On Venezuelan roads, old cars reign supreme, crashing everywhere

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – This 1983 Chevrolet C-10 pickup is the backbone of Argenis Ron’s party gear rental business. He uses it to transport chairs, tents, and tables for gatherings throughout the sprawling Venezuelan capital.

The paint that was white is slightly yellowish and shows a little rust on the body, some dings. The odometer was already out of order when he bought it 12 years ago.

And with business picking up where the epidemic appears to be slowing, he’s gone more miles — and made more trips to the mechanics, including his recent visit to investigate snoring-like noises emanating from the left rear wheel.

“When the mechanics ask for parts — the truck asks — you have to buy them,” Ron said. “One cannot refuse because the truck is a resource for making money.”

He’s philosophical about the need to keep fixing his old truck: “It’s not like today’s cars that have a computer and have a lot of system-wide stuff. I say[the old trucks]are more trustworthy and more reliable because they only use gasoline and water.”

People like Ron are keeping their Caracas street parking mechanics increasingly busy these days as they try to coax more life out of old vehicles in a country where the new car market has collapsed and where few can replace better used cars.

Venezuela’s auto industry only produced eight trucks last year — not a single car — according to the Venezuelan Automobile Manufacturers Chamber. At the height of the century, in 2006-2007, about 172 thousand vehicles came out of factories operated by Ford, General Motors, Toyota, Mitsubishi, Chrysler and others.

Imports did not fill the gap. In 2021, only 1,886 new light vehicles were sold in Venezuela, according to estimates by LMC Automotive, an auto consultancy firm. That was about double the number in 2020, but less than 1% of what was sold in 2007, when new light vehicle sales peaked at 437,675.

Venezuela lifted its ban on importing used cars in 2019. But years of hyperinflation have wiped out much of the middle class that could have at least dreamed of a used car, leaving average monthly salaries under $100. The goal of inflation combined with government restrictions to stifle this inflation also meant that banks were unwilling or unable to provide loans for car purchases.

So people cling to what they have. Like the 1999 Nissan Sentra driven by Eduardo Ayala, which was undergoing mechanical surgery at a shop in a working-class neighborhood in western Caracas.

“It wasn’t that I picked that car, I had the money to buy that car,” Ayala said. “I’d like to buy a (Suzuki) Grand Vitara, at least 2005, (but) you also have to adjust to your economy as much as you can.”

Elvis Hernandez found the problem that had left Ayala stuck on the highway the day before: a failed month-old off-brand ignition distributor.

“The vast majority of people don’t have the money to buy a car – that’s what it is. So they prefer to fix the machine they have,” Hernandez said. Around him, fellow mechanics worked on other cars, at least ten years old.

Venezuela’s roads are filled with long-distance, money-consuming vehicles, many of which preceded the socialist transformation heralded by late President Hugo Chavez at the turn of the century.

A morning commute to work, a short trip to the grocery store or a 14-mile drive to the beach includes watching parked cars with someone messing around under the hood.

Venezuela, which has one of the largest reserves of crude oil in the world, once had the most prosperous middle class in Latin America and car dealerships flourished.

But a complex social, economic and humanitarian crisis that began in mid-2010, was exacerbated by low oil prices, US economic sanctions on the government – and critics claim – inflamed mismanagement of the economy.

In 2020, nine out of 10 families that were once classified as middle-class will have fallen into the poor, according to the Inter-American Development Bank. According to one measure, the monthly income of those families who were in the middle class fell from the equivalent of $830 a month in 2012 to $195 in 2020.

Many of the spacious dealerships that once served them still have their logos, but now they sit empty or house other businesses. Those open in the capital tend to target the upper class. The Ferrari dealership has three red cars on the floor, each costing more than $400,000.

Some Venezuelans have turned to YouTube for help with repairing their cars.

Somewhere in Caracas is a Honda Civic with a PVC tube that serves as a hose and a piece of wood that holds the battery in place. It collapsed on the highway after the weekend, stranding all four swimwear-clad passengers and prompting them to improvise a repair while sweat trickled down their sand-covered faces.

Still others can pool money together to hire experts of varying degrees.

Dozens of mechanics work along the street in the neighborhood as Ron, the owner of the equipment rental company, fixed his truck, and they keep their tools locked up in nearby buildings or other shelters.

Anderson Ramirez, who specializes in brake systems, said some people put off repairs so long that they showed up with broken brake pads and badly damaged discs.

He said that some vehicle owners may repair the damaged rear brake but “they have put off the brake work in the front because their budget is not enough,” he said. “Well, we negotiate with them. We negotiate labor costs because… if the work is not done, we gain nothing.”

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