This post is
not meant to criticize this Government, it is meant to be critical of a
political system that for the last 47 years has mismanaged and
continues to mismanage the country, which makes you wonder whether
there is something wrong with our ability as a society to get things
done, to dream and to accomplish. All of this came to mind this morning
while I was reading the paper and I saw that the highway that joins Caracas
and the coast, where the international airport is may be closed for
three days next week, as concerns that it may fall down mount..
First, let me give you some background. Caracas
is in a valley 1,000 meters (3,000 feet) above sea level, separated
from the sea by a mountain range which is as high as 6,000 feet high.
This is what makes Caracas weather so nice, you are only 11 degrees
north of the Equator, but at 1,000 meters of altitude the temperature
drops to a very comfortable level, making Caracas one of the best
cities in the world, if not the best, in terms of comfortable level.
Temperatures range from 16 C to 32 C (60 F to 90 F) during the year and
night and day, never going colder, never warmer with humidity levels
that seldom top 70%. I know of no other large city in the world with
such comfortable weather.
following map shows the geographical location of the city. (Darker area
to the left of “Vargas”. The airport is right at sea level to the North
and a little West of the city. There is only one valley through the
mountains that goes straight north and even “straight” is just a way of
putting it, let’s say their is only one north pointing valley. The original highway through this path, the “Carretera
Vieja” was 23 Kms. long and had 365 turns, which made the trip slow
going and took at least one hour to drive.
in 1951, Dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez began building the
“Autopista Caracas La Guaira”, which at the time was considered to be
an engineering marvel with three majestic viaducts, two tunnels, one of
which was almost a mile long and only 36 turns in 15 Km. (from toll to
toll in the original design), significantly reducing the drive to the
country’s main airport, port and creating a whole recreational beach
zone in what is now Vargas state. All of this for only US$ 231 million.
In 1987, engineers noticed that the first Viaduct
on the way down from Caracas to La Guaira, was buckling upwards in the
middle due to the pressure caused by the south side, as shown in the
following diagram, where on the left there is a schematic of the
viaduct and on the right how the drifting mountain is pressuring the
viaduct (“empuje” means push):
years have gone by and despite lots of investments to solve the problem
things do not appear to have improved. In fact the buckling is so
extreme that in the following picture you can see the shift upwards
which is now above 90 cms.,
an increase of 5 cms. over the last few weeks alone. There has been
much work and proposals on how to fix it over the years, but clearly it
is not working. This engineer says that what was done to fix it since
1999 is simply wrong because nobody thought of the secondary effects it
may have, but I have no clue as to whether he is right or not.
the point is that it that buckling gives under the pressure, the
viaduct may break or even collapse under the strain, leaving the city
isolated from its port, airport and leaving thousands of residents of
Vargas state inhabitants without access to their jobs in Caracas.
first graph above shows the problem. There are four possible alternate
routes, none of which can handle the volume of the current highway. The
old high way, 25 Kms. long was allowed to deteriorate in time, houses
were built right up to the edge, and cars are robbed and reportedly
have been improved in 90%, whatever that means. You can go over the Avila mountain through the town of Galipan,
but going down on the other side implies a dirt road which at times has
very steep grades. Only four wheel drive vehicles can really handle
this route. Finally there is the El Junquito Carayaca path, some 62 Km.
in length and in bad shape or the long way around the Higuerote Chuspa
road which would make it 128 Km. and which is in bad shape between
Chuspa and La Guaira.
there is really no practical route that may accommodate the current
traffic, creating a very bad situation and hassle for hundreds of
thousands of Venezuelans. Hours to go to the airport, lost jobs to
those that live in Vargas and economic hardship for many.
think about this fact: It only took three years in 1951 to finish the
original highway and this society with its current form of Government
has been unable to find a solution to just one of the viaducts that are
part of it, despite the importance of the problem.
the years, even before the buckling was detected, there were many
suggestions that a second access to the Coast should be built. There
were basically three suggestions: A second road parallel to the current
one, a tunnel straight down from Caracas
and a tunnel somewhere along the Caracas Guarenas highway. Many
projects were paid for, studies made and much like other public works
that have never been started, lots of talk and not much execution.
the buckling began in 1987, there has also been talk of many
alternatives, essentially three: Build an alternate viaduct parallel to
the current one, fill the riverbed up the viaduct level and create a
bypass that takes you down to the riverbed. Once again, there was talk,
talk talk, some studies, but to this date, nothing has been done. The
only thing that was done is the current attempt to patch the viaduct up
which appears to be failing.
To me this is symptomatic of so many of the problems that ail Venezuela:
of all is the ability to dream. Imagine how many jobs would be
generated by a second path, road or whatever. Imagine the development
that it could generate if, for example, a second path on the East part
towards Guarenas was built, feeding Vargas state, the same one that
suffered the mudslides in 2000 at a different point. Imagine hotel
developments between Los Caracas and Chuspa financed internationally.
there is the fact that each party that comes to power starts believing its own immortality,
its ability to remain in power forever. Thus, they get rid of the
technical people at the corresponding Ministry, in this case, the
Ministry of Infrastructure, replacing them with party hacks, most of which
are more concerned with how much commissions they will get, rather than with getting
anything done. The result is few good people who want to work for the
Government, have a career in Government, reinforcing the mediocrity of
the Government and its actions.
at the very top, today Chavez, before Caldera and so on and so forth,
are so concerned about politics that they forget they are supposed to
govern. They meet to discuss how to stop, crush and obliterate the
enemy, but not to decide, follow up and draw plans. Most decisions are
political in nature, such as the fact that Chavez decided in 2000 that
it was not worth redeveloping Vargas, because his Minister Giordani
believes in moving people away from Caracas.
People were taken away and they are mostly back to Vargas. They were
simply moved to places where there were no jobs; they had no family and
were given little help other than relocating them.
want things for free. From the time I was a little kid (Most of you
were born after that), the toll in the Caracas La Guaira highway was
Bs. 3 per car, at a time that the US$
was 3.5 to 4.3 bolivars per dollar. Inflation came, the currency was
devalued and the toll was kept at Bs. 3. It became more expensive to
collect it than to eliminate it. Toll workers would steal the money
too. The tolls were eliminated. Then they were revived at the time that the
Bolivar stood at Bs. 270 per US$, increased to Bs. 100, all of 37 cents
US. People complained, there were even demonstrations. Later, a Mexican
consortium won a bidding process to maintain the road in exchange for
collecting the toll for 30 years, with the price of the toll indexed
to inflation. The price was never increased. Then the
people who drove along the road held protests (Note these are people
who own cars, not your average poor Venezuelan exactly), they blocked the
road asking for the elimination of the 37 cent toll. The Government
gave in, broke the contract with the Mexican company, which cost it
some US$ 13 million in arbitration and that was the end of that. (As if
the gasoline subsidy was not sufficient!)
now we appear to be ready to pay the consequence of our mismanagement,
populism and lack of planning. The amazing thing is, we dreamt,
planned, built and ran that original road for years, so, what changed?