Today the stunning news is that the Venezuelan government has taken over, forcibly, the cable car system of Caracas. It is stunning in two aspects, the mere fact on how the take over has been performed, in all contempt for private property and investment, and it is perhaps even more stunning in the governmental spin put on that more than sordid affair.
The cable car issue
Our one before last dictator, Perez Jimenez, had a moment of folie des grandeurs and decided that he wanted to put two gigantic systems of cable car. Gigantic at least for the time. The one in Merida for many years was (and might still be for all that I know) the cable car system that reached the highest in the world, a few hundred feet away from the 15000 feet Bolivar peak above Merida. The other one was the Caracas system which not going as high was equally as ambitious and ostentatious.
The Caracas "teleferico" rose from 2700 feet to almost 6000 to go down all the way to the Caribbean sea. To add agreement and economical viability to the project, Perez Jimenez had a hotel built on top of the Avila mountain, with heated pool, luxurious spaces, and its own small cable car system to link it to the main station a little bit lower on the mountain ridge.
Very quickly the system showed its vulnerability: cost of upkeep. Indeed, all food, services, supplies, water, electricity, etc... had to be lifted all the way to the top. And thus only a high added value could sustain the system. One of the reasons for example why even a skating ring was added at the top station in addition of fancy restaurants and soda fountain (it was the early 60ies, you know). Thus it is not a surprise that when the left-populist AD that succeeded Perez Jimenez decided to forbid a casino and other "elite" activities on top of the mountain, quickly the "teleferico" lost its shine and started its long decline which lead to its ultimate closing in the early 80ies. Simply put, no government had the stomach to invest what was needed to keep up such an expensive system, nor had the stomach to restrain access of part of it to the very rich to help subsidize the rest at more accessible prices.
The first item to go was the cable car to the Caribbean. This was conceived as a way to go to the beach in a fell swoop across the mountain. But when people got sick for the sudden changes in altitude just to reach a now dirty sea shore invaded by shacks and cheap fried fish joints, nobody was interested anymore. In fact the Caribbean connection was designed to link to La Guaira harbor where cruise ships would dock and unload their tourists, enough of them willing to take the cable car to the top of a 6000 feet mountain straight above the sea. This never happened and already in the mid 60ies the sea side was closed for good.
The Caracas side kept going on and off, but on enough to give me some of my most wonderful childhood memories even if when young I was very sensitive to sudden height changes. In the 60ies and 70ies Caracas was still an amiable city and I remember when my parents and their friends had no problem going occasionally to skate until midnight, when the teleferico had its last cars down.
I never saw the Humboldt hotel open. As a young kid I still remember when we tried to peep inside the hotel and could see still the original art deco furniture displayed, the empty pool with all of its chaises displayed around, still waiting for bathers that would never return. It was a totally magical place for a kid, some mysterious sleeping beauty palace so suddenly abandoned. But perhaps the most impacting memory, for the scientist that I was going to become, was the cable car to the Humboldt hotel. It followed the ridge of the mountain for about a mile, and it was composed by cute cylindrical vans that could seat 4 people. And it ended against a big wall. That is, the cables went through a small hole and the little cabins just hung there, in the air, nowhere to go and shield themselves from the cold and the mist. The decision to close that small cable car system might have been the first one to be taken when you consider the wall built but it took decades to the government to finally have the courage to dismantle these cabins that might have served no more than a year or two. To this day that short ride is the ride that I will always miss not to have had a chance to take it. With the ocean on one side and Caracas on the other it must have been one of the most exciting rides ever designed.
At some point the Venezuelan government decided that something should be done about the deteriorating hotel and the cable car system. Caracas was getting crowed, needed green spaces, and the eyesore that the teleferico had become was constant reminder of how incompetent the successive administration had been. So the second Caldera administration decided to try finally the private enterprise card. A public auction was held and a financial group won and created Avila Magica. This was 1998.
When Chavez came to office in 1999 the contract were respected and until this year there were no complaints. But suddenly things changed. In some speech Chavez said that it was scandalous that the cable cars of Venezuela were in private hands (1). And just as it happened for CANTV or EDC the government started the take over. With a difference: in CANTV and EDC we had foreign investors and they were at least reasonably compensated. But in the case of Avila Magica, as was the case of the transmitting system of RCTV, we had Venezuelan investors only and they were just robbed of their property. Chavez can say today again that private property will be respected, after what happened in May and today, I wonder who in Venezuela will invest his or her own money anymore in any business....
What are the government charges? Well, they are ludicrous and they are uttered with utmost seriousness. Apparently the Avila Magica folks "destroyed" a Venezuelan heritage. That is the teleferico was a national monument of sorts and could not be altered in any way but was. Avila Magica replies that they never got guidance or help in deciding on any thing, and beside when they got the old system it was crumbling, in ruins, nothing working. Other charges include for example that the Caribbean side was not restored yet. Well, the Caracas side was barely profitable and far from having its investment recovered the comapny simply did not have yet the cash to reopen the Caribbean cable, a much more expensive, and much less profitable endeavor than the Caracas side. And more that I will spare the reader from.
What is worse: the government is announcing exorbitant fines against Avila Magica, fines whose sole objective is to justify the take over of the system without having to fork over at least part of the investment of the private associates. It is simply a rip off. And the destiny of Avila Magica will be simply to fall into the hands of chavista interests, at low price. This will allow for many corruption dividends through the contracts that will suddenly appear to restore the Caribbean side or to create a "popular" hotel on top that will survive only with heavy subsidies, subsidies that previous administration never had the nerve to carry through but that the chavismo administration, already the more corrupt in our history, will have absolutely no problem generating.
Chavismo justification and propaganda
Well, today, just as chavismo took over management not even allowing the past administration time to clear up their desks, chavismo passed already a video of the new cable car system, that now "belongs to all Venezuelans". One would believe that any visitor with a red shirt was forbidden to pay the entrance fee and enter... But the video reaches new heights of propaganda sleaze, impressive heights even by the standards of chavista propaganda. In that video out today you can see contented kids at the teleferico being entertained by clowns and other such stuff. You see pictures of the alleged damage done to the national treasure by Avila Magica consortium and you already see nice and clean alleys, restored stuff where grateful Venezuelans can now enjoy the teleferico.
Unfortunately all these true images were taken DURING THE TENURE OF AVILA MAGICA. It is mind boggling that chavismo thinks at this point of the game that they will fool people with such blatant lies and manipulations, as if a miraculous team had rebuilt everything in a very few hours. The chutzpah truly worries because it might mean that actually the hard core chavismo has lost any critical ability and is now swallowing such garbage.
Youtube carries plenty of amateur videos at Avila Magica. You can get the feel of the area. True, Avila Magica was a tad cheesy, a tad Disneyworld like, but then again this is what you find everywhere in the world now, from Shanghai to Orlando. True, it was a little bit expensive for a Venezuelan budget. But Avila Magica could not but be expensive. After all you must pay the half an hour ride to the top, of a a cable car that must be maintained above a jungle canopy and over large precipices. And Avila Magica must carry everything up, someone has to pay for it if the government does not want to pay for it. Thus it is even more infamous when the propaganda video going out today shows some bolivarian bimbo (brunette, obviously) saying that you had to be very rich to be able to go up with the cable car. Her words had of course the right resentful tone. Monday's were specially priced at less than 10 USD for the ride. Any worker in Venezuela has at lest two weeks vacation a year and can go at least one Monday a year. after all, are we not told endlessly that Venezuela has the highest minimum wage in LatAm? Are we not told that poverty has all but been erased?
My own experience was probably tainted from my childhood glorious memory. I found it stale, commercial, limiting (after all you are not allowed to wade through the mountain as most access are sort of closed since there is no rescue and search for the wayward tourist, a state responsibility and not one for Avila Magica). The new skating ring had none of the charm of the old one. The decor of the new restaurants was anodyne, as well as the food. But it did not really matter anyway because one goes up to watch down (as in my own night picture above).
No matter how commercial Avila Magica might have been it had at least the benefit to take you up the mountain, safely, and allow you to get at least water and chips on top. And fresh air, and glorious vistas. Chavismo will not be able to improve the area. Now we will have red and white uniforms for the personnel, that is right, RED and white uniforms (2). We will have posters of the great leader here and there. Chavismo will take over the hotel to make all of its private functions just as it did with the Teresa Carreño and the Poliedro. Chavez will put a hideous Bolivar monument pointing in challenge towards the US, at a ridiculously high cost, financially and environmentally for the country. And Avila Magica will not be "de todos" but will belong to chavismo only. Until it breaks down as it will inevitably happen in Venezuela.
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1) The cable cars of Merida and Caracas were always in state hands, only a private concession was granted for a determined period, long enough to ensure the return of investment and then the government would recover the full system duly restored. But chavismo of course ignores that.
2) the government felt compelled to announce that the existing staff would not be fired. Which can only mean that the Tascon list will be in full force sooner than later at Avila Magica as chavismo needs to find jobs for all those graduates from inefficient programs of the UBV or Mision Sucre.