Caracas once looked like a glimpse of Latin America’s future.
When petrodollars flowed into Venezuela in the 1960s and ’70s, the nation’s capital experienced a building boom. Highways ringed the growing metropolis, which boasted a university suffused with public art and the region’s tallest skyscrapers. Big American cars prowled the streets, thanks to generous fuel subsidies, while world-class museums and theaters and state-managed housing complexes were built.
But when Caracas turned 454 years old on July 25, it was less a cause for celebration and more of a reminder of the city’s reversal of fortune. A spate of economic crises ensued in the ’80s after oil prices crashed and the government accrued massive foreign debts, setting the stage for the election of President Hugo Chávez in 1998 and the socialist project known as Chavismo. After Chávez’s death in 2013, Venezuela endured political turmoil, and economic sanctions imposed by foreign governments on his successor, authoritarian President Nicolás Maduro, have hastened the capital’s decline. Today, many of Caracas’s most beloved urban spaces and architectural treasures have been pummeled by years of crisis, mismanagement, and bitter political battles.
With the Venezuelan government isolated and broke, Caracas is in a strange state of flux. Water and power infrastructure is crumbling, gasoline is a luxury, and 18 months of lockdowns to combat Covid-19 have battered city life. Still, businesses are opening as authorities roll back controls on commerce, and some parts of the city are seeing efforts to make cosmetic fixes.
A close look at several of Caracas’s landmarks today reveals how much this metropolis of 3.5 million people has unraveled and how residents and leaders are trying to preserve what they can of its former luster.
Near downtown, slender towers of concrete and blue glass crown the massive Parque Central complex. Envisioned as a city within a city when it was designed and built in the 1970s, its 10 buildings house more than 1,200 apartments along with everything from museums to elementary schools and hair salons to swimming pools.
“It was like something out of The Jetsons,” says Enrique Fernández-Shaw, son of Daniel Fernández-Shaw, one of the complex’s architects.
When the last tower opened in 1983, Parque Central’s amenities, including suction trash chutes and live feeds from lobby security cameras, drew young professionals from Venezuela’s emerging middle class. Four decades later about 15,000 people still reside in Parque Central, but many say that they’re desperate to leave. Air pollution and water leaks have stained the skyscrapers’ facades. A fire tore through the East Tower in 2004, and parts of the building are still not fully operational. Robberies are so frequent that residents have closed off corridors and padlocked some emergency exits.
Many of Parque Central’s woes are decades in the making. Instead of a homeowners association, it’s managed by a state corporation that’s in charge of making repairs. “You have no authority,” says Jacobo Sarevnik, an architect who’s lived in Parque Central since 1980.
Museum of Contemporary Art
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