I arrived in Caracas in the back of a pickup, and immediately biked across town to Tierra Viva, an environmental group that supports different sustainable development projects around the country. With their help, I visited a school, was interviewed by a radio station, and appeared on the front page of El Nacional.
Crossing the city by bike, I was amazed at the traffic. I have never passed so many cars so easily on my bike. I biked one section of town in 20 minutes in what someone told me it would take 40 minutes in a car. Watch the videos below (especially on the left) to get a sense of traffic in the city.
The city does have a metro, which I took once and had my wallet stolen. At 3pm on a weekday, the metro cars were so packed with people that there was not space to move, and I literally could not move while someone took my wallet out of my pocket (lost only cash).
The city is in a scenic valley, has a pleasant climate (it is at 3,000 feet), and plenty of trees. But the quality of life – and yes, energy efficiency – of the city could be dramatically improved if the transportation system were changed.
While in Caracas, I also continued to learn more about Venezuela’s political system. Here is a brief account of what people have told me: In the first half of the 20th century, Venezuela had a series of dictators. In the second half of the century, a two-party democracy was established. Most people complain about how this was run, and a number say that the two parties were more corrupt than the dictators beforehand. In 1992, Hugo Chavez, the current president and a former military man, attempted a coup, but failed, took responsibility, and was put in jail. A few years later, he was pardoned, and in 1998 he was elected president from a third party. With the people’s support, he had the constitution rewritten, and, in the elections that followed, the government was filled with almost all Chavez supporters.
Chavez, a ‘21st century socialst,’ has done some amazing things, including using oil money to support social programs for the poor, including far improved health care and education for the poorest. He has also picked fights with the U.S., packed the supreme court, and appears to have almost absolute control over the country (and especially its oil wealth). Nearly every middle or upper class person that I talk to does not like Chavez – they worry that he has too much power and that he is scaring away investment that is needed to grow the economy. On the other hand, most poor people that I talk to say Chavez’s programs have helped their lives considerably. His current power, however, seems well tied to oil revenues – over half the government revenue is from oil money, and oil prices are currently very high.
The last day in town, a good friend of mine, Tom Hunt, flew into Caracas to bike with me for the following two weeks. We spent a Saturday walking around the capital, where we visited the Natural History museum (they had an exhibit on global warming!), and then watched an anti-Chavez demonstration before packing up to leave town.