Venezuela’s Public Transportation Crisis

This week Venezuela’s opposition dominated National Assembly held a session to discuss the country’s transportation crisis and ask the government to declare a national emergency. Economic crisis and hyperinflation mean that many Venezuelans living in cities are finding it hard to even get to their workplaces using public transportation.

Private owners of the buses that operate most of the public system cannot afford to keep their buses running and the government-run system is also in bad shape due to lack of maintenance. There have been frequent complaints at least since 2012, but this year, public transportation has basically collapsed, with reports of over 90% of buses not operating in some regions of the country. What is more, even when there are buses available, riders have a hard time cobbling together enough cash to pay for them and find themselves walking or staying home.

Venezuela’s public transportation is a complex mix of private and public, often overlapping, ventures that move an estimated twelve million commuters daily. The best example of this mixed system is Caracas. The subway Metro system is a public enterprise and covers most of the city, but it is understaffed and overused. The Metro is now free as its nominal fee for tickets is so irrelevant it is no longer collected. But street-level public transportation, and service to the difficult-to-access hillside barrios are mostly covered by fleets of privately own buses and all-terrain vehicles. For the most part drivers, or cooperatives of drivers, own their own buses and operate within unions that cover specific routes.

The Metro system also runs several limited bus lines and there have been local government efforts to implement public bus systems that go beyond the privately run líneas. All these different public/private lines add up to a sometimes chaotic public transportation system that has, until recently kept Venezuela’s cities moving.

Because any increase in bus fares has to be approved by the government, fares have failed to keep up in a hyperinflationary context. Bus owners and drivers are not able to obtain replacement parts to keep their buses running. Added to this is the problem of cash scarcity, which makes the payment of things such as a bus fare extremely difficult in an economy which is now operating virtually on plastic and on electronic bank transfers. Bus lines have simply stopped working and the government run parts of the system, such as the Metro, are overwhelmed and also face severe maintenance problems.

As the crisis set at the beginning of this year, alternative forms of transportation started to take over. It has long been common in the Venezuelan interior, for truck owners to simply load people up and cover a route left vacant by the bus lines. Some local government also started to use pickup trucks and army and police trucks for public transportation. In Venezuelan slang, trucks filled with passengers are called perreras (dog cages). Perreras have now become common in major cities such as Caracas, taking over abandoned bus lines.

The perreras are not only insufficient, they also fail to comply with basic public transportation safety standards, and passengers frequently fall off. A report heard by the National Assembly claims that the perreras are to blame for at least 55 deaths and 275 injured passengers in almost daily accidents.

For this crisis the government blames the usual suspects: the anarchy of market economics, the difficulty of importing spare parts because of the “economic blockade” imposed on the country by the US, and the “criminal sabotage” of public transportation by enemies of the revolution.

President Maduro suggested recently that the government lacked a “governing plan” for the country’s public transportation system and that municipalities needed to inform the government of “where one bus line or the other goes, and how many bus lines are there.”

In June, a new minister of transportation quickly announced a “high impact plan” to solve the transportation crisis. He said he was aware that public transportation was suffering from a lack of spare parts, but claimed the bus associations needed to be controlled more closely. He said the main point of his plan would be to fight corruption in the sector in order to “set a moralizing example to our people so they see that we are putting up a fight.” However, no further measures have been announced.

But even as Maduro admits to the severity of the crisis, he claims it is mainly due to acts of “sabotage” against the transportation system, part of the wider “war” waged by the enemies of the revolution. Venezuela, according to the president, “has been affected in the last six to eight months by the war and by attacks against the public transportation system.”

Government efforts to supply more buses in recent years, have also fallen short. In December 2015, president Maduro announced he had made a deal with the Chinese company Yutong to build the biggest bus assembly plant in Latin America which would assemble 3,600 buses per year. The deal was announced as an attempt to homogenize Venezuela’s bus fleets and thus solve the spare parts scarcity and cost problems which were already acute. The government had been importing Yutong buses and spare parts from China since at least 2012. By December 2016, the government claimed the Yutong Venezuelan plant had assembled 700 buses, but that it was ready to increase production to 1,200 vehicles per year.

In June 2017, the opposition controlled National Assembly reported the results of an inquiry into the Yutong deal. The buses imported by the government from China were grossly overpriced and the Venezuelan Yutong plant was largely inoperative, they claimed. Even government officials now recognize the Yutong bus deal did not contribute significantly to addressing the crisis. On June 8, opposition activist took to Twitter to publish aerial images of what they claim are “Yutong bus cemeteries,” parking lots full of abandoned buses, across the country.

Regional and local governments are also taking what seem like piecemeal and insufficient emergency measures to try to manage the crisis. The mayor of Vargas municipality, near Caracas, said he will grant private vehicles a “special license” to work as public transportation. The mayor of Miranda, Héctor Rodriguez, has established a new bus line with 105 buses and announced that the government would be channeling resources for spare parts, mainly tires and bus batteries. Governor of Miranda, Rafael Lacava, nicknamed “Dracula,” tweeted a picture of himself on top of an old yellow school bus, with many more aligned behind it. “This is the first group of Transdracula buses,” Lacava wrote, “to fight the war that’s being waged against us, the sabotage, the criminal blockade they have against us…”