My first stay in Caracas was in 1984, a year after the first Metro line opened. It ran underground, the length of the narrow, densely packed valley and worked like a dream. Suddenly it was possible to get across the city at any hour. Now, 26 years later, things are bigger, but different. There are four lines, and two new trunk lines under construction. Two cable car lines will soon connect steep hillside squatter settlements (ranchos) to Metro lines.
Yet the Metro, designed for 1 million passengers a day, is now carrying 2 million. Things are not working so well. At rush hour, people might have to wait in long lines before they can board a train. Worse still, the electricity shortages which have plagued Venezuela lately have begun to affect service regularly. On Monday, July 12, my wife and I were riding the Metro. We heard riders talking about being delayed for hours earlier in the day as electrical problems caused trains to become stranded. On our train the air conditioning was off and the heat was close to intolerable.
The next day, the papers carried the story; at 8:30 AM, commuters were packed on trains when everything ground to a halt. The lights went off, air conditioning shut down, and alarms went off. People waited and no one came to their rescue. On one train, someone finally broke the glass so people could breathe. In the news, accusations were flying all over the place. The government spokesman called this an act of vandalism. The Metro union held a press conference and denied being sabateurs. They blamed management for not investing in infrastructure upgrades. Management later acknowledged they needed to replace older train cars and they expected a shipment from Spain soon.
As to the charge of vandalism, a reporter put it this way; he was there, and he invited the government spokrsman to join him on a train packed with more than twice as many people as they are designed for, and to experience 45 minutes of insufferable heat, complete darkness, people fainting, and a 120 decibel alarm that cannot be shut off. “Then”, he wrote, “we can talk.” The next day, Vice-President Elias Jaua apologized for the inconvenience to the citizens of Caracas, but still appeared to put part of the blame on users for breaking the window and causing a longer system delay. It seemed like a very clumsy government response to a very serious incident.
An interesting practice I have noticed lately is people now loudly ask for money and proselytize on the Metro. Seventh day Adventists preach la palabra de Christo for several minutes, narrate sad stories about a sick mother or child in the hospital to the entire train car, and then try to collect what change people give. Most passengers barely seem to notice.