CARACAS (AFP) – Packed inside a barred pick-up truck that looks like a mobile cage, passengers are risking their lives in Venezuela’s perilous solution to a public transport crisis.
Far from banning the ‘kennels’, as they are known, due to a spate of fatal accidents, governors and mayors are even launching their own fleets, free of charge.
In the Libertador municipality hometown of President Nicolas Maduro, himself a former bus driver, the words ‘Loving Caracas’ can be read on the transport trucks.
But that belies the reality of a situation in which 55 people have died since April using improvised transport methods such as the ‘kennels’.
In May, 16 people died in Merida in one accident.
Danger aside, the trucks are uncomfortable to ride in.
“They’re as ugly as can be. It’s like riding in a livestock cage, you get bumped here, bumped there,” Jose Miguel, a 20-year-old bricklayer from the Caracas suburb of Los Valles del Tuy, told AFP.
“It’s a joke!” he added. “If you’re going to provide a bus service, how can you use a kennel!”
The government, though, blames the crisis on labour unions and has accused them of sabotage.
Public transport in Venezuela is provided by private companies that have a permit to carry passengers.
But 90 per cent of the public transport fleet has been paralysed by hyperinflation.
Providers simply cannot earn enough to pay for spare parts, so they cease to run their buses.
A bus with a capacity of 30 people can generate only five million bolivars (USD1.5) a day but, for example, a spare tyre on the black market costs a billion bolivars (USD300).
“Hyperinflation has scourged us all. Of 12,000 buses, only 10 per cent remain,” Oscar Gutierrez, a bus driver and union leader in Miranda state told AFP.
The same problem triggered the collapse of the Caracas metro system which had become effectively free as the absurd price of tickets couldn’t cover operational costs.
According to Gutierrez, bus drivers have resorted to remarkable measures to try to eke out a living, avoiding work during the hottest hours in order to extend the life of their tires.
Venezuela’s buses are the oldest in the region, but not because they don’t have newer ones.
“The government imported newer ones in 2015 but already there’s a cemetery for those buses. That same government couldn’t maintain them,” said Gutierrez.
The outlook is bleak.
The International Monetary Fund has projected inflation in Venezuela will reach 13,800 per cent this year, with the country already feeling the backlash through food and medicine shortages.
The lack of buses in operation meant private truck owners started carting around passengers before Maduro’s government decided to roll out their own fleet free of charge.
The crisis has spread all over the country.
In the oil-rich state of Zulia, the most populated, Henry Morales has to wait hours to go anywhere, however he can.
“I’ve ridden on garbage trucks, dump trucks and trucks without roofs,” said the 51-year-old hospital worker.
Added to the lack of buses is the lack of bank notes.
A single journey can cost 30,000 bolivars but banks only distribute 100,000 bolivars a day, leaving people with a delicate and daily balancing act over how to spend their meager resources.
Given the lack of buses and bank notes, many passengers opt for the free kennels.
“I prefer getting in a truck than walking for hours,” said Ruth Mata, a 52-year-old shopkeeper with a spinal problem.
It’s not just the kennels that have started transporting people, but other vehicles too, such as refrigerated lorries that carry food during the day and a very different cargo in the evening.
“We live in agony,” said Humberto Navarro as he paid for his passage on one such vehicle.
After 35 years working as a bus driver, Gutierrez has had to throw in the towel: he can no longer afford to keep his vehicle on the road.
And he’s not expecting things to improve.
“We’re like a terminally ill patient,” he said.