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Caracas viaduct’s closure is a bridge too far

By Andy Webb-Vidal | The Financial Times

Published: January 12 2006 23:25 | Last updated: January 12 2006 | Carlos Franco, a truck driver, sums up in two words the ordeal of driving from Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, to the country’s principal seaport: “mission impossible”.

Travel chaos is just one of the woes stemming from the closure last week of a bridge that supports the 30km highway down to the coast. Economic problems and political tensions have followed close behind.

To begin, a taxi ride to the capital’s international airport, which normally takes 45 minutes, has become an epic journey lasting up to seven hours on alternative roads – including one that dates back to the Spanish Empire – that wind through the barrios, or slums, that teeter on the lip of sheer precipices.

The foyer of the airport could be mistaken for a refugee camp, with travellers crumpled on plastic chairs awaiting transport to Caracas. Others are settling in for the night, having arrived a day early to avoid missing a flight.

Truck drivers, meanwhile, have to wait hours to crawl along in night convoys accompanied by National Guardsmen to avoid being hijacked for their cargoes. “I’ve been here eight hours,” said Mr Franco, sitting under the trailer of his truck to avoid the scorching midday sun. “It’s a nightmare because it will be three days after I’ve unloaded and come back up.”

Authorities have moved hundreds of poor families in the barrios near the bridge into shelters to avoid potential fatalities.

The so-called Viaduct No. 1 was closed to traffic a week ago after workers said a combination of erosion and shifting tectonic plates, which over the years has caused the bridge to buckle, was accelerating, threatening the structure’s stability.

Civil engineers from the infrastructure ministry this week admitted that the bridge was moving as much as five centimetres per day.

Critics of President Hugo Chávez have been quick to accuse the government of incompetence and failure to adequately prepare for what engineers say was inevitable. “Chávez, in power for seven years, is fully responsible for not doing something to avoid this disaster,” said Teodoro Petkoff, a political commentator.

The bridge was built in the early 1950s by the military dictator General Marcos Pérez Jiménez, when the population of Caracas was 500,000, a tenth of its size today, and when the volume of traffic was much smaller. Venezuela is now the world’s fifth-largest oil exporter, and has seen record income in the past three years thanks to high oil prices.

But prices of some imported goods have risen because distributors are forced to pass on increased transport costs, while other products have become scarce in the populous coastal area, which suffered deadly landslides in 1999.

But while mismanagement, neglect and years of wear and tear have taken a toll on what was once an example of the most modern infrastructure in Latin America, some experts say that nature is the real cause. “The problem with the viaduct is fundamentally a geological one,” said Leonardo Mata, president of the Venezuelan Society of Civil Engineers.

“There is an active fault-line underneath, what’s happened was inevitable. You could have extended the bridge’s life, but not save it.”

Rumours circulating on Thursday suggested that the government, to avoid further embarrassment, was considering dynamiting the bridge before it collapsed under its own weight.

On his weekly television show last Sunday, Mr Chávez insisted that a by-pass that would allow traffic to resume would be ready next month.

But that will not come in time for the sixth World Social Forum, the annual event of the anti-globalisation movement, the Latin American leg of which Mr Chávez is hosting in Caracas in two weeks.

Still, organisers of the forum, which is expected to attract more than 100,000 people from abroad, insist that, despite Venezuela’s crumbling infrastructure, celebration of the event will not be a bridge too far.

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