Caracas cable and the sky’s the limit

Hugh O’Shaugnessy

The Tribune, 1 July 2011

Amor (“Love”) is being closely pursued by Moral (“Morality”) over the broken-down houses of the poor district of San Agustín, here among the cliffs thousands of feet above oil-rich Caracas. The intriguingly named eight-seat cars are two of a fleet that run behind one another on the cable line which sweeps over the settlement and the surrounding jungle to the joy of the underprivileged citizens underneath. Others are called Participación  (“Participation”),  Libertad (“Freedom”) and Deber Social (“Social Duty”). There are also Lara, Aragua and Bolívar, after the states of Venezuela.

The cable service has just had it’s first birthday and has been a huge success in an area where, until last year, vehicular traffic was virtually non-existent and the inhabitants had to undertake a backbreaking slog up the steps from the main city. Their enthusiasm was slightly dented by the fact that the modest fare started to be charged after 12 months. Use had hitherto been free in order to demonstrate that the bottoms wouldn’t fall out of the cars, sending passengers plummeting to the ground below. The Metro cable, as it is called, has been built from a design developed for the Austrian Alps and engineered by a Brazilian firm. It aims to relieve the circulation problem in Venezuela’s capital city, squashed as it is into a series of narrow valleys high over the Caribbean. More such initiatives are planned. In the past, the young city grew up out of reach of foreign pirates and invasions. Today the danger no longer consists of brigands but is one of increasing population. The valleys are choking in an ocean of people trying to benefit from the boom in Venezuela’s oil economy. The traffic congestion is of colossal proportions, even on the urban motorways. The cable-car scheme is a physical realisation of the desire of the Venezuelan government under Hugo Chavez to address the needs of the poverty-stricken, such as the people of San Agustín, who previous administrations left to rot among the country’s oil-induced riches. The cable stations, in polished steel and granite, are spick and span, and watched over by enthusiastic staff. For them, the cable is a source of pride as well as employment. Without being over-fussy, they ensure that no car takes more than eight people to ensure against overloading – with each child, however small, counting as a person. The view the passengers get of the city and its surrounding valleys is truly spectacular. The cable is also evidence of the government’s commitment to bring a strong social dimension to big items of state expenditure and ensure that the profit motive is not the ultimate determinant. Recently, I watched two employees of the cable pitching to the director of the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research for a small grant to help his scientists involved in San Agustín’s plans for improving the community’s sewage, composting and general ecology. The newly-installed Dr. Eloy Sisa was enthusiastic. “Don’t forget to ask for money for a little inflatable planetarium and a telescope,” he told them. “You have a 360-degree view of the heavens from the top of your hill.” The Institute is conscious that getting its scientists involved in San Agustín’s daily life and imparting to the young would earn it significant goodwill from the government. Claudio Mendoza, a professor of astrophysics on the staff was equally enthusiastic. Natalya Critchley, a British artist long established in Caracas, was on hand at the meeting to ensure the aesthetic dimension of the cable scheme was not forgotten. It shouldn’t be long before that telescope is installed in San Agustín’s new observatory.