Survivor Maracaibo

December 7, 2009

Maracaibo is the second largest city in Venezuela and the source of 78% of its oil reserves. The town sits on Lake Maracaibo, the largest fresh water lake in South America, which acts as the major port for oil exportation. Despite this natural wealth, the cost of living has sky rocketed, while electrical blackouts, water shortages, rampant organized crime, internal bank fraud, and food shortages have become the new normal. Architects Karla Sierralta and Brian Strawn share their experience living in Maracaibo during the last two years, where informal inventions address social and economic conditions.


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Maracaibo. © Karla Sierralta and Brian Strawn.

Venezuela is primarily known for its beaches, beauty queens, biological diversity, and massive oil reserves. Today, it is also home to the highest inflation rate in Latin America; its capital, Caracas, is the new “murder capital of the world,” and the country now has the highest global per capita rate of kidnappings. Since a change in government in 1999, the country has been undergoing a slow transformation from a forty-year-old democracy into a “revolutionary new socialism,” as termed by the current government. This “revolution” has caused life for the average citizen to change dramatically. The cost of living has sky rocketed, while electrical blackouts, water shortages, rampant organized crime, internal bank fraud, and food shortages have become the new normal.

Year-over-year the inflation rate in Venezuela is at 28.9%. By comparison, the inflation rate for Brazil is at 4.2% and in Argentina the inflation rate is at 7.1%. The government has fixed the currency in the country at 2.15 Bolivares Fuertes per US dollar. The actual worth of the money, of course, fluctuates with the global market. A parallel exchange or “black market” rate is common knowledge. As of December 2009, the rate is at 5.95 Bolivares Fuertes per US dollar. An entry-level worker is paid the minimum wage, which is set by the government. Today this is 967 Bs.F, which is subsidized with an additional 639 Bs.F in food stamps. That is $450 in cash and $186 in Food Stamps. Though gasoline is virtually free, around $0.12 a gallon, everything else is very expensive in relationship to the earned income. Most products at the grocery store are imported from Europe, Asia, or the US and are sold according to the cost of the US dollar purchased on the parallel market. The average middle class family in Venezuela spends between $930–$1,395 a month on groceries. The average rent for a 2-bedroom apartment for a middle class family in a moderately safe zone ranges between $1,000–$1,500 a month. To purchase a home or apartment in these areas, with 2 bedrooms and around 900 square feet, costs between $185,000–$375,000. A four-door compact car, the Chevy Optra, costs approximately $70,000. This vehicle, which is marketed in the US as the Suzuki Reno, sells for $16,389.

A very telling guide for judging the strength of a nation’s economy is “The Big Mac Index” published annually by The Economist since 1986. The index is set up with the cost of the Big Mac in the US selling for $3.54. Globally, the average time that would have to be worked to earn a Big Mac was under 40 minutes. In Venezuela, with the cost of a Big Mac currently set at $9.76, the worker earning minimum wage would have to work 3 hours and 21 minutes to cover the cost. By comparison, two arepas with meat and cheese, a Venezuelan alternative to a Big Mac from a national fast food restaurant made with local ingredients, cost $14.88. It would take 5 hours and 7 minutes to earn the arepas! Venezuela’s inflation rates do not allow the minimum Venezuelan salary to cover living expenses. The math just doesn’t add up.

The ever-increasing cost of living is causing crime to rise dramatically. It is no longer safe in most urban areas to walk in the streets if you are in the middle or upper classes. A decade ago, mugging was the major fear; today it is car jacking, armed home invasion, murder, and kidnapping. People are no longer fearful of losing “things,” but rather are concerned for their lives. The following photos were taken while residing in Maracaibo, Venezuela, over the past two years. Maracaibo is the country’s second largest city and the source of 78% of its oil reserves. The city sits on Lake Maracaibo, the largest fresh water lake in South America, which acts as the major port for oil exportation. Maracaibo sits within the 50-mile buffer zone along the Colombian border, which the US Department of State has prohibited all US Embassy employees and family members from entering into. The threat of kidnapping or murder by paramilitary groups has been determined to be too great in this zone.

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Panoramic view of La Lago area in Maracaibo. CC crl_.

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View of residential high-rises along the edge of Lake Maracaibo, covered by duckweed due to contamination. © Karla Sierralta and Brian Strawn.

Fence as façade

Everyday life in Maracaibo is very much about survival. This reality is evident in the way people try to protect their homes. A typical single family home not only has bars on every window, but also tends to sit behind a fortified concrete wall. These fences have become the new façades of the home, obstructing more and more the real façades behind them. As crime has increased, the fences have grown in vertical height, horizontal dimension, and have begun to form occupiable interstitial space between the street and residence.

These cage-like “buffer zones” act as safety checkpoints while driving the car into the carport or entering the home via doorways and gates. They essentially allow you to feel safe from the threat of kidnapping or armed robbery while unloading groceries from your car or greeting guests. These spaces claim uses such as enclosed gardens, protected front porches, or sheltered locations for the now essential water tanks. They allow the opening of doors and windows, reclaiming an indoor outdoor connection.

Some fences are evidence of the progression of this phenomenon through time. Examples show low masonry partitions, sometimes permeable, as the first strata of these fences built in the 1960s and 1970s. Metal bars follow as a second stage during the 1980s and 1990s, raising the height of the fence over 3 meters, and protecting any openings with metal bars. Additions to the top of the fence in the last decade include shattered glass, barbwire, and for the ones that can afford it, electrified fences with sophisticated alarms and motion detectors systems.

While the addition of electrical wire to the tops of these fences may be one of the most visually disturbing parts of the defense system, it is the addition of private armed guards outside the homes that is most troubling. Recently, neighborhood groups have joined together to gate entrances to their streets; essentially creating gated communities at an urban level. 24 hour a day armed security personnel monitor these entrance and exit points, which has allowed self organized neighborhood groups to reclaim their streets.

The openings, height, and construction techniques of the fence as façade are closely tied to the economic means of the owner. Lower income families primarily protect the front door and the area where they park their car, as well as openings for small businesses such as vending of homemade food or phone cards. The fences of the higher income families are typically the tallest and least permeable. They are also characterized by the latest gadgets in alarms, intercoms, buzzers, and remote control security systems. Regardless of a family’s income, attempting to secure the home has become a top priority.

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Fence stages in a residential building. © Karla Sierralta and Brian Strawn.

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Low-income fence, Live + Work. © Karla Sierralta and Brian Strawn.

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Incremental fence in residential building. © Karla Sierralta and Brian Strawn.

Villa effect

The isolated single-family home in an open neighborhood is no longer seen as the ideal scenario for raising a family. The city has become so dangerous that children cannot safely ride their bikes in the streets or hang out with friends in front of their homes. As a consequence, during the past decade, the gated community has been adopted as the new ideal for family living. Housing typologies from detached single-family homes, townhouses, to low-rise apartment blocks now share protected common open space in these planned communities. Continuous concrete fences, up to 20 feet in height and topped with electrical wire, surround the villas, opening at one vehicular and pedestrian access point. An armed guard sits 24 hours a day at the gate to allow people in or out, always checking the identification and destination of the visitor. Newer villas try to soften the effect of the enormous walls by incorporating landscape features and architectural detailing of the particular theme of the development. Once inside the walls of the villa, though bars on windows still remain, other forms of protection disappear. Carports are no longer cages. People are able to keep planters and outdoor furniture on their decks and patios. Visitors and residents can safely park their cars on the street. Many daily activities that were lost reemerge, such as children playing outside, riding bikes, people jogging, or just hanging out watering their front lawns. Now that the villa developers have started to provide facilities for the residents such as swimming pools, tennis courts, and community centers, the artificial feeling of a neighborhood has become more real than it has been for a decade. This lifestyle does come at a cost, not only in the premium charged for the provided facilities and sense of security, but rather in the fact that the enormous complexes act as impassable islands in the city for pedestrians and vehicular traffic. The urban quality of the city is being physical transformed by insecurity.

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Protected common open space in new residential development. © Karla Sierralta and Brian Strawn.

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Interior street of a new residential development. © Karla Sierralta and Brian Strawn.

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Concrete wall with electrical wire protecting the new residential development. © Karla Sierralta and Brian Strawn.

Water by truck

From 1981 to 2009 the population of the city exploded. Data from the National Statistics Institute of Venezuela states the number of inhabitants grew from 890,653 in 1981 to 1,891,800 in 2009. Maracaibo’s metropolitan region and Zulia state hold 3,700,000 inhabitants, which counts as 13.2% of Venezuela’s population. Infrastructure built in the 1960s for a town of around 450,000 has been stretched beyond its carrying capacity. The city has grown piecemeal, sprawling toward the north, south, and west away from the densely populated historic downtown and lakefront. Coincidentally, the city’s water supply originates not from the lake, but from a reservoir about 40 miles northwest of the historic city center. While growth occurred, the new neighborhoods and developments hooked up to the water supply. Sometimes these hookups are done by the city and sometimes they are done privately and without permission. Effectively, the outlying areas of the city are using up all the water supply before it can get to the dense city center and main business districts.

Water shortages have resulted in privately owned, diesel powered, water trucks driving all over town and delivering water door to door. The water is stored in blue plastic tanks that can be seen everywhere, from the poorest neighborhoods to zones inhabited by the middle and upper classes. This improvisational system of storing water is easily expandable and the number of tanks is determined by the amount of water each home expects to use.

Underground water tanks and “gas-tank style” water nozzles are sold as upgrades for new housing. One very quickly gets used to the idea that water is something bought from and a truck and not something that comes from the city through pipes. Water costs about 150 BsF or $69.75 per 2,400 gallons. This usually lasts a family of four about a week if they are extremely careful with water usage. That is 600 BsF on top of the water bill paid to the city, another 80 BsF (680 BsF = $316.28 for water a month).

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Water tank shop. © Karla Sierralta and Brian Strawn.

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Addition of new water tanks. CC Carlos Marval.

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Water truck delivering water to a residential neighborhood. © Karla Sierralta and Brian Strawn.

Re-programmed park

The city of Maracaibo has many paved public plazas, but “green” parks with open grassy fields and trees are very rare. The city’s largest park, Vereda del Lago, covers 168 acres along the lakefront. Created from infill in the 1970s, the park was originally landscaped with endemic vegetation and contained a few playing fields and walkways, including a long promenade along the shoreline. In 2001, the city government decided to re-program the park to deal with increased insecurity. Today, the park is a mixture of private and public, permanent and temporary, open and closed spaces.

Two anchor programs border the park: at the north end, a city police station, and at the south end, a private university campus, both located strategically adjacent to the park’s vehicular and pedestrian access points. Members of the police academy use the park as training grounds, which facilitate monitoring the park’s activity while they exercise. In addition, they regularly patrol the entire zone, guiding traffic and resolving conflicts at peak hours.

The private university’s campus includes four classroom and office buildings and an auditorium. This has brought young life to the south end of the park, not only during the daytime, but also at night, when crowds congregate for concerts, lectures, and other cultural activities open to the public.

Other supporting program accommodating recreational activities has filled the space in between the police station and the university. Outdoor sports playing fields, a minor league baseball stadium, and a petting zoo are available for public use. The park also hosts a trolley station, a small art gallery, and a museum of public radio run by the city. Public parades and events are held at a small open amphitheater. In addition, a number of private businesses have been allowed to operate in the park, including a gym, a café, a go-cart track, a climbing wall, and one of the largest water parks in the country. Smaller informal businesses, such as food stands or seasonal vendors, are also present within the park.

In total, 113 of the park’s 168 acres are occupied with new recreational development. Though decidedly less “green” than before, the Vereda del Lago is a massively popular place for city residents to more safely enjoy the outdoors.

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Aerial view of Vereda del Lago park.

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Event in Vereda del Lago by Lake Maracaibo.