CARACAS ( Associated Press) — A 1983 Chevrolet C-10 truck is the workhorse of Argenis Ron’s business, who rents party equipment. He uses it to transport chairs, tents and tables to meetings throughout the Venezuelan capital.
The once white paint is now yellowish and the chassis shows signs of rust and some dents. The odometer was already broken when he bought it 12 years ago. And with business picking up steam as the pandemic dies down, Ron is logging more mileage but making more trips to the mechanic, including a recent one to investigate a left rear tire noise.
“When the mechanics ask for parts—the truck asks you—you have to drop the parts,” says Ron. “One cannot deny it, because the truck gives you that resource to obtain the currency.”
He is tolerant about the need to continue repairing his old truck: “It’s not like today’s cars, which have a computer and have many things at the system level. And I say that they are faithful and more reliable, because they are nothing more than gasoline and water.
People like Ron are keeping corner mechanics in Caracas busier these days, trying to get more out of old vehicles in a country where the market for new cars has plummeted and where few can afford another used car in better conditions.
The auto industry in the country produced just eight trucks last year — and no cars — according to the Venezuelan Automotive Chamber. At its peak in the century, in 2006-2007, some 172,000 vehicles rolled out of plants operated by Ford, General Motors, Toyota, Mitsubishi, Chrysler and others.
Imports have not filled that gap. In 2021, only 1,886 new light vehicles were sold in Venezuela, according to calculations by LMC Automotive, a consulting firm. That was about double the 2020 figure, but less than 1% of what was sold in 2007, when new light vehicle sales peaked at 437,675.
Venezuela lifted a ban on imports of used cars in 2019, but years of hyperinflation destroyed much of the middle class that could once at least dream of a used car, leaving the average monthly salary below $100. That inflation, combined with government controls created to curb it, meant that banks were unwilling to offer car loans.
So people keep what they have. Like Eduardo Ayala’s 1999 Nissan Sentra, which was undergoing mechanical surgery at a garage in a working-class district in western Caracas.
“That car was not that I chose it, it was that I had the money for that car,” Ayala said. “I would like to buy a Grand Vitara, at least 2005, (but) you also have to adjust your economy as much as you can.”
Elvis Hernández found the problem that had left Ayala stranded on a highway a day earlier: an ignition distributor, barely a month old, had failed.
“The vast majority do not have money to buy a car, that is the truth of things. So they prefer to repair the one they have,” Hernández added.
Around him, other mechanics were working on other vehicles, all at least a decade old.
High-mileage vehicles ply the roads in Venezuela, sucking money, many of them sold before the socialist transformation launched by then-president Hugo Chavez at the turn of the century.
A morning commute, a quick trip to the store, or a 15-mile drive to the beach includes images of parked cars with someone moving things under the hood.
Venezuela – with one of the world’s largest oil reserves – once had the most prosperous middle class in Latin America and car sales were booming, but a complex social, economic and humanitarian crisis began in the mid-2010s, aggravated by falling oil prices, US economic sanctions and — critics say — blatant mismanagement of the economy.
By 2020, about nine out of 10 once-middle-class families had fallen into poverty, according to the Inter-American Development Bank. One index shows that the monthly income of those middle-class households fell from the equivalent of $830 in 2012 to $195 in 2020.
Many of the spacious dealerships that offered them new cars still display their logos, but are now empty or home to other businesses. Those that are still open in the capital focus on the upper class. A Ferrari dealer has three red cars for sale, each for more than $400,000.
Some Venezuelans use YouTube to get instructions on how to repair their vehicles.
Somewhere in Caracas there is a Honda Civic with a PVC pipe serving as a hose and a piece of wood holding the battery. It broke down on the highway after a weekend, stranding its four occupants in bathing suits and forcing them to improvise in the heat.
Others still manage to get enough money to hire experts of various levels.
Dozens of mechanics operate along the street in the neighborhood where Ron, the operator of the equipment rental business, fixed his truck. They keep their tools locked in nearby buildings and other hiding places.
Enderson Ramirez, who specializes in brakes, said some people have put off repairs for so long that they show up with cracked brake pads and severely damaged discs.
He said that some vehicle owners, when they go to repair something, for example, the rear brakes, “refrain from doing the front brakes because they don’t have enough budget. And well, we also pay with them. We pay for the labor because… if he doesn’t do the work, we don’t win”.