Friday 15 November, 2019

In prized Venezuelan building, a long wait for light

Orelis Lehmann stands on the balcony 's door of her dark apartment in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, July 23, 2019. A power outage that began Monday afternoon at the start of rush hour was one more in a series of prolonged blackouts that have unnerved Venezuelans this year and also hit hard the building where Lehmann lives. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

Orelis Lehmann stands on the balcony 's door of her dark apartment in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, July 23, 2019. A power outage that began Monday afternoon at the start of rush hour was one more in a series of prolonged blackouts that have unnerved Venezuelans this year and also hit hard the building where Lehmann lives. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

When the lights began flickering back on in Venezuela's capital, residents in the six-story Doleli Building hailed as part of the city's cultural patrimony remained in the dark.

Inside, the mostly older inhabitants who have watched children flee abroad as the South American nation's economic and humanitarian crisis worsens locked their doors and pressed ears against radios in a futile quest for news.

"I'm worried we're going to become disconnected from everything," said Alfredo Cova, 55, a veterinarian, as the blackout stretched into Tuesday afternoon.

The power outage that began Monday afternoon at the start of rush hour was one more in a series of prolonged blackouts that have unnerved Venezuelans this year. Caracas has largely been spared from the worst, but the widespread outage came as another harsh reminder that no city is immune to Venezuela's mounting hardship.

In neighborhoods like Santa Monica where the Doleli Building stands, the darkness lingered even as other parts of Caracas began springing back to life Tuesday.

Residents awoke to find fridges still silent. Heat emanated through the walls as air conditioning units stood quiet. The owners of a few small businesses on the building's first floor waited anxiously outside shuttered entrances, hoping the power would return quickly so they wouldn't lose an entire day's earnings.

"Now Caracas is collapsing, too," said a frustrated Carolina Chinchilla, 53, who owns a languishing travel agency.

The Doleli Building was constructed in 1956 by Italian migrants and at the time stood as a symbol of Venezuela's urban progress, recalled Maria Caterina, 66, whose family was among the building's earliest tenants. Modeled after the modern Italian apartment buildings of the day, it boasted granite floors, ornate moldings, wide balconies and a plaza out front with a fountain. The doors of an elevator inside are decorated with bronze.

"It was built for living the good life," Caterina said.

At the time, Santa Monica was a solidly middle to upper-middle class neighborhood where droves of Italian, Portuguese and Spanish migrants were arriving.

Chinchilla's father, who fled the Spanish Civil War decades earlier, opened a photography business that she later converted into a travel agency with her sister. Families like Caterina's raised children in a neighborhood considered safe and prosperous.

Throughout Venezuela's turbulent history, the Doleli Building stood soundly, surviving two major earthquakes without so much as a crack, residents said.

"It was beautiful," said José Vásquez, 42, who has lived in the building since he was born and is now the Doleli's youngest resident.

Now as Venezuela plunges into an economic crisis considered worse than the US Great Depression, and blackouts become more common, residents are finding their dwindling paychecks and pensions aren't enough to keep up the maintenance.

Inside, white paint from the staircase ceiling is beginning to peel. Outside, vandals have painted anti-government graffiti on the walls.

"This government is going to fall!" one scribbling proclaims.

Young couples with children whose cries once filled the building have fled to Chile, the United States and Canada. Some send back remittances to aging parents who still live in the building, while other units are frequently empty.

"They left," Cova said. "They all left."

Earlier this year, when a major power outage left all of Venezuela in the dark, the Doleli Building spent four days in the dark. That blackout caught many residents off guard. This time around, many were still unprepared. There was no generator to bring the lights back on and several residents didn't even have candles or flashlights.

Cova and his wife used their gas stove to heat up leftover pabellon, a traditional Venezuelan dish with rice, black beans, shredded beef and plantains. When the sky grew dark, they retreated to their bedroom. There was nothing else to do but go to sleep, they reasoned. The world had turned entirely black.

"It was absolute silence," he said.

The only sign of life came from their radio. Cova searched the stations but could only find pro-government channels. They were repeating the same refrain as socialist authorities: The outage had been caused by an "electromagnetic attack."

"Who is really responsible, I don't know," he mused.

From their building, residents could see power returning to other parts of the city overnight. When it didn't return to Santa Monica, instead of feeling angry, most felt simply resigned. Opposition leader Juan Guaidó held a rally Tuesday, but none opted to go, even as they blamed President Nicolás Maduro for Venezuela's woes.

"The worst thing is, we're getting used to this," Chinchilla said.

Inside her darkened travel agency, she fished for her computer, which she planned to take to a building where the power had returned. On a desk stood several miniature aircraft tails for airlines that no longer fly to Venezuela.

These days, most of her dwindling sales come from those migrating, she said, tearing up as she thought about what future awaits her three children.

"They have to live things I never lived in my adolescence," she said. "This was a magical country that they destroyed, completely."

Chinchilla and Vásquez, whose businesses are next to one another at the Doleli Building, have bonded through the daily trials and power outages. Vásquez likens it to a sort of "brotherhood" among neighbors, while Chinchilla calls it "survival."

As Tuesday morning stretched into afternoon, residents tried to find ways to continue their daily life even without electricity.

A bookstore on the first floor remained open. Cova, a veterinarian, and his wife worried that some $250 worth of pet vaccines in the fridge would become useless if the blackout dragged on longer.

"We don't have light, we don't have information," he grumbled. "We don't know anything."

But as the 24th hour of the Doleli Building blackout approached, the seemingly miraculous finally occurred: The lights turned on.

Hope restored, at least, temporarily.

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