What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Venezuela’s oil-rich city crippled by ongoing crises

The once-wealthy South American country of Venezuela is in the midst of political, economic and humanitarian crises made more severe by U.S. sanctions. And Venezuela's second-largest city, Maracaibo, was at one time the jewel of its petroleum economy. But the city, along with the rest of the country, is now suffering. Special correspondent Marcia Biggs reports with Pulitzer Center support.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Sunrise in Maracaibo and these people have been up all night waiting in line for gasoline.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    How long have you been here?

  • Ciro Ferrer:

    6:00 am yesterday

  • Marcia Biggs:

    This man said he's been here since 6 am the day before. Venezuela is suffering from a massive gas shortage and so most of them have been in line for 24-hours, drinking coffee, talking among friends, reading the newspaper, doing anything to pass the time.

  • Ciro Ferrer:

    The thing is, I live here, you practically live here.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    These lines can stretch for miles, snaking through neighborhoods, and wrapping around city blocks. Once drivers finally reach the pump, they can only fill up around 13 gallons at a time, which among these many old cars doesn't last long. The good news is they will pay no money. Gas is so heavily subsidized in Venezuela it's essentially free. But they do pay a heavy price with their time. And when the gas is gone for the day, it's gone. I want to explode! Says Eddie Rincon. He waited in line almost twenty four hours, only to now be told that there was no gas left.

  • Eddie Rincon:

    Can you imagine how I feel? Pained, cheated, and humiliated by all of it.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    The frustration and preoccupation with filling the tank on a daily basis really dominates daily life here. Everything revolves around what time do I need to get in line, what place am I going to get, how much gas will I receive. The irony is that we are sitting on the world's largest oil reserve. Maracaibo was the oil boomtown of South America, Venezuela's second largest city and home to two thirds of its oil production. Drawing companies and workers from all over the world, including the United States. Once a city where Venezuela's glitteratti went to sun tan and make money, and to spend it, now a ghost town. And Lake Maracaibo, once thought to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, now a graveyard for Venezuela's crumbling oil industry. Rusting and stagnant, broken pipelines underwater leaking oil everywhere.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    How long has all of this been shut down?

  • Luis:

    That, around five years. This is a cemetery now.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    We went out with fisherman Luis Moreno, who grew up on this lake and is one of its few remaining inhabitants.

  • Luis:

    It's sad to bring you to this place the way it is; because if you had come here 15 years ago, you would have been impressed by the beauty of this place. Before, there were fishermen, people swimming, having fun; we weren't afraid of getting covered in oil.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    I mean this is just an incredible scene. There's oil covering the top of the lake, oil on the outside of the boat, there's oil on his clothes, oil on his hands. We're just surrounded by oil. Estamos rodeados de petróleo.

  • Luis:

    By oil. All the time.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Once home, Luis uses gasoline, which he also waited in line for hours to get, to remove the oil from his hands and clothes. The entire neighborhood lives this cruel irony. And there's another problem and one that's even more dangerous: pure crude leaks from hoses meant to serve the community with cooking gas.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Ok. So he's saying that he's not worried about the danger factor of this because this is pure oil; they know it's oil. But what he worries about is when the gas line comes and they think it's gas and actually it's a mix of gas and pure oil. That he said could be very dangerous.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Luis' neighbor Romelia De Silva says her gas lines have been leaking pure crude for the last year and a half. And last year she says, she was trying to cook when the gas line exploded. No one was seriously injured, and they have since disconnected the hose from the stove. But they can't keep the oil from flowing, so they simply fill up these buckets to try to prevent its spread. We should all be millionaires sitting on this oil she told us, and yet we don't have anything to eat.

  • Larry:

    It's not normal. It's not normal. This is crazy!

  • Marcia Biggs:

    We sat down with four workers from the state oil company, Petróleos De Venezuela, or PDVSA. Maintenance worker Jairo Sibada and boat drivers Carlos Vera, Jack Sanchez, and Larry Salazar. Collectively they represent 50 years of service to Venezuela's oil industry.

  • Larry:

    Five people died when a house exploded. You can imagine the situation because PDVSA doesn't take responsibility for any of it. It doesn't take responsibility neither for the dead people, nor for improvements, nor anything; anything. They didn't answer for anything. It's run for your lives here.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Jairo has worked for PDVSA the longest, 33 years. He says production facilities on the lake have deteriorated by ninety percent due to lack of maintenance.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    How does it feel now to see the ruins of the industry that you dedicated your life to?

  • Jairo:

    Actually, I feel quite sad because PDVSA doesn't belong to a party or to a government. PDVSA belongs to the nation, for production, for the benefit and the progress of a country.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    The fate of Venezuela and its economy has historically been tied to the oil industry. It was oil that made it the fourth richest country in the world back in 1950. And in 1998, when Hugo Chavez was elected president, the country was producing 3.5 million barrels of oil a day, near the peak. Chavez began using profits from the state-run company to fund his socialist revolution, building housing projects for the poor and sending them free boxes of food. In late 2002 PDSVA workers opposed with Chavez went on strike for new elections, so Chavez fired 19-thousand PDSVA employees, almost half the total workforce, and replaced them with loyalists. But over the years his loyalists failed to make much needed investments and since 2007 production has steadily fallen, last year reaching the lowest level since the strike.

  • Larry:

    The situation is that these guys have stolen all the money. They stole everything! I mean when they wanted to invest, they couldn't do it because they had taken it all. They destroyed everything.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    These workers, who are not Chavez loyalists, say they continue to go to work, but simply sign in and leave because there's nothing to do.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Do you worry about the consequences of speaking out?

  • Carlos:

    We want the world to know what's happening in Venezuela.

  • Jack:

    I don't have anything to lose. Let them see the cameras, let them see because I don't care anymore.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Since 2013, when President Nicolas Maduro was elected, Venezuela's been suffering the world's worst economic contraction outside of a warzone, and few cities have suffered more than Maracaibo. Of the roughly five million migrants who have already left the country, many came from here, escaping failing hospitals and schools, rising malnutrition, unemployment and poverty. Then last year, a catastrophic blow: a wave of looting after the country's electric grid failed and the city lost power for an entire week. Over 500 businesses were ransacked, many of which never reopened. None were hit harder than this former destination for vacationers and business travelers. The hotel Brisas Del Norte. Odalis Vergara is the hotel manager. She's worked here since it opened 22 years ago. She says on the morning of March 12, armed men arrived in trucks, prepared for demolition: furniture, carpets, electronics, even the countertops were ripped out. Everything down to the electrical cables in the ceiling.

  • Odalis:

    How did they do that? And how did they do it so fast?

  • Marcia Biggs:

    She says she reported the incident to police, but never received any response. Like so many others, the owners have left the country. And the hotel remains shuttered and in ruins.

  • Odalis Vergara:

    It's hard, the recovery. Because there's no help, there's no support, there's no interest. It's already been a year, and we haven't got anybody from the government to say, "What do you want to do? And let's guarantee this" — without guarantees who would dare to invest in us?

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Have you recovered?

  • Odalis:

    No. I've been working here for twenty-two years. It was my life. I've been here since it was built. So the hurt is immense.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Even at night you can see, or at least hear, that most of the city hasn't recovered. Generators hum during the many rolling blackouts and people line up for gas in darkness. For his part, President Maduro has blamed the gas crisis and woes of the oil industry on new US sanctions imposed last year by president Donald Trump. which have further damaged an already crippled economy. Under mounting pressure, and like Hugo Chavez before him, Maduro's leaned increasingly on his backers in Russia and China. Recently inviting foreign companies from those two countries to take over large parts of the state-run oil industry. They've been investing for years, but not managing production.

  • Jack:

    Neither the Chinese nor the Russians are going to do it because we've been waiting for 20 years for those people.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    And these PDVSA workers say that move won't fix the problem anyway and they look to the past, to the days when american companies like Standard Oil worked in Venezuela. Jack: With the Americans the industry worked before.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    So you want the Americans to come back?

  • Jack:

    Of course! They have to come here so that they can change PDVSA.

  • Larry:

    Oh, my God! I want them to enter with planes and with all their equipment with F16s, with drones, with everything. I want them to come in force so that they clean everything up, and PDVSA can be reborn.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    You're saying you wouldn't mind that they start a war here.

  • Larry:

    I don't care because we are already at war, what do we have to lose? We've already lost everything here. We at least want an intervention to see what can be accomplished. Because we're starving, we don't have clothes, we don't have anything.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest