The hospital’s painkillers and antibiotics were depleted, leaving Neiro Vargas in distress. The 43-year-old security guard was shot in the neck. On the seventh day, his heart could not stand it.
But in Maracaibo, the indignities of life no longer end with death.
A more severe economic free fall than the Great Depression has paralyzed what was once a thriving oil city, and those who have remained are bracing for the worst under harsh new US sanctions. Venezuela’s second largest city – and its industrial engine – is now the epicenter of the social collapse of the socialist nation.
The collapse of civilization here is perhaps most evident in death.
The afternoon Vargas died, Maracaibo University Hospital, suffering from the same power outages that plagued the rest of the city, was suffocatingly hot. Her needy family could not afford a funeral. Then the doctors sent his body to the “basement”. The morgue without air conditioning.
Even when the power returns, none of the morgue’s eight freezers work. One recent morning, insects covered the seven decaying bodies left on plates and on the floor. A dead baby rotted in a cardboard box.
While temperatures in this tropical city surged 30 degrees Celsius, Vargas’s corpse spent three days in the morgue while his wife, Rossangelys, borrowed money to pay for a makeshift coffin and transport it to his home. In the family’s living room, in a lawless part of town full of abandoned houses, the family held a sad wake. The narrow black casket was on two metal supports. The mourners looked away from the deceased’s infested face. Rossangelys tried but could not control the smell by sealing the holes in the coffin’s wood.
They could not afford any burial plan. Then they dug up the bones of Vargas’s long-dead brother from a local cemetery filled with broken coffins desecrated by thieves.
Rossangelys wept at her husband’s resting place. The casket removed from her husband’s brother was in ruins nearby.
“I’m just feeling very angry,” she said. “Very angry at what we have to go through now in this city, in this country. If a family member dies, we cannot bury him with dignity. How can this be our reality?”
- Closed establishments in downtown Maracaibo, Venezuela
- Kids play on a polluted beach on the shores of Lake Maracaibo
- Casket opened by robbers at the Sacred Corazón de Jesues cemetery in Venezuela
- Empty snack kiosk on a once busy street in Maracaibo, Venezuela
- Dark streets during a blackout in Maracaibo, Venezuela, May 2019
- Man passes contaminated shore of Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela
- Fisherman smokes after working at Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela
- Oil spills abound and dangerous in Cabimas city, across Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela
- Buildings in Maracaibo, Venezuela
- People board a dilapidated bus at La Curva, outdoor market in Maracaibo, Venezuela
- People cool off from heat and moisture in polluted waters of Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela
- Empty frames hanging on a wall of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Maracaibo, Venezuela. The paintings were stolen
Maracaibo, the “Beloved Land of the Sun”, was a city that collected unpublished feats. The first Venezuelan city illuminated by electricity. The first to open a movie theater. In 1914, the Venezuelan Oil Concessions found oil on the east coast of Lake Maracaibo, the oil-rich Caribbean estuary that passes the city’s uneven horizon.
Oil would change everything.
A regional port has flourished to become a metropolis of 2.6 million people. In 1950, the state of Zulia – which has Maracaibo as its capital – accounted for more than half of Venezuela’s GDP. Fed by wealthy donors, its cultural life thrived. Maracaibo boasted three symphony orchestras and the largest museum of contemporary art on the continent.
But the depression that began here in 2013 has accelerated to collapse, the product of falling oil prices, failed socialist policies, maladministration and corruption. In 2008, when prices and production were high, Maracaibo oil was generating $ 138 million a day, it is estimated. Production fell to about $ 8.5 million.
By some estimates, some 700,000 inhabitants – nearly a third of the metropolitan population – have left the area in three years, joining the larger exodus of hungry migrants fleeing Venezuela.
Venezuela’s national power grid is failing and the country’s oil production is collapsing. A country blessed with the world’s largest proven oil reserves is suffering severe shortages of gasoline.
Nicolás Maduro’s bankrupt and weakened government tried to protect the capital, Caracas, from the worst of the crisis. In an exchange, the government dropped Maracaibo.
Since January, electricity here has been rationed to a maximum of 12 hours a day – when there is power. Gasoline lines extend for more than one kilometer; The waits last up to two days. The queue for the bomb on University Street one recent afternoon had 86 cars. In a street market, a desperate college professor was trying to sell his belongings – T-shirts, jeans, a lamp – for food.
In Zulia’s extensive Museum of Contemporary Art, pipes and sinks were stolen, as were printers, computers, audio equipment and a truck. Telephone cables have also been removed – making it almost impossible to make landline calls.
The museum’s main hall was locked, a leak in the ceiling forming puddles of stagnant water. In the midst of a budget crisis, the team has dropped from 150 employees to 14 – and half of them are unpaid interns. A dozen exotic palm trees died because the museum’s gardener emigrated.
The Maracaibo Symphony Orchestra, unable to cover its payroll, went from 90 to 11 members.
“Our musicians are gone,” said one song, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is afraid of government reprisals. “They are playing on the subway in Buenos Aires, or on the streets of Lima and Quito in exchange for coins.”
She tried to keep the tears from falling.
“We don’t have enough musicians to play Beethoven anymore,” she said. “This has been my whole life. It’s so hard to see her crumble.”
Most of the city’s traffic lights are off – for lack of electricity, but also for spare parts. This is less dangerous than it could be, because with so many people escaping, there are far fewer cars and almost no city buses.
Some neighborhoods are indeed ghost towns. Maracaibo’s six newspapers closed.
In March, desperate looters broke into more than 500 establishments – supermarkets, electronics stores, hotels. Many never reopened. The Zulia State Chamber of Commerce says 30,000 deals have closed in 10 years. Hundreds are still being closed each week.
“Maracaibo was a city of lights, a city with nightlife, a prosperous city blessed by the Caribbean sun,” said Eveling Trejo de Rosales, former mayor of Maracaibo. “Now, we’re a dead city. A zombie state. And those of us who stayed here are walking dead men.”
Oil Well Cemetery
José Moreno steered his boat towards the center of Lake Maracaibo. The 31-year-old fisherman pointed to the rusty oil drill shells that were built to extract oil from the lake bed.
“This is the well cemetery,” he said.
This body of water larger than the city of Manaus was once the economic salvation of Venezuela. It is now an environmental disaster. The vast majority of the thousands of oil wells that occupy the lake are broken and useless. Crude oil and natural gas bubbles to the surface. The jet of water from Moreno’s motorboat stains his clothes in black.
He surveyed the lake. “It’s destroyed.”
The Venezuelan oil industry was built on light oil from Zulia. The center shifted two decades ago to the thicker oil of the southernmost Orinoco Belt, but Lake Maracaibo remained vital to the national economy.
Its decline is one of the chapters of history. In the early 2000s, Hugo Chavez, the late father of the socialist state of Venezuela, broke the unions of state-owned oil company PDVSA. Engineers, platform workers and trained managers have been replaced by political appointees. They sank the company.
In 2008, when global oil prices fell, Chavez nationalized companies that supplied supplies, maintained and provided transportation to the lake’s boreholes.
As Maduro’s government sank deeper into its financial hole, the repairs diminished and then practically stopped.
Maduro claimed victory last year in an election widely seen as fraudulent. The United States and Brazil have supported Venezuela’s opposition in their efforts to topple Maduro and hold new elections.
The United States was the largest buyer of Venezuelan oil. In January, the Trump government banned US companies from buying oil.
For an industry that was already nearing its breaking point, it was like pouring hot water on third-degree burns.
Zulia produced 1.55 million barrels a day in 2001, according to Caracas Capital Markets, a Miami-based company that focuses on the Venezuelan oil industry. In 2018, the …