The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Venezuela’s oil capital, life is a struggle. So is death.

Children play on a polluted beach along Lake Maracaibo. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

MARACAIBO, Venezuela — The hospital had run dry of painkillers and antibiotics, leaving Neiro Vargas moaning in agony. The 43-year-old security guard had been brought in with a gunshot to the neck. On the seventh day, his heart gave out.

But in Maracaibo, the indignities of life no longer end at death. 

An economic free fall more severe than the Great Depression has crippled this onetime oil boomtown, and those who have stayed are bracing for worse under increasingly tough U.S. sanctions. Venezuela’s second-largest city — and its industrial engine — is now the epicenter of the socialist nation’s societal meltdown.

The collapse of civilization here is perhaps most evident at death.

On the afternoon of Vargas’s passing, Maracaibo University Hospital, suffering the same major power outages plaguing the rest of the city, was stiflingly hot. His destitute family was unable to immediately pay for a funeral. So doctors dispatched his body to “the basement.”

The un-air-conditioned morgue.

Even when the power flickers on, none of the morgue’s eight freezers work. On a recent morning, insects swarmed the seven decomposing bodies left on slabs and on the floor. A dead baby lay rotting in a cardboard box.

As temperatures in this tropical city soared above 90, Vargas’s corpse spent three days on the morgue floor, while his wife, Rossangelys, borrowed money to cover a makeshift coffin and transportation to their home. In the family’s living room, in a lawless part of town pocked with abandoned homes, the family held a grim wake. The narrow, black casket lay across two metal stands. Mourners averted eyes from the deceased’s infested face. Rossangelys tried, and failed, to control the smell by filling gaps in the coffin’s wood with caulking.

They could afford no burial plot. So they dug up the bones of Vargas’s long-dead brother in a local cemetery strewn with broken caskets desecrated by grave robbers.

Rossangelys wept by her husband’s resting place. The expelled coffin of her husband’s brother lay in ruins nearby.

“I’m just feeling so much rage,” she said. “So much rage for what we have to go through now in this city, in this country.

“If a family member dies, we can’t even bury him with dignity.

“How can this be our reality?”

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For a century, Maracaibo’s fortunes have risen and fallen with oil

Maracaibo, the “Beloved Land of the Sun,” was a city of firsts. The first Venezuelan town lighted by electricity. The first to open a cinema. In 1914, Venezuelan Oil Concessions struck crude on the eastern shore of Lake Maracaibo, the petroleum-rich Caribbean estuary that laps at the banks of the city’s jagged skyline.

Oil would change everything.

A regional port bloomed into a metropolis of 2.6 million. By 1950, Zulia state — with Maracaibo as its capital — accounted for more than half of Venezuela’s gross ­domestic product. Fueled by wealthy donors, its cultural life thrived. Maracaibo boasted three symphony orchestras and the continent’s largest museum of contemporary art.

But the depression that began here in 2013 has accelerated into a meltdown, the product of falling oil prices, failed socialist policies, mismanagement and corruption. In 2008, when prices and production were high, Maracaibo crude was generating an estimated $138 million a day. Output has collapsed to roughly $8.5 million.

By some estimates, as many as 700,000 residents — nearly a third of the metropolitan population — have abandoned the area in three years, joining the larger exodus of hungry people fleeing Venezuela.

Venezuela’s national power grid is failing, and its oil production collapsing. A country blessed with the world’s largest proven petroleum reserves is suffering severe shortages of gasoline.

The government of President Nicolás Maduro, bankrupt and weakened, has sought to protect the capital, Caracas, from the worst of the crisis. In a trade-off, the government has let Maracaibo fall. 

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Since January, electricity here has been rationed to no more than 12 hours a day — when there’s any power at all. Lines for gasoline stretch more than a mile; waits last up to two days. The line at the pump on University Street one recent afternoon measured 86 cars. In one street market, a desperate university professor was trying to sell his possessions — T-shirts, jeans, a lamp — for food.

At the sprawling Zulia Museum of Contemporary Art, bathroom pipes and sinks have been stolen, as have printers, computers, audio equipment and a truck. Phone cables were also taken — making landline calls nearly impossible.

The museum’s main hall has been shuttered, its leaking roof leaving pools of stagnant water. Amid a budget crunch, the staff has dropped from 150 employees to 14 — and half of those are unpaid interns. A dozen exotic palms have died in front because the museum’s gardener emigrated.

The Maracaibo Symphony, unable to cover its payroll, has shrunk from 90 members to 11.

“Our musicians have left,” said one player, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she is afraid of government reprisals. “They’re playing in subways in Buenos Aires, or the streets of Lima and Quito, for coins.”

She fought tears.

“We don’t have enough musicians to play Beethoven anymore,” she said. “This has been my whole life. It is so hard to see it crumble.”

Most traffic lights across town are dark — for want of electricity but also spare parts. That’s less of a hazard than it might be, because with the flight of so many people, there are far fewer cars, and almost no city buses.

Some neighborhoods are effectively ghost towns. Maracaibo’s six newspapers have closed.

In March, desperate looters ransacked more than 500 businesses — supermarkets, electronics stores, hotels. Many never reopened. The Zulia state chamber of commerce says 30,000 business have closed in 10 years. Hundreds more are shuttering every week.

“Maracaibo was a city of lights, a city of nightlife, a thriving city blessed by the Caribbean sun,” said Eveling Trejo de Rosales, Maracaibo’s former mayor. “Now, we are a dead city. A zombie state. And those of us left here are dead men walking.”

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Oil production suffers from mismanagement, neglect

Jose Moreno motored his boat toward the center of Lake Maracaibo. The 31-year-old fisherman pointed to the rusting husks of oil drills that were built to draw crude from the lake bed.

“This is the graveyard of the wells,” he said.

This Connecticut-size body of water was once Venezuela’s economic lifeline. Now it’s an environmental disaster. The vast majority of the thousands of oil wells that pepper the lake stand broken and useless. Raw crude and natural gas bubble to the surface. The spray of water from Moreno’s motorboat stains clothes black.

He surveyed the lake.

“It’s destroyed.”

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Once Venezuela's economic lifeline, Lake Maracaibo is now an environmental disaster. (Video: Anthony Faiola/TWP)

The Venezuelan oil industry was built on Zulia’s light crude. The center shifted two decades ago to the thicker oil of the Orinoco Belt farther south, but Lake Maracaibo remained vital to the national economy.

Its decline is one of chapters. In the early 2000s, Hugo Chávez, the late father of Venezuela’s socialist state, broke the unions at the state oil company, PDVSA. Trained engineers, rig workers and managers were replaced with political appointees. They ran the company into the ground.

In 2008, when global oil prices crashed, Chávez nationalized firms that supplied, maintained and provided transportation to the lake’s drills.

As the government under Maduro sank deeper into its financial hole, repairs slipped, then virtually stopped.

Maduro claimed victory last year in an election widely viewed as fraudulent. The United States has backed Venezuela’s opposition in its efforts to oust Maduro and hold new elections.

The United States was the largest buyer of Venezuelan crude. In January, the Trump administration prohibited U.S. companies from purchasing the oil.

For an industry already nearing a breaking point, it was like pouring hot water on third-degree burns.

Zulia produced 1.55 million barrels a day in 2001, according to Caracas Capital Markets, a Miami-based firm that focuses on the Venezuelan oil industry. By 2018, production had fallen to 250,000 barrels. Five thousand wells were operational in the lake in 2002. Today, union workers say, fewer than 400 are functioning.

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The Trump administration last month broadened the embargo, blocking all property and assets of the government and its officials, and prohibiting any transactions with them, the central bank or the state oil company.

Jaime Acosta worked for a private contractor to PDVSA that operated six oil perforators. The company shut down two months ago because the state oil company wasn’t paying the contract.

“I would agree with the sanctions if they end up helping us,” said Acosta, 62. “But to be honest, at this point, the sanctions are only making it worse.”

Without his wage to live on, he said, his wife and children have left for Colombia to find work. 

“In Zulia, us oil workers were the ones who drove the economy,” he said. “Now our families are broken.”

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‘The government ... doesn’t care’

In the shadow of Maracaibo’s half-empty high-rises rests the shantytown of Miracle Heights North.

Four hundred families — a third of the residents — have left in recent months, and the exodus is accelerating. Hyperinflation has put all but the most basic foodstuffs and medicines out of reach, leaving those who remain thin, hungry and sick. In the absence of a functioning government, gangs and thieves rule the neighborhood.

Neiro Vargas, the security guard, was walking home from his 14-hour graveyard shift when he was caught in the neck by a stray bullet. He was one block from his front door.

“The government doesn’t do anything,” said Vargas’s wife, Rossangelys Olivares. “It simply doesn’t care about us.”

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Violence isn’t the only killer. The power shortages, and the worsening access to running water, aren’t just inconveniences — they’re potentially deadly hazards.

Parents, unable to wash their children with water and soap, are struggling to control an outbreak of scabies. This year alone, 16 people in the neighborhood have died, community activists say, including the elderly and children with illnesses caused or worsened by the lack of clean water, unreliable power and the unrelenting heat.

Three blocks from Vargas’s home, neighbors watched one recent afternoon as a small group of people carried the body of 11-year-old Tiany Chacin into her home in a coffin cobbled together from old pieces of furniture.

A stomach parasite had reached her brain. Before she died, her mother said, the girl was vomiting worms.

This year, her family has had almost no access to potable water, said her mother, Yulimar Chacin, 33. They were left to drink from a stagnant drain. Since cooking gas is scarce and expensive, Chacin said, she could not always afford to boil the water.

“We had no other way, no other way to get water,” she said.

“It’s darkness here,” the rail-thin woman said between sobs. “We are alone.”

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