On Venezuelan roads, old cars are rife, breaking down everywhere

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — A 1983 Chevrolet C-10 pickup is the workhorse of Argenis Ron’s party equipment rental business. He used it to drag chairs, tents and tables to parties across the Venezuelan capital.

The once-white paint has a slight yellow tinge, the body shows a little rust, some dings. The odometer was broken when he bought it 12 years ago.

As the pandemic appears to be slowing and business is picking up, he’s adding miles — and doing more mechanical travel, including a recent visit to investigate the snoring-like noise from the left rear wheel.

“When the mechanic wants parts — the truck wants you — you have to buy them,” Ron said. “One can’t say no, because trucks are a money-making resource.”

He’s philosophical about the need to keep repairing his older trucks: “It’s not like today’s cars have a computer and have a lot of stuff at the system level. I say (older trucks) are trustworthy and more reliable because they only use Gasoline and water.”

These days, people like Ron keep Caracas’s street-corner mechanics busier as they try to get the job done in a country where the new-car market is collapsing and few can afford to trade in a better-looking car. Older cars have a little more life.

Venezuela’s auto industry produced just eight trucks last year and none of the cars, according to the Venezuelan Chamber of Automobile Manufacturers. At the peak of the century, in 2006-2007, plants operated by Ford, GM, Toyota, Mitsubishi, Chrysler and others produced about 172,000 vehicles.

Imports did not fill the void. Only 1,886 new light-duty vehicles will be sold in Venezuela in 2021, according to estimates from LMC Automotive, an auto industry consultancy. That’s roughly double 2020 sales, but less than 1 percent of 2007, when new vehicle sales peaked at 437,675.

Venezuela lifted its ban on imported used cars in 2019. But years of hyperinflation have wiped out most of the middle class who once dreamed of owning a used car, earning an average of less than $100 a month. Inflation, coupled with government controls aimed at curbing inflation, also means banks are unwilling or unable to provide auto loans.

So people stick to what they have. Like Eduardo Ayala’s 1999 Nissan Sentra, it’s undergoing mechanical surgery in a shop in a working-class district of western Caracas.

“It’s not that I choose that car, it’s that I have the money to buy that car,” Ayala said. “I want to buy a (Suzuki) Grand Vitara, at least from 2005, (but) you also have to fit your economy as best you can.”

Elvis Hernandez spotted the problem that had left Ayala stranded on the freeway the day before: A month-old off-brand ignition dealer was out of order.

“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 one they have,” Hernandez said. Around him, other mechanics were working on other cars that were at least a decade old.

Venezuela’s roads are littered with high-mileage, money-sucking vehicles, many of which predate the socialist transition that late President Hugo Chavez ushered in at the turn of the century.

A morning commute, a short trip to the grocery store, or a 14-mile drive to the beach will see someone tinkering under the hood.

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

But a complex social, economic and humanitarian crisis began in the mid-2010s, exacerbated by falling oil prices, U.S. economic sanctions on the government and — critics say — gross mismanagement of the economy.

According to the Inter-American Development Bank, in 2020, about nine in 10 households that were once classified as middle class fell into the ranks of the poor. By one measure, the monthly income of these once-middle-class households fell from $830 in 2012 to $195 in 2020.

Many of the spacious dealerships that once catered to them still carry their logo but are now vacant or accommodating other businesses. Those opening up in the capital tended to target the upper classes. A Ferrari dealership has three red cars on the floor, each worth over $400,000.

Some Venezuelans have turned to YouTube for guidance on fixing their cars.

Somewhere in Caracas, there’s a Honda Civic with a PVC pipe that acts as a hose and a piece of wood that holds the battery in place. It broke down on the highway after a holiday weekend, trapping all four passengers in swimsuits and having to improvise as sweat ran down their dusty faces.

Others can still scrape together to hire experts of varying degrees.

Dozens of mechanics work on nearby streets, equipment rental business owner Ron repairs his truck, and they lock tools in nearby buildings or other hideaways.

Enderson Ramirez, who specializes in braking systems, said some people put off repairs for so long that they have broken pads and badly damaged discs.

Some owners may fix damaged rear brakes, he said, but “they put off front brakes because they don’t have enough budget,” he said. “And, we negotiate with them. We negotiate labor costs because … if he doesn’t get the job done, we get nothing.”

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