Aportrait of Hugo Chávez and a Bolivarian battle cry greet visitors to the Boyacá viewpoint in the mountains north of Caracas. “It is our duty to find one thousand ways and more to give the people the life that they need!”
But as Venezuela buckles, Chávez’s pledge sounds increasingly hollow. Vandals have splashed paint on to his face and beneath him Venezuela’s capital is dying.
“A ghost town,” laments Omar Lugo, director of the news site El Estímulo, during a night-time driving tour of a once-buzzing metropolis being eviscerated by the country’s collapse. “It pains me so much to see Caracas like this.”
A generation ago, Venezuela’s capital was one of Latin America’s most thriving, glamorous cities: an oil-fuelled, tree-lined cauldron of culture that guidebooks hailed as a mecca for foodies and art fans.
Its French-built metro – like its restaurants, galleries and museums – was the envy of the region. “Caracas was such a vibrant city … You truly felt in the first world,” says Ana Teresa Torres, a Caracas author whose latest book is a diary of her home’s demise.
In 1998, as the setting for his election celebrations, Chávez chose the balcony of the Teresa Carreño, a spectacular, brutalist-style cultural centre. Built during the 1970s oil boom and reminiscent of London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, it has hosted stars such as Dizzy Gillespie, George Benson, Ray Charles and Luciano Pavarotti, and epitomised the country’s new ambition. “Venezuela is reborn,” Chávez declared.
Twenty years after that upbeat address, an economic cataclysm experts blame on ill-conceived socialist policies, staggering corruption and the post-2014 slump in oil prices has given Caracas the air of a sinking ship. Public services are collapsing, businesses closing and residents evacuating on buses or one of a dwindling number of flights still connecting their fallen metropolis to the rest of the world.
“It’s a feeling of historic frustration,” sighs Lugo as he steers through shadowy streets, counting the apartments where the lights are still on. “A country that performed a miracle in reverse – it’s just impossible to believe.”
Caracas’s crash has left no community unscarred, from its vast redbrick shantytowns to leafy middle- and upper-class areas such as La Florida.
Luis Saavedra, a former oil industry security consultant, says his 13-storey apartment block
has lost more than half of its residents since Venezuela entered an economic and political tailspin after Nicolás Maduro took power following Chávez’s death in 2013.
Fourteen of its 26 flats are now empty, their owners exiled to Spain, Portugal, Germany, Argentina and the US. In November, the building went 16 days without electricity.
“This populism – this so-called socialism – has finished off our country,” Saavedra, 65, says as he walks around one of five empty homes he cares for. “It isn’t finishing the country off. It has finished it off.”
Saavedra, whose two daughters live in Spain, says he is now reluctantly considering joining a historic exodus the UN says has swollen to 3 million – nearly 10% of Venezuela’s population, or an entire pre-crisis Caracas – since 2015.
Soaring crime and the breakdown of a city where even those regarded as well-off now often live without water or power mean he sees few alternatives. “It’s astonishing. By 6 or 7pm you don’t see any more cars on the streets and by 8pm it’s completely deserted. This is a capital city that used to have a night life. Not any more. Everyone’s holed up at home.”
Saavedra recalls returning from a recent trip to Miami to find Caracas’s airport – once linked to Paris by sixhour Concorde flights – cloaked in darkness due to a power cut. “The people at customs couldn’t even inspect us because there was no light,” he scoffs. “We’ve stopped [in time], gone back 40 years and are heading back to the dark ages.”
When he took power in 1998 Chávez declared war on the “immense poverty” that blighted his homeland despite its vast oil wealth. But Caracas’s slum dwellers are now fleeing too, forced overseas by a lack of food, medicine and work, a collapsing public transport system and hyperinflation the International Monetary Fund fears will hit 10,000,000% in 2019.
Solangel Jaspe, deputy head of a Catholic school in the deprived and notoriously violent Cota 905 neighbourhood, says she began the year with 909 students. “Today it is 829 and falling.”
Only that morning the parents of nine children said they were dropping out: six because they were leaving the country – for Colombia, Chile and Peru – and the other three because they could no longer afford the fees or find transport.
Staff shed tears as they describe seeing children turn up for class only to faint because they have not been fed. “They are the future of our country,” says William Orozco, a 57-year-old teacher at Paulo VI College. “It breaks my soul.”
Armando Martínez, a music teacher who lost 8kg last year because of the so-called “Maduro diet”, says staff are also struggling. “A litre of milk costs 280 soberanos (about 73p), a box of eggs is 1,000, a kilo of cheese 1,000. That’s my whole monthly salary.”
New clothes have become an unthinkable luxury, adds Martínez, whose left sole is peeling off his shoe. “We look like down and outs. There are people eating rubbish,” he says. “This is no life for a child.”
The elderly have been hit, too. One recent lunchtime, pensioners came to a food bank in the eastern district of Chacao to collect supplies provided by the local council and members of the diaspora. Among them was Rosemarie Newton, a retired language teacher who had signed up because she could no longer afford to eat.
“My dear, I feel so sad about this because I lived the good times in Venezuela … the money ran everywhere,” the 73-year-old says.
No more. Newton says her weight has fallen from 50kg to 36kg. “I was so skinny my friends couldn’t believe it … I was reduced from three meals to practically one meal a day.”
Newton, whose father was a British economist, says she will not abandon Venezuela, the country of her birth, for the UK. “It’s the climate that makes me think twice,” she jokes.
But political change is needed, fast. “The government has shown us that they cannot manage – everything has gotten out of hand,” Newton says. “The situation is unbearable.”
The decaying theatre
Even the Teresa Carreño, the oncedazzling theatre where Chávez launched his Bolivarian revolution, has been laid low.
The former director Eva Ivanyi recalls it being conceived in the 1970s as South America’s answer to Milan’s La Scala . “It symbolised the future. It signified civilisation. It signified Europe. It signified success,” she says. “It was like a step towards modernity – the future the country aspired to.”
Today the cultural complex has fallen into disrepair, and is used mostly for political galas singing the praises of the socialist party that has overseen Venezuela’s collapse. “What was the continent’s most notable cultural centre has become a platform for a bunch of swines and liars,” one local journalist said.
Outside, the stairwell to the balcony where Chávez delivered his post-election address reeks of urine and has been defaced by taggers who have written “Fuck police”. In a squatted building over the street – once the HQ of Venezuela’s state-run airline, Viasa – special forces recently gunned down at least eight people, a reminder that this has become one of the world’s deadliest cities.
Ivanyi says she believes the good times will one day return: “There are some things that you just can’t destroy.” But when might that day come? “Ah, I don’t know. When this government is over and we have someone who starts to think about restructuring the country,” she says.
“The day that the water, the electricity, the food distribution system – the basic things human beings need to exist – start to work better, then we can start thinking about culture again. Right now, it’s clearly not a priority.”
Orozco, the teacher, took part in last year’s anti-government demonstrations and says his priority is to stay and fight for his pupils. He sees two possible solutions to Venezuela’s woes – international help and Maduro’s exit. “We want Maduro out because he has turned this country upside down.”
‘I feel so sad about this because I lived the good times in Venezuela … money ran everywhere’ Rosemarie Newton Retired language teacher