibo” behind him, but there’s a person looking for food in a trash can right behind him. It’s describing a cartoon that went viral on social media in July, which aimed to crudely represent the self-appointed influencers from Maracaibo, which have multiplied in this new kind of normal.

These are mostly dancers, singers, comedians, and models, who make a living selling products through their social media or inviting their followers to visit places to eat or buy clothes. And while it’s true that they have plenty of people supporting them, they also have their share of critics who claim they’re selling a city that doesn’t exist.

And there’s some truth to that: in the poorest areas of the city and the surrounding municipalities, there’s trash all over the place and running water is never available, which forces those with low income to spend money on water tanker trucks selling 220 lt. of water for two dollars. To top things off, when running water does come in, it’s murky, so much so that some even prefer not to use it.

Furthermore, food access in these areas is precarious so there’s a lot of malnourishment. The Comisión para los Derechos Humanos del Estado Zulia (Human Rights Commission for Zulia State, CODHEZ), an NGO which constantly publishes reports about food safety in the region, says that 84% of homes in Zulia claim to eat non-preferred foods or cheaper options, at least once a week, in order to partially feed themselves; therefore, 51% went past the threshold of extreme negative adaptations, which refers to those who are forced to eat cheaper foods, and 16% fall under food insecurity.

However, the cartoon doesn’t describe the feelings of all the citizens. “Curiously enough, most of those who complained and shared the image, are no longer here. I don’t know what they expect us to do: stay home, not have any fun? Just sit, get depressed and die because of the situation and that’s it?” wonders José Morales.

Mary González, who works as a content and campaign creator for different brands, claims that everyone has the right to show the country from their own point of view: “I don’t disagree with those who criticize [influencers], nor do I disagree with those who want to show the nicer things of our country every day. I think it’s very subjective. But I will always try to look for the positive side of everything.” 

The Political Value of the Ornate

This contrast between the city that gets Instagram likes and the one described by the Encuesta Nacional de Hogares has its political correlation, naturally. 

In August, journalist and historian Humberto “Kiko” Perozo tweeted about the city: “I went to Maracaibo’s casco central, it was beautiful, new paint and paved roads all over the place. The mayor of this area works hard. But the mayor of the rest of Maracaibo is a disaster, you can tell they’re two different people. I hope the mayor of the rest of Maracaibo copies the one from the central area.” 

The journalist was referencing how downtown Maracaibo has a better façade when it comes to paved roads or squares built, compared to the state of neglect in which other areas within the same municipality are, with potholes on the roads or dark places because of a lack of lamp posts.

The case of Willy Casanova, mayor of Maracaibo for PSUV, is strange and particular. He won the elections in December 2017 with only 50.38% of the vote, in an election that registered a high abstention rate and a lack of interest by a large portion of the population.

In those elections, some opposition groups endorsed refraining from running, claiming that the election for governor held in October that same year had been a fraud after the government won 17 out of 23 states. In fact, one of the five opposition governors who won, Juan Pablo Guanipa, refused to be sworn in in front of the arbitrary National Constituent Assembly after winning the elections in Zulia and as a result, his victory was void and elections took place again in December when Omar Prieto won. 

During those days, when you talked to family or friends you realized that Casanova’s name wasn’t well known, to the point where during the first few months in office, it was common to see people blaming Nicolás Maduro or governor Prieto over things which are the responsibility of Casanova, such as garbage collection or public transport.

During almost four years in office, besides the negative image because of his inefficiency and empty promises in things like public services, the mayor has had to face problems that directly involve the national government or other elements, such as the blackout of 2019 which heavily affected regions like Maracaibo or the arrival of COVID-19.

During all this time, he has taken the task of lighting and remodeling some of the city’s squares and painting several murals, as well as reopening some historic buildings, such as the Villa Carmen house, built in 1926 by a very powerful family at the time and is now used for, among other things, “start-up fairs”.

“Willy Casanova has made a great effort to show a city that isn’t real and magnify an underwhelming administration,” political scientist and digital consultant Luis Rendueles, says. “The waste problem is huge, roads are unpaved, business owners can’t pay taxes and public services don’t work. Painting façades and lighting some squares doesn’t solve any of the deep-rooted problems.” 

In the last few weeks, we’ve been bombarded with ads for their campaigns on social media, showing aerial images recorded with drones of that beautiful part of the city that Perozo tweeted about, especially because Casanova will be seeking his re-election, facing an opposition which is divided between two candidates for now. 

“As of this moment, I don’t see any of the candidates as a clear favorite,” Rendueles argues. “Willy Casanova starts off as the most well-known figure because he’s the mayor, but he’s also facing a lot of rejection from the opposition and independent voters. He has to make sure his voters roll out in masses, and also discourage the opposition from voting.”