CARACAS/MARACAIBO: While authorities concentrate on presenting an image of normality in Caracas, Venezuelans elsewhere in the country who are suffering from severe shortages amid a political and economic crisis are livid.
The capital is a “shop window” for ambassadors and foreigners as well as a “propaganda operation,” said Andres Canizalez, an expert in political communication.
It’s an outlook shared by many Venezuelans, who see a harsh reality play out in places like the grocery store and gas station.
Gendry Parra fumed recently as he watched a video of a man in Caracas taking just five minutes to fill his vehicle with fuel.
The 44-year-old shopkeeper had spent three days queuing for fuel in Maracaibo, a city in the country’s far west close to the border with Colombia.
“It disgusts me that we’re in the same country and it’s one thing there and another here,” he said.
Parra doesn’t have running water, fuel or cash, and blackouts can last days in his hometown of Maracaibo even though it was the first city in Venezuela to have electricity.
It’s also the capital of Zulia state, which used to be an important source of Venezuelan oil and gas.
Alberto Arriechi, the man pumping gas in the video, said he recognizes the privilege he has over millions of Venezuelans who live in the country’s interior and are hit harder by Venezuela’s declining oil production and lack of cash for imports.
Like other people in Caracas, the 29-year-old engineer does not suffer as severely from electricity rationing carried out by the government ever since a massive blackout in March.
The latest rationing came Monday: Caracas was without power for seven hours, other parts of the country suffered for two days.
When it comes to fuel, customers in places like Maracaibo complain that some unscrupulous gas stations illegally ask for payment in dollars.
Fuel is heavily subsidized in Venezuela to keep the price absurdly low. Arriechi bought his for a handful of bolivars.
On the shores of Lake Maracaibo, Johannis Semprun, a victim of the country’s economic crisis, sighs.
“Right now we have electricity. And I mean ‘right now.’ Don’t be surprised if it goes in a moment,” said the 37-year-old, who has six children and a handicapped wife. Due to financial troubles, he had to take his children out of school and they now eat at an evangelical church.
“Everything has got worse,” he said.
Maracaibo was once booming thanks to oil but Venezuela’s production has plummeted from 3.2 million barrels a day 10 years ago to just one million.
The disparities between life in Caracas and elsewhere have left some feeling envious.
Warin Guerrero, a livestock industry leader in the western state of Barinas, has implored cattle ranchers not to send food to the capital.
“Over there, they don’t have any problems ... we’re treated like second class citizens,” he said.
While Caracas’ special status has historical roots in centralization, nowadays it’s about government bias, said Canizalez, the political communication expert.
“There’s a belief that if there were a social disruption in Caracas, it would spread throughout the rest of the country,” he said.
“If Caracas is kept relatively well, if it doesn’t rebel, everything else will work.”
The apparent normality of Caracas includes a greater choice of products. There’s also a proliferation of imported goods, with prices in dollars.
But few can afford them as salaries and savings have been rendered almost worthless by hyperinflation which the International Monetary Fund says will reach 10 million percent this year.
At the Las Pulgas market in Maracaibo, it’s normal for poor people to buy bones and entrails to eat.
Cleaning lady Josefina Galindo, 49, feels “outrage, impotence” when hearing the price of coffee in a store: $15 for 250 grams. She earns only $9 a month.
She hasn’t bought meat in a year. On her way home she goes through a street market.
“All I do is look at meat and the prices,” she says.