The streets of Caracas are unnaturally quiet. But this is no blissful moment of peace. Public transport in Venezuela, in common with the rest of the country, is ceasing to operate altogether - yet another symptom of a collapsing state.
In order to get to work many Venezuelans now have to walk or buy a bicycle, although there is a shortage of those too. Commuters often have to walk 7 kilometres (over an hour) to reach their place of work. Driving is not an option either. Most cars and motorbikes are off the road because their owners cannot get spare parts to repair them. People are being murdered just to cannibalise their bikes for parts.
Caracas’ main bus company, Colectivos del Norte, used to operate a fleet of 80 buses. Now it can only keep two running due to this lack of spare parts. Taking a taxi isn’t much of an option either, as one ride often costs several times the average monthly salary.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the collapse of Venezuela’s transport systems has been directly caused by the economic policies of the Chavista regime. The government held down ticket prices below the costs of operation, without providing subsidies or any other sources of income. This forced operators to take their buses off the road, as they could no longer afford to buy spare parts or carry out basic maintenance. As of mid-2018 only 10% of the country’s public transport fleet was still operating, according to Jose Luis Trocel, the head of the main transport workers union.
The Chavista government had sought to address this growing crisis by constructing a new state-owned bus plant - supposedly the biggest bus assembly plant in Latin America - in partnership with the Chinese company Yutong. However, the scheme has been a dismal failure. An inquiry by the National Assembly found that the factory was largely inoperative and that massive corruption had occurred. The regime overpaid some $92,852 per bus. An estimated 939 million dollars was stolen by regime members. In June this year an opposition activist published on Twitter aerial images of “Yutong bus cemeteries” where hundreds of non-functioning Yutong buses lie abandoned.
In a half-hearted effort to help people get to work, municipal authorities have started using lorries and garbage trucks as buses. Known as ‘dog-carts’, these trucks are standing room only – mainly for poor Venezuelans – and are both unreliable and dangerous. People are dying as a consequence. In Merida earlier this year a truck overturned, killing eleven passengers. Nine of them were children.
When one can find a bus or truck, it is often beyond the means of most Venezuelans, as drivers are forced to ignore price controls and increase prices weekly. This is largely because hyperinflation is relentlessly pushing up the cost of essentials such as oil and tires. But this means when Venezuelans are offered new jobs – a rare phenomenon – they often have to decline because the cost of getting to and from the job exceeds the pay.
Functioning public transport is something that is taken for granted in most countries. It is only when it disappears as in Venezuela that one understands the essential role that it plays. Most importantly, in a country where most of the country lives in poverty, failing to provide public transport hurts the poorest most.
More information on the Venezuela Campaign can be found on their website.