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quinta-feira, 5 de setembro de 2019

Maracaibo: cidade fantasma da Venezuela - Der Spiegel

Ghost Town
A Venezuelan El Dorado Hits Rock Bottom
Maracaibo used to be the Dallas of Venezuela, it's wealth fueled by oil. But today, residents are fighting for survival and the city is experiencing an exodus. The collapse of Maracaibo is emblematic of what may lie in store for the country at large.
Katrin Kuntz and Adriana Fernández
Der Spiegel, Hamburgo – 4.9.2019

The day on which residents of Maracaibo destroyed their own city out of sheer desperation began relatively normally, considering the circumstances. It was March 10, 2019, and for the preceding three days, the power had been out across almost the entire country. Fernel Ricardo, a resident of Maracaibo, the second-largest city in Venezuela, remembers how his city took one step closer to the abyss that day.
The 40-year-old father of three girls, Ricardo relates how he was standing in his kitchen that morning trying not to completely lose his sanity. "Food was rotting in the refrigerator and there was no water coming out of the tap," he says. They were unable to make money transfers or withdraw cash, meaning they couldn't buy anything.
Because much of the telecommunications infrastructure had collapsed, making calls was also difficult. "We received no information, no explanation from the government," Ricardo says. There was just one state radio station that continued to broadcast, with people in Ricardo's neighborhood able to listen in with the help of a generator. "Nobody told us what was going on," Ricardo recalls. "The station just played music."
Soon, panic began to spread in San Jacinto, the impoverished district where he lives, one that is considered a stronghold of former Chávez supporters. "What kind of country isn't able to deliver electricity to its people in the 21st century?" he found himself wondering.
A couple of hours later, Ricardo saw his neighbors marching through the district carrying bags and armed with sticks. "Let's go! To the supermarket!" they were yelling, according to Ricardo. "Enough is enough!"

A Bona Fide Dystopia

In the days that followed, the residents of Maracaibo plundered 523 shops. They raided 106 stores in a shopping mall and ransacked a gigantic supermarket, grabbing food and destroying the structure itself and even stealing the roof paneling. The looters also completely stripped a five-floor hotel, walking off with toilets and sinks in addition to taking the water out of the hotel pool.
A city of 2 million located near the border with Colombia, Maracaibo was once considered one of the richest cities in Venezuela. It was the first city in the country to receive electricity several decades ago, and the modern agricultural industry developed in the state of Zulia, of which Maracaibo is the capital. Huge oil deposits discovered beneath Lake Maracaibo further fueled development and turned the city into the Dallas of Venezuela's oil industry -- a city built on the wealth of the world's largest known oil deposit. The oil workers were known for their expensive cars while executives flew in private jets to gamble away money in the casinos of the Caribbean.
Today, Maracaibo is a ghost town, a bona fide dystopia reminiscent of the apocalyptic film "Mad Max." The limited resources at the disposal of President Nicolás Maduro's government tend to be reserved for the capital city of Caracas, located 700 kilometers (435 miles) away.
A walk through Maracaibo reveals a city where almost all of the restaurants and shops are closed. Stoplights don't work, bus service has been suspended and even schools are largely closed or, if they are open at all, only hold classes for a few hours at a time. "For sale" signs stand in front of many of the houses.
Children rummage through the garbage on the sides of the road on the search for something to eat as people in torn clothes walk past pushing shopping carts -- leftover from the days of plundering -- loaded with canisters full of brackish water. Butchers sell bits of unappetizing-looking meat. Some 6.8 million people in Venezuela are currently suffering from malnourishment. On the outskirts of the city, an emaciated man is taking an evening walk with his mother. When asked what the two of them have eaten that day, he responds: "Mangoes. Nothing else."
After years of neglect under President Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013, the source of the city's and the country's wealth has run dry. The state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) is in terrible shape and oil production has plunged by more than two-thirds since 2013, a result of corruption, mismanagement and sanctions applied by the United States. Recently, the country has only been putting out a million barrels per day, roughly the level of 1945. Hundreds of drilling rigs in Lake Maracaibo have deteriorated, power plants have fallen silent and tankers are sinking.

The Need for an About-Face

Four weeks ago, the U.S. imposed additional sanctions against the Maduro government, a way for Trump to exert more pressure on the Venezuelan president following the failed putsch launched by opposition leader Juan Guaidó. The sanctions have led to an additional one-third drop in oil production even as they have primarily hit the people of Venezuela. The country is hardly earning anything from oil exports anymore and the consequences for the already disastrous economic situation have been catastrophic.
Many in the country see the almost complete collapse of Maracaibo as a harbinger for the ruination of the entire country under President Maduro. If there is no political about-face, all of Venezuela could end up looking like Maracaibo.
In recent years, fully 4 million people -- more than a 10th of the country's population -- have left Venezuela and many thousands more continue turning their backs on Maracaibo and the surrounding region. If current trends hold, around 8 million people will have emigrated from Venezuela by the end of 2020 -- many more than the 5.6 million people who have fled Syria in recent years. Already, the Venezuelan exodus has become the largest mass migration in Latin America and is perhaps destined to become the biggest in the world.
Almost five months have passed since the huge wave of plundering and Fernel Ricardo is sitting in front of his home on a day in August, watching the sand blow across the pothole-filled road. The neighbors across the street are playing dominoes. Ricardo has just asked them for a couple of tomatoes so that his wife can cook something for them in the evening. They don't have any running water and electricity is spotty.
"I used to work in the PDVSA cafeteria," Ricardo says. Since the state-owned oil company basically ceased functioning, he has been repairing electronic devices, though it doesn't provide a regular income. Parked in the garage behind him is an old car belonging to neighbors who have emigrated. Next to it is an iron and a suitcase full of clothes that were also left behind.
"I'm trying to sell everything," he says. "Nobody here can survive off their job. The minimum wage of USD 3 per months is only enough to buy just a single chicken." By the end of the year, the hyperinflation plaguing the country could rise to an astronomical 51 million percent, making the national currency, the bolivar, essentially worthless. Those who can try to get ahold of dollars, or they survive on remittances from family members who have emigrated.

Blinded by Chávez

Back in the days of chaos, when desperation and fury drove the people of Maracaibo to ransack the city, Ricardo was briefly among them. He says he initially saw hundreds of people on the streets. "They had grabbed everything, as if the world was ending. Noodles, rice, shoes, watches, mobile phones and even refrigerators from the shops." Ricardo says he grew fearful when he saw stores burning and heard gunfire, but the police didn't intervene." I quickly grabbed four bottles of water," Ricardo says, "and then I went home."
Right in the middle of the chaos, the government issued a statement claiming that "opposition sabotage" had been responsible for the power outages. Following the most recent outage in July, Maduro blamed an "electromagnetic attack" from the U.S. Now, though, it is thought that a wildfire caused it.
Ricardo says he is ashamed of the plundering, but he also feels partially responsible for the situation in which the county now finds itself. "I voted for Chávez," he says with tears in his eyes. "I allowed myself to be blinded by the good deeds he performed." He says he never thought that Chávez would destroy the country.

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