Sailing boats and bicycle rickshaws in the oil-rich, fuel-efficient region of Venezuela

Maracaibo (Venezuela) (AFP)

Maracaibo is known as the center of Venezuela’s oil industry, but a chronic fuel shortage has forced fisherman Franklin Romero to use a sailboat and bus driver Manuel to work in a pedicab.

Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world, but has gone from a peak production of over three million barrels of crude a day in 2014 to just over 500,000 today, meaning that the country needs to import fuel.

Experts accuse the government of President Nicolas Maduro of incompetent management and corruption.

Under the scorching sun in the state of Zulia, northwestern Venezuela, Romero shows off the hand-made oars he uses to propel his boat on Lake Maracaibo, one of the largest in America. South.

“We use sails because there is no fuel,” the nervous Romero told AFP after returning from his fishing trip.

He started working just before 6:00 a.m. and returned to shore at Los Puertos de Altagracia at 10:00 a.m. with seven medium-sized Croakers – a white-fleshed fish that is popular locally.

The 28-year-old sold five and brought two back to his wife and two-year-old daughter.

Fishermen in Lake Maracaibo often have to row their boats due to fuel shortages Luis BRAVO AFP

There was so little wind that he had to row back and forth across the lake, making it a long, arduous trip that only took a few minutes with an engine.

“It’s already normal to row or sail,” Romero said.

Most boats are adapted motorboats whose outboard motors have been removed and replaced with wooden masts and plastic sails, or propellers attached to a small motor.

These only need four liters of fuel compared to the 20 liters required for more powerful outboards.

– Constant oil spills –

Fuel has become a luxury in an area where few gas stations are stocked, while customer queues stretch for kilometers (miles) for the few who have it.

While fuel was virtually free for Venezuelans, it now costs $ 2 a liter on the black market, which is the only option for most people.

Fishermen return home with meager pickings after a morning on the lake
Fishermen return home with meager pickings after a morning on the lake Luis BRAVO AFP

Maduro’s government blames US sanctions preventing the South American country from buying fuel or unrefined oil.

Fishermen often borrow money from fishmongers to buy fuel “on credit” and then pay for it later with their daily earnings, which can be as high as $ 25 on “very good” days.

Sometimes, however, they can return to shore empty-handed but still with a bill to pay.

“Today I wasted fuel, I lost work and I didn’t catch anything, I just got tired,” said Jonathan, a father of six who returned with two shrimp and a meager handful of fish.

Fishermen usually sell their products in the old colonial town of Maracaibo before crossing the lake on their way home to Los Puertos de Altagracia, but if there isn’t enough wind they can get stranded.

The mismanagement of Venezuela’s oil infrastructure also means that spills are frequent and dark spots are visible on Lake Maraciabo as fishermen row or sail past them.

According to the NGO Azul Ambientalistas, there are 25,000 kilometers of oil pipelines in Lake Maraciabo, where oil was first discovered in 1914.

“The leaks are constant,” Gustavo Carrasquel of the NGO told AFP.

– ‘I will die here’ –

In Maracaibo itself, makeshift rickshaws with handcrafted textile roofs have replaced buses and taxis.

Manuel, who did not give his last name, drove a bus that could carry 50 people, now he has to pedal in a rickshaw that barely has room for two adult passengers.

“Due to the fuel issue the owner (of the bus) had to pull over and I found myself out of work,” said the 28-year-old driver as he repaired a flat tire.

He said it cost $ 200 a day to keep a bus on the road, but it was impossible to earn anything near that amount with passengers paying for their tickets in battered local currency.

The bolivar has been decimated by four years of hyperinflation and eight years of recession.

GDP has fallen by 80% since 2013 and 65% of people live in poverty.

Hender Urdaneta, 51, is a proud activist who supports the Socialist government often accused of authoritarianism and repression of dissent.

Maracaibo bus and taxi drivers had to trade ease of driving for the toil of pedaling due to fuel shortage in Venezuela
Maracaibo bus and taxi drivers had to trade ease of driving for the toil of pedaling due to fuel shortages in Venezuela Luis BRAVO AFP

Pedaling a pedicab has hurt his back, but he cannot afford to stop as he has to support his wife, who has lost a kidney and needs medication.

Despite the difficulties, he has no plans to leave the country or join the 1.8 million Venezuelans living in neighboring Colombia.

“I was born here and I will die here, fighting with my boots, like a homeland soldier, like a homeland activist, I work here with my cart,” he said.

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