All It Takes Is a $100 Bribe to Fill Your Car Up With Gas in Caracas
(Bloomberg) -- Editor’s Note: There are few places as chaotic or dangerous as Venezuela. “Life in Caracas” is a series of short stories that seeks to capture the surreal quality of living in a land in total disarray.
The night began with a fight.
First, a half-dozen or so men got out of their cars and started thumping hoods with the palms of their hands. Then a guy in a camouflage T-shirt emerged from a black sedan with a baseball bat, swinging it as he paced up and down the row, threatening to break windows. Someone else shouted that he had another weapon, a gun, and was willing to use it.
I thought I’d come well prepared for 10 hours in a gasoline queue, stuffing a backpack with four slices of pizza, a chocolate bar, a thermos of black coffee and “Nemesis” by Philip Roth. Setting off in my Chevy Cruze, nervously watching the almost-empty fuel gauge, I reached my destination at 10:40 p.m. It was a dark street under a highway overpass that smelled horribly of urine — scary enough, even before the bat came out.
Tuesday is one of the two days of the week that I’m allowed to try to fill up my tank (the military makes the assignments according to the last number of your license plate) and I knew that for even the slimmest chance of success I’d have to get there on Monday. I was late to the game. There were about 70 vehicles already waiting. Every now and then a Toyota SUV or another fancy model would glide into a spot far ahead. Drivers with greenbacks, my new friends beneath the underpass told me, were bribing the officers patrolling the nightmare. The word was that $100 would get you very close to the front.
And that’s what made the guy pick up his bat. People like him who’d pulled up early were none too pleased when someone cut in. We were all insanely on edge anyway, with the coronavirus pandemic taking its toll (though most face masks I saw that night were dangling around necks.) And we were all probably crazy — we knew there would be only enough gasoline for a handful of us, and here we were nonetheless, hoping against hope.
“This is the fourth night that I’ve come here in two weeks,” said Wilmer Cabrera, a 37-year-old handyman sitting desolately in a Chery Orinoco, one of the popular Chinese imports. He hadn’t scored a gallon yet.
Like everyone else in Caracas, Cabrera is no stranger to lines, for food or municipal services, such as a they are, or the few buses still running or to see a doctor. But gasoline, really, in the country with the most crude oil reserves on the planet?
For generations, gas was considered practically a god-given right, with such hefty government subsidies that it was basically free. It’s still pretty cheap today, even after President Nicolas Maduro raised prices over the weekend. A liter of regular is 5,000 bolivars, or about 2.5 U.S. cents — just shy of 10 cents a gallon. And premium is about $1.89 a gallon.
Price, of course, isn't the issue. It's supply. After years of mismanagement of the production and refining systems, the Maduro regime, battered by U.S. sanctions, can’t deliver anymore.
“How is this possible in an oil country?” said Juan Castro, a 28-year-old physician, as he smoked a cigarette he bought from a street vendor. They were out in force, the vendors, hawking coffee and smokes; 10 cigs for $1. Not bad.
Maduro’s incompetence was one frame of the conversations as the hours racked up. The U.S. and Maduro’s political opponents in Venezuela got harsh treatment too. The man with the baseball bat was just angry with the line-cutters — and I was relieved to see that he didn’t actually hit anybody.
At one point, a little after 1 a.m., a contingent of police officers roared up on motorcycles, having been alerted to unrest in the line. One delivered the message: “If you don't calm down right now, I'm going to haul a bunch of you out of here, and this shit is over, no fuel for anybody.”
A few hours later, an officer, looking with some astonishment at size of the queue, asked, “If you already know that only 20 cars can fill gasoline, why are you still here?” Good question, but nobody left.
Around 5:30 a.m., a couple of soldiers showed up to check license plate numbers. They repeated the only-20-will-succeed message. By now there were over 100 in the line. And still, nobody left.
As the sun rose, Lourdes Pena, a 55-year-old nurse, brushed her teeth in the street and got back into her a 1998 Chevrolet Swift to apply makeup for the day ahead. It was her second night in a row trying to tank up. She was due to go on duty at the ER in a public hospital and had no idea how she would get there. “The soldiers don’t care that I am a nurse,” she said.
She can’t afford to buy gasoline on the black market; a liter there costs $4, which is her monthly wage.
After 9 a.m., everyone around me knew we wouldn’t be lucky. People started to take off, some pushing their vehicles to preserve what was left in their tanks, some hooking theirs up to other cars to be towed away. A young man said he knew a colonel guarding the station and called to find out if he could be bribed at this late hour. The answer didn't matter, because nobody left in the line had $100.
My Cruze was too low on fuel to make it back to my apartment, so I parked it outside my girlfriend’s place nearby and she drove me home in her Toyota Corolla. Her gauge is perilously close to empty. I’m getting ready: I'm shopping for a bike.
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.