By Carlos Camacho
CARACAS – It’s official: the Metro de Caracas subway system is so broke that it can’t even afford to charge for its services.
The company instructed employees to stop charging Monday afternoon, according to Caracas daily El Nacional. Already, most users think the subway is free.
In hyperinflation-mired Venezuela, the ticket (yellow cardboard with a brown magnetic stripe) costs more than the Bs.4 the single trip costs. You need about Bs.800,000 to buy one US dollar at the black market rate.
Fare-beating, which already was poorly enforced, is no longer a crime. The 35-year-old subway seems to embody the Venezuelan dystopian “utopia” of Chavez and Maduro: free, but dirty, dangerous and poorly maintained. The subway has also been politicized in other ways: on the days of big rallies for Chavez or Maduro is free, but when the opposition announces a demonstration, stations and even surface transportation near the area are shut down.
Embattled head of state Nicolas Maduro trained as a driver with Metro Bus, the Metro’s surface transportation arm, but never got to drive a route, opting instead to become a union organizer, the beginning of his political career.
“Already last year several stations had stopped charging,” El Nacional reported. “Other stations only charged the fare in the morning.”
“We ran out of material (for the tickets) yesterday (Monday) afternoon,” a Metro employee told the paper.
Once the pride and joy of “Caraqueños,” the once-spotless Metro is now another source of discontent for almost three million users every day. Maduro’s administration has inaugurated only one subway station, the lowest number for any President since 1983.
Even disgraced Brazilian construction company Odebrecht is involved in the subway’s deterioration: the firm was supposed to deliver two whole new subway lines by 2010 in Caracas alone, but the additions to the trouble system never materialized.
However, the system now has more employees than ever before: more than 11,000, where in 2003 it had fewer than 5,000 employees. That’s for only 53 stations in five lines. That’s 207 employees per station, and yet you never see more than four or five employees at any given time.
The Caracas Metro was officially inaugurated in 1983, designed to transport 700,000 passengers every day. It now transports over 2.5 million people, according to Transparencia Venezuela, the local chapter of anti-graft NGO Transparency International.
Air conditioning has become extremely scarce, which in tropical Caracas translates into people fainting from the heat and crowds, now also a common occurrence. A trip that used to take 30 minutes, from Caricuao to Sabana Grande, now takes more than one hour, according to Transparencia Venezuela.
The NGO offers some sobering statistics: Only half of the 376 escalators in the system work in some capacity, while 60% of turnstiles are out of commission as well. Around 70% of all stations report air-conditioning failures.
Where once crimes were unheard of, there have been murders in stations and trains, while common robberies are just part of the trip. Buskers and “buhoneros” (informal salespersons) ply their trades and wares openly.