Another day inspires another adventurous chapter in our very own Odyssey.
Daily life here in Acarigua has become one of navigating multiple crises. We search for bottled gas, struggle to buy truckloads of water and regularly spend hours or even days in lines to fill our cars with gasoline. When we get home, we can expect to confront electricity rationing. My family is fortunate to be on the same electric lines that feed the local hospital so our cuts are minimal. But others face as many as 4 hours a day or more of power rationing. All of this is happening as Venezuelans weather the Coronavirus pandemic that demands individuals and families stay confined.
Acarigua was the most vibrant city of Portuguesa state a few decades ago. Located in the central western countryside of Venezuela, about 4 hours overland from Caracas, it has long been known for its agriculture and livestock.
These days, I stroll the sidewalk along Avenida Libertador and see the change in my city of more than 200,000 people. It is hot and humid in the summer months, but we are used to that. Everywhere I turn I can see how things have been altered by our politics, economics and, of course, the pandemic.
Shops are shuttered on alternating weeks as part of the government’s scheme for dealing with COVID-19. Even then, the stores are entitled to open only between 8:30 in the morning and 1:30 in the afternoon. The never-ending inflationary economy (and the scarcity of Bolivars) moved transactions into U.S. dollars, whether for retail necessities or larger transactions. It is the same today all over Venezuela.
Many of Acarigua’s established stores have closed recently while others shifted their inventory to foodstuffs. Those that want to remain viable must compete with an increasing number of new outlets offering imported products from the United States and elsewhere. Those businesses are owned by people with well-oiled connections to the government.
We struggle to survive whether at the household level or in the commercial sector. Some traditional traders have taken at least part of their business online. Others are pursuing entrepreneurial efforts to expand or enhance their position in the marketplace. Some individuals have taken to the cryptocurrency trade that depends dangerously on sound access to electricity and the internet.
Every passerby, every storefront reflects those who are struggling to survive here or make the difficult decision to leave the country. Our economic landscape of miserable salaries and the $3 monthly “bonus” from the government somehow keeps us moving along. But the shops themselves seemed drained of the vibrant colors in our memories. Many are shuttered because of COVID-19 restrictions. Others have been closed for good.
By midday along Avenida Libertador, when the temperature climbs toward 32C, the number of people in Acarigua’s commercial center dwindles. Women carry umbrellas to fend off the midday sun. For ordinary people, there is no need to line for hours given their shrinking family resources. There’s apprehension and fear, too, of the virus. Nearly everyone is wearing a mask, though strict social distancing sometimes gives way to a more casual interpretation. No one takes government statistics about the number of coronavirus infections (around 200) at face value. Everyone is fully aware of the scant resources of our own health system. We know if we do get sick, we are in trouble.
The topics of conversation are dominated by COVID-19 and the economy. We talked politics in the past but today, no one believes in the government or even the opposition. We are exhausted by politics. The politicians themselves have not solved our problems. There is a sense the current crop is “contaminated,” and a real investigation of corruption would send 70 percent of them off to jail.
Everywhere you look in Acarigua, you see more people using bicycles, motorcycles, and diesel-powered trucks because of the dire gasoline crisis. In the short term, there is no end in sight for that shortage. Some people have adopted electric bikes. The simple truth is that more of us are walking longer distances to either save what little gasoline is still in our tanks or cope with the impossibility of refueling our vehicles. All of this impacts our daily lives in the city. Obviously, it also affects the economy in general, the commercial and agricultural sectors of Acarigua.
One positive outcome has been a (precipitous) drop in crime. Robbery, hijacking and other crimes have been choked off not so much by better policing and security but by the same economic realities and everyday hardships that are dragging down the rest of society. No one can be immune.
We benefit from our region’s agricultural prowess. We are still a major source for Venezuela’s wheat, corn, meat and pork. The government is trying to keep our state churning out these commodities and we enjoy lower prices than others.
Acarigua, once a thriving and vibrant city and an agro-industrial hub in this region has lost traction. We look around today and see that only an elite group of people with political connections or ranking members of the police and military seem to be enjoying a better life with access to basic products and services.
The common people of Acarigua, like their counterparts elsewhere across Venezuela, are struggling to get by, working overtime to fill the voids in healthcare, employment, income, and those basic public services we used to take for granted.
Ours is a struggle worthy of an epic poem. But who has time to write that down? We are too busy just trying to get by.