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Walk the Line: a New Chapter in Gas for Maracaibo

The first dramatic change after Manuel Rosales’s victory over Omar Prieto, is the absence of gas lines. The answer lies between street rumors and crowdsourced data

I don’t have a car. I don’t need one and I really don’t want one. But I do travel great distances across the city every day, and there’s been a development that caught my attention recently. Where are the miles-long lines of cars hoping and waiting for gasoline? 

It seems like fairly recently those lines have been scarce. How recently? In the last three weeks or so, there’s been a sensation of change in the gasoline ordeal.

Notice that I’m using terms like “seems” or “sensation” on purpose: these words imply subjectiveness, they’re claims that don’t always (or rarely) align with the truth. 

The lines have been a constant feature every time I run or ride my bicycle, to the point that sometimes I forget the human struggle behind each vehicle, and even looking at them gives me comfort and makes me feel safer, strangely enough. However, we haven’t seen those lines lately. Gas stations that aren’t subsidized, meaning that they sell at international prices, have short lines, sometimes even no lines at all. Some subsidized stations, where gas is given practically for free (you can fill up your tank with whatever you want to give, less than a dollar even), have lines, which is also a development because most of those rarely receive supplies. Just around 35% of the supply was allocated to the subsidized stations from August to October, according to Transparencia Venezuela reports.

The partial disappearance of the perennial long lines immediately drove me to ask the people who really care about this matter, the citizens. 

A quick side note: if you ever have the chance to talk to a group of random men from Maracaibo in the streets, at least three men, preferably middle-aged and up, don’t miss that opportunity. It’s invariably funny. There’s zero percent chance they won’t joke around and mess with each other. You could be asking them about the grimmest subject, there will be at least one funny answer in the mix. 

Well, users seem to have landed in two schools of thought. There are theories that have very little to do with factual evidence, but that are driven by the sums of disappointment that most Venezuelans in the country have experienced. 

The Theories

After it was declared that chavista Omar Prieto would no longer be the governor, after he lost to Manuel Rosales in the November 21st election, the people who controlled the supply chain of gasoline (at least in Maracaibo), military personnel from different branches that followed Prieto’s orders, were removed from the process, thus opening the clustered bottleneck infested with corruption that is the gasoline business in this region. This is one of the street narratives.  

Some gas station workers from La Estrella Station confirmed this was the case. The particular military individuals handling the operations, and by all accounts illegally profiting from the chaos and suffering, were nowhere to be seen after November 21st. They told me so with smiles on their faces and the respective use of expletives to refer to the people formerly in charge. There was true contempt for the military in their answers.  

The other, more sinister narrative on the streets, is that this development is a momentary maneuver from Prieto and the chavista regime, to give a sense of normality for a while, just until Rosales actually takes office, and when that happens the supply would be radically interrupted again, to give the appearance that the opposition government is at fault and can’t handle the issue. 

Prieto himself said, when he was talking about the transfer of power to Rosales, that they (meaning, the national government) were still going to “help” with gas because “they (the opposition) won’t be able to do it,” in quite the ominous tone actually.   

Maybe both street narratives have their strong and flaky points and they could both end up being partially true. But there’s an unequivocal fact that must be taken into account when analyzing this or anything that has to do with gasoline supply in Maracaibo, Zulia and Venezuela: the government in Caracas has complete control over everything that happens. 

Generating Information

Venezuela has been living without official stats for years now, particularly when the stats are about the calamities Venezuelans endure. The government, of course, doesn’t release any information that has to do with fuel supply, and it wouldn’t be surprising if we find out that they don’t even collect such information, but that’s a whole other article. 

In these conditions, information is generated by users, which is how Professor Jesús Urbina explained where the numbers on this crisis come from. Professor Urbina is Transparencia Venezuela’s coordinator for Zulia, and they really do the job of trying to explain the gas situation. 

That information comes, as we said, from the very citizens in need, with tools like WhatsApp groups that have become the daily reading material for most. Just to give you an idea, there are over 20,000 people in a group chat called “Gasolina LUZ”. That’s a lot of cars.   

Their latest report, covering the period between the months of August and October, gathered that more than half of the gasoline was allocated to stations that sell at international prices and that the vast majority of that gasoline ended up in stations recently “recovered” by the government and therefore managed by their allies. 

We’ll get an idea of how much of a mirage or reality these latest developments might be in the next reports. Even though we can say that lines are shorter and there are more gas stations distributing fuel, we can’t precisely pinpoint the origin of this change and if it will stand in time.   

Now You See Me, Now You Don’t

By definition, perception has very little bearing on factual reality, even if that perception is partly a byproduct of observing some form of reality. It might influence results relating to different matters, but when it comes to the gas problem in the region, feelings and theories have no incidence. The decisions on what to do with the available fuel ultimately and unequivocally fall on the central government and its representatives in Zulia. 

In the meantime, and because I really take no pleasure in bursting any bubbles (especially when the bubbles belong to a majority in need), I hope that this sudden easement of conditions stands in time and even improves. I really hope the feeling and the sensation endure and become a tangible reality. 

One thing is for sure, I won’t get a car even if it’s a gift. For practical and philosophical matters, I’d rather ride my bike and run. It makes me a better observer, which is key in my field. Once I was whistling and singing (yes, I’m one of those), next to a long line, and a fella making fun of me screamed “Are you crazy? Why are you singing?” I replied, “because I’m not stuck in a line for gas.” Everyone around us laughed. Long or short, I’d rather walk the line.