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The Caracas - La Guaira Route

By Jose Toro Hardy | El Universal

17 January 2006 | The decision to construct a new viaduct was taken back in 1987. After two failed bidding processes, one in 1993 that failed due to lack of funds and another in 1995 that was contested, a consortium called Aucoven obtained the go ahead and signed a contract in 1996 to take charge of the Caracas - La Guiara road system, under a concession scheme. This contract covered not only the construction of an alternative viaduct but also the replacement of the entire stretch of highway that leads to the viaduct, which was affected by problems in the soil. It also covered the improvement and maintenance of the old road.

However, Venezuelan authorities did not fulfil the obligations they had undertaken in the contract, as they prevented an agreed-upon increase in tolls, did not issue the stipulated guarantees and did not offer the tax exemptions they were supposed to under the contract (among other violations), which meant that financing for the development of the works was blocked. The case was taken to the International Dispute Resolution and Arbitration Court, where Venezuela was ordered to compensate Aucoven. The contract was terminated. There is no doubt as to where the responsibility lies for what is happening on Viaduct No. 1. If the contract with Aucoven had been executed, this whole affair would have been solved years ago.

In any case, the transport problem between Caracas and La Guaira is an old one. It is worthwhile to go back to analyse the historical record. In 1827, George Stephenson offered to build a railroad between Caracas and La Guaira for the first time, one which would function using blood traction (that is, pulled by oxen). The authorities considered granting this proposal with a concession for 25 years and 25 horsemen to provide protection. The "Sociedad Emprendedora", or Enterprise Society, a group formed by Venezuelan merchants and farmers, represented by Cristóbal Mendoza, proposed a similar railroad from Catia. This was followed by a heated controversy in which the director of the daily "El Colombiano", Eduard Stophord, accused the Venezuelan group of interfering with the execution of the project.

In 1854, under the government of General José Gregorio Monagas, the government decreed the construction of the Caracas - La Guaira railroad, but nothing ever came of this project due to lack of funds. Again, in 1856, Congress authorized the government to commission that route, which was to be called the Central Railroad. In 1867, the government again attempted to grant a concession for the works, in which a 9% profit was to be guaranteed. No funds were available.

In 1874, Venezuela signed a contract with a Spanish company, but by 1877 the government had changed and General Francisco Linares Alcántara, the new president, declared the contract null and void. Linares’ reasons were very similar to the ones used today by the Chavez government today. Back then, the construction of the railroad was thwarted, as is the case now with the alternative viaduct. Finally, in 1883, President Antonio Guzmán Blanco opened the railroad as part of the celebrations of the centennial of Simon Bolivar’s birthday. The project was constructed through a concession regime led by "The La Guaira and Caracas Railway Company Limited". 50% of the cost was covered by the government, the other half by the English company.

The other road to the coast is the one known today as the Old La Guaira road. It was opened by General Juan Vicente Gómez in 1930 to coincide with the centennial of Simon Bolivar’s death. This road still stands today. In 1953, General Marcos Pérez Jiménez, making a huge leap forward, opened the Caracas - La Guaria highway, of which Viaduct No. 1 was part. In its day, the highway was compared to the Panama Canal.

Half a century later, it seems the highway has succumbed to the elements as well as demagoguery. The latter is the chief culprit. Although the rains could not have been prevented, their toll would have been less had the problem of the nearby slums and the sewage been resolved. Most of all, it was demagoguery which prevented the concession granted in December 1996 to go forward.

Given the character of the current government, I think the original railroad project using blood traction, planned for 1827, will be resumed. I would recommend that they don‘t forget the 25 horsemen needed to protect goods. I suppose this will be the solution to be chosen, as I have read Fidel Castro’s praises for blood traction more than once before. The degree of Castro’s influence on the current regime is not a secret.

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