Smoke began to enter the air-conditioned carriage, packed as usual by mid-afternoon. The train was almost reaching the station, screeching against the rails and sparking. It sounded like an explosion and it painted like a tragedy. The alarm buttons to request the opening of doors were pressed desperately by the drowned passengers. Some cried in panic, while others banged on the train’s windows and doors to get out. Between broken glass a new stampede began in the Caracas Metro. This is the account collected by social networks of one of the recurring breakdowns in the transportation system that occurred at the Los Dos Caminos station on October 14, similar to 14 others that have been registered this year; the last one, a week ago.
The Caracas subway works like a pileup. A decade ago the Venezuelan Government contracted an expensive rehabilitation with a consortium of Spanish companies, which this year has appealed to the Spanish Export Credit Insurance Company (CESCE) to claim compensation for the breach of a contract for the modernization of Line 1 of the Caracas Metro, the longest in the city. Now Spain will claim a debt of 138 million euros from Venezuela, as the Secretary of State for the Economy and Business Support, Gonzalo García Andrés, pointed out this week before Congress.
“This is the result of an old coverage underwriting operation by the CESCE. The accident had already occurred in 2009, but did not request compensation pending if the work could finally be carried out. Now the situation has changed because the compensation claim has already been made, ”the official explained. The CESCE is an instrument to provide protection and coverage to Spanish companies in contracts with third countries.
In 2008, the government of Hugo Chávez – with Diosdado Cabello as Minister of Infrastructure – signed a contract for 1,500 million euros with the Unión Temporal de Empresas (UTE) Consorcio Sistemas para Metro, made up of CAF, Dimetronic, Cobra and Constructora Hispánica. The complex work was awarded without a tender, based on an emergency decree issued by the Government, with an opacity that years later revealed traces of corruption as part of the scandal of the Banca Privada d’Andorra. Former Venezuelan official Carlos Luis Aguilera is being investigated for the alleged crime of money laundering by allegedly charging commissions of 4.8% on this contract deposited in accounts in that country, EL PAÍS revealed in 2018.
The rehabilitation included the change of the electrical substations and the rehabilitation of 22 kilometers of railroad for the operation of 48 new trains that were acquired. This modernization implied migrating from the French analog technology of the Alstom trains that the Caracas Metro had for 30 years – of which a large part was a model for the region – to Spanish digital technology.
But soon the disagreements began over that contract that opened a hole in the public patrimony and today makes Caracas people go through episodes of despair under the ground and adds a new debt to the Venezuelan State. The year after the signing, Chávez asked that the contract be reviewed and the technology transfer that was never planned be included, as well as the provision of the first spare parts for maintenance. Arrears in payments also began. The rehabilitation should have been completed in 2012, but according to official documents by then only 43% of the money had been executed and 49% of the works had been completed. Almost 10 years later, the opacity still covers this contract, so it is not known how much of the agreed upon was paid, what works were paid for and remained pending, and how much the debts with Spanish suppliers are, which are not the only ones that the Metro has. from Caracas.
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“From the beginning, there was no good management of the project and the change in technology, because political and non-technical decisions were made,” says Ricardo Sansone, responsible for operations between 1991 and 2003 —assigned to line 1 rehabilitated by the Spanish— and co-founder of the Metro Family Association, which brings together active and retired workers who control the management of this service. “Night work schedules, for example, were not met and thus the duration of the works was lengthened for months. That also strained the relationship with the Spanish ”.
The explosions that generate alarm among the passengers are, for Sansone, an issue that would have an easy solution and that are attributable to the lack of maintenance of the system. The specialist explains that the train’s brake shoes have worn out and spare parts were not foreseen in the billion-dollar hiring. “The shoes have a compound of graphite and metal fibers that improves the electrical conductivity between the train and the rail, this compound will wear out, like a heel cap. Now it brushes metal against metal, which produces overheating that generates the explosions that people describe.
In addition to the spare parts, the communication system between the trains and the railroad was also left half, although it is a key aspect. Modern wagons are driven manually rather than being piloted automatically, limiting driving speed to avoid collisions, at the cost of the enormous delays experienced by users on the platforms.
The subway is now experiencing one of its worst moments with constant breakdowns, derailments, deterioration of wagons that have not yet been in use for ten years, dirt in stations, platforms and trains, and insecurity. The rehabilitated line is the one with the highest demand that, until before the pandemic, could handle more than a million passengers a day. With a subsidized fare —almost free— it is the option of the poorest of Caracas who cannot afford the approximately 25 cents on the dollar that a trip on the now scarce buses in Caracas can cost.
The Caracas Metro has been losing qualified personnel as part of the migration that has left the prolonged humanitarian crisis in the oil country. In these emergency situations, the driver may find himself alone with the crowd when managing the evacuation of the train, as there are not enough personnel, which has also forced the closure of sectors of the stations. Today Familia Metro counts former Metro workers as employees in the transport systems of Medellín, Santo Domingo, Lima, Quebec and Chile, where they have hired more than 50 Venezuelans in recent years, according to Sansone.
The Venezuelan Government has not yet responded to the Spanish claim about the failed modernization of the Metro that more than improvements has brought constant breakdowns, infinite delays and more debts to a country that is almost bankrupt. The issue will surely be a matter that will enter the diplomatic field, which has again caught fire after Madrid said that the recent regional elections were not “sufficiently democratic” and, in response, Caracas accused it of being “folded to the interests of Washington”.
This year Nicolás Maduro offered 15 million euros to reactivate the works fronts for the subway extensions to peripheral cities, paralyzed for years after the corruption scandal of the Brazilian Odebrecht. And at the beginning of December, the Chavista leader who, in his youth was a trade unionist in the Caracas Metro, ordered the recovery of the entire underground transportation system of the capital. “We are going to make a plan: Metro in and Metro out,” he said on television, trying to make a two-way joke.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.