On the banks of Lake Maracaibo, which descends south like a teardrop from the Caribbean coast in western Venezuela, sits a city of the same name. Once a sleepy fishing village, Maracaibo struck it lucky in the early 20th century when crude oil was discovered beneath the lake. Today it’s a bustling port town.
For Erwin Lingg, oil is the lifeblood of the city. “It runs in my veins,” says the president of the local branch of the Venezuelan Oil Chamber. Lingg’s father arrived from Europe with Shell Oil when the industry was in its infancy.
Lake Maracaibo itself is vast. The pumpjacks and platforms are out of sight of the city but the oily patina of the water and the tankers passing to and fro hint at the industry that built this place. The importance of the sector reaches far beyond the city limits, too. Oil is the backbone of the Venezuelan economy. Maracuchos, as locals are known, like to point out that they pay more tax on average per capita than anywhere else in the country.
But they’re not too happy with how that money is being spent. Venezuela’s oil has essentially been funding President Hugo Chávez’s “Bolivarian revolution” for the past 13 years. While other areas of the country have embraced the president’s brand of populist socialism – with the price freezes, expropriations and nationalisations – Maracaibo has remained resolutely opposition territory.
Change could be around the corner. Presidential elections are due to take place in October and for the first time since Chávez came to power in 1999, the opposition feels like it has a good chance of winning. The president is a hugely charismatic figure who dominates both his government and his socialist party. But while Chávez is ill (he was first diagnosed with cancer in June 2011), the opposition has been strengthened by unity. The many competing opposition parties have finally come together to form a coalition and, earlier this year, they held a primary election to select a single candidate to oppose the president in the polls.
His name is Henrique Capriles, a young, handsome lawyer whose own political rise has been meteoric. Describing himself as a “centrist”, Capriles says he wants to encourage investment while also funding social programmes.
In Maracaibo, President Chávez’s rhetoric doesn’t really work. People from all walks of life are making money from the oil industry and are less susceptible to promises of free housing, healthcare and education. Some inhabitants joke that they would like to break away and form a separate nation. After all, they have oil, cattle ranches, coffee and cocoa plantations. And a lot of bananas.
But for now Maracaibo can’t escape Chávez’s political plans entirely. In the city centre the renovation of the Paseo de las Ciencias is half finished; a town hall project thwarted by central government.
Current mayor Eveling Trejo de Rosales was elected in 2010 to serve out the rest of her husband’s term of office. Manuel Rosales had fled Venezuela after Chávez suggested he would be arrested on corruption charges. Rosales is a long-time Chávez foe, having run against him as the opposition candidate in 2006.
Trejo insists she has big plans for the city. “I’m going to make this city into a true metropolis,” she says. “We’ll have new, improved transport routes, bus terminals to ease city centre congestion and a public-private partnership to achieve this.”
Should the opposition prevail in the presidential elections in October, Maracaibo is perfectly placed to take advantage of the changes that would probably bring. Despite playing second string to the capital Caracas, Maracaibo has long been ahead of the curve in Venezuela. It was the first city to have a bank and the first to get electric lighting.
There’s a freshness, too, in much of the new architecture of the city. Still a young tradition, it’s finding its own identity. “Continuing demand and a more discerning clientele is helping us to rise to a new challenge,” says Ernesto Nones, who worked on the Zulia State Library and the sleek wood-and-glass interior of Italian restaurant Ciao where he’s sitting.
Some investors are taking their chances before the elections. The Intercontinental Hotel Group has recently opened a new 252-bed hotel on the lake shore. “We see Maracaibo as a major energy centre in the future,” says the company’s area manager Jorge Landa. “In 10 to 20 years this place could be a new Dubai, it has so many resources.”
In the lobby, monocle meets Maracaibo native and software tycoon Ramón Vera. “I could see Maracaibo overtaking Panama as the gateway to Central and South America,” he says. “Here we already have a port and an airport, and there’s capacity for a deep-water port on the peninsula.” There are plenty of investors in Venezuela who are hoping Maracaibo is ahead of the curve once again and that Chávez’s brand of socialism – which has been so toxic towards businesses large and small – is finally on its way out.
Maracaibo is the only city in Venezuela with any significant indigenous population. The Wayúu live on the peninsula, which straddles Venezuela and Colombia, and make up almost two thirds of Venezuela’s indigenous population.
Unconquered by the Spanish, the Wayúu have been able to resist European acculturation more effectively than many other Amerindian groups. But living in such close proximity to a major city means that preserving aspects of their culture such as language, dress and music is a constant struggle.
A decade ago, Venezuelan actress Patricia Velásquez, who was born in the region, created the Wayúu Taya Foundation, which runs programmes to improve access to healthcare and education for the group. The foundation funds some of its activities by selling hand-woven bags incorporating traditional designs through outlets such as Saks.
It also helped a committee of elders spend three years coming up with 2,000 new words in the Wayúu language for a new technological dictionary that covers everything from “cyber café” (siiwetkepein) to “wireless” (makacheraayesalü). wayuutaya.net