In a city once called the Saudi Arabia of Venezuela for its vast oil wealth, residents of Maracaibo now line up to buy spoiled meat as refrigerators fail amid nine months of rolling power outages that recently got worse.
Some people fall ill eating the rotten beef, but at bargain prices, it’s the only way they can afford protein as the country’s crisis hits bottom.
“It smells a little foul, but you rinse it with a little vinegar and lemon,” said Yeudis Luna, a father of three young boys buying darkened cuts at a butcher shop in Venezuela’s second largest city.
Venezuelans are enduring the worst economic downfall in the oil-rich country’s history. Basic services like running water and electricity have become luxuries.
Socialist President Nicolas Maduro blames the strife on an economic war waged by the United States and other capitalist powers. The governor of Maracaibo’s Zulia state, Omar Prieto, recently said the rampant blackouts were being repaired, but relief has yet to come.
The sprawling port city of Maracaibo on the banks of a vast lake once served as a hub of Venezuela’s oil production, producing roughly half of the nation’s crude that was shipped around the world.
A bridge over Lake Maracaibo stands as a reminder of better times. The eight-kilometer (five-mile) long structure built five decades ago once glowed at night with thousands of lights, linking the city with the rest of Venezuela. Maracaibo was clean and bustling with international restaurants.
Today, the bridge’s lights no longer shine and broken down oil platforms span the lake with downwind shores soaked in oil. The once-posh shopping centers have fallen into ruin and the international businesses have packed up and left.
For the last nine months Maracaibo’s residents have endured rolling blackouts. Things turned dire Aug. 10 when a fire destroyed a main powerline supplying the city of 1.5 million people.
Refrigeration units fell idle and meat began turning. At least four butcher shops have been selling spoiled meat in Las Pulgas, Maracaibo’s central market.
Butcher Johel Prieto said the outage turned an entire side of beef rotten. He ground up much of it and mixed it with a fresh, red meat in an attempt to mask the spoilage.
A pungent tray of the ground meat and other graying cuts on display one day at his counter collected flies — and a steady flow of customers. Some feed it to their dogs, said Prieto, yet others cook it for their families.
“Of course they eat the meat — thanks to Maduro,” Prieto said. “The food of the poor is rotten food.”
Across the way in another stall, a butcher — shirtless and smoking a cigarette — offers up trays of blackened cuts.
“People are buying it,” said Jose Aguirre who was unloading spoiled chicken.
Luna, a 55-year-old parking lot watchman, took a kilogram of cuts home knowing they were bad, but doing what he could to make the meat edible.
His wife last year left for Colombia, abandoning him and their boys aged 6, 9 and 10. He said she couldn’t stand the hunger anymore. He hasn’t heard from her since.
Preparing the meat, Luna says he first rinsed it with water and then let it soak overnight in vinegar. He squeezed two lemons and let it simmer with a tomato and a half-onion.
Luna and his boys ate it.
“I was afraid that they would get sick because they are small,” he said. “But only the little one got diarrhea and threw up.”
At one of Caracas’ biggest public hospitals, most bathrooms are closed. Patients fill jugs from a tiny tap on the ground floor that sometimes has a trickle of water. Operations are postponed or canceled.
The Central Venezuelan University hospital, once a Latin American leader, is reeling as taps run dry.
“I have gone to the operation bloc and opened the tap to wash my hands, as you must do before a surgery, and nothing comes out,” said gynecologist Lina Figueria.
Water cuts are the latest addition to a long list of woes for Venezuelans hurting from a fifth year of an economic crisis that has sparked malnutrition, hyperinflation and emigration, Reuters reports.
Malfunctions in the capital’s water network due to lack of maintenance have taken a turn for the worst in recent months, depriving many in this city of 3 million people of regular running water.
Caracas is nestled in a verdant valley perched at around 900 meters (2,953 feet) and its water is pumped from much lower sources. But the pumps have not been maintained, spare parts are scarce and President Nicolas Maduro’s administration is short of cash.
“For many years this deterioration process was not noticeable. But now the water transport systems are very damaged,” said Jose De Viana, former president of Hidrocapital, the state-run utility in charge of Caracas’ water supply.
Venezuela’s socialist government typically says water cuts are due to sabotage by right-wing “terrorists.”
Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez in July announced a “special plan” to fix the issues, but did not provide details. The Information Ministry and Hidrocapital did not respond to a request for information.
Lack of water – and taps that sometimes spurt out brown liquid – have triggered health concerns in a country lacking basic antibiotics and vaccines.
About 75 percent of Caracas residents said they do not receive water regularly, according to a survey published by two Venezuelan non-governmental organizations this month. Around 11 percent said they thought dirty water had caused skin and stomach problems. The survey does not have comparative figures.
Medical consequences are hard to gauge as the Health Ministry no longer releases once-weekly data, but doctors say scabies and diarrhea are on the rise.
Water shortages have also made some basic daily activities untenable. Poor residents say they take fewer showers.
In the low-income neighborhood of Catia, university professor Mariangela Gonzalez, 64, has 127 bottles, gas containers and pots clogging the entrance to her house.
“When the water comes on, we have to run,” said Gonzalez.
Meanwhile inflation is skyrocketing, and expected to reach at least 1,000,000% this year.
Venezuela’s inflation may hit 1 million percent by the end of the year, the International Monetary Fund announced.
This incredible hyperinflation is reminiscent of Weimar Germany during the years immediately after World War I, in which wheelbarrows full of cash were required to buy bare essential items, like a loaf of bread.
To counter the hyperinflation problem, Venezuela’s answer is to lop off five zeros from its currency value and launch a state-backed cryptocurrency.
It wasn’t that long ago that the left praised socialist Venezuela as a model country, a good comparison to the mean, ruthless system of the United States.
“Since the [Hugo] Chávez government got control over the national oil industry, poverty has been cut by half, and extreme poverty by 70 percent,” wrote New York Times contributor Mark Weisbrot in the wake of socialist President Hugo Chavez’s re-election in 2012. “College enrollment has more than doubled, millions of people have access to health care for the first time and the number of people eligible for public pensions has quadrupled.”
Just six years later and the country is a catastrophe. It seems 21st-century socialism hasn’t worked any better than 20th-century socialism, or any other kind of socialism for that matter.
Venezuela’s dire state is not for lack of resources. It is the most oil-rich country in the world and used to be one of the wealthiest nations in South America. Now, it’s teetering on the edge of economic oblivion.
The scale of Venezuela’s collapse is staggering. The economy has halved since 2013 and unemployment has now reached 30 percent. Basic items like baby formula and toilet paper can’t be found on store shelves.
People have turned to “car cannibalism” (or mass carpooling) to minimize the number of vehicles running. Public transportation has ground to a halt.
Hunger strikes by workers in the country’s nationalized electricity company have led to widespread power outages and water shortages.
Venezuela now struggles to pump oil out of the ground as its nationalized oil company is, according to CNN, “forced to import light crude from the United States to dilute the heavy oil it drills in Venezuela.”
Ironically, the policy of nationalization—purportedly to give back to the people—has left those very people destitute.
James E Windsor, Overpasses News Desk
August 23rd, 2018