September 28, 2022

Sight Magazine – In Venezuela, cars catch fire as maintenance becomes unaffordable

Maracaibo/Caracas, Venezuela

Baseball coach Adolfo Alvarez was on his way to a game with a group of children and their parents in the city of Maracaibo, in northwestern Venezuela, when the bus engine suddenly caught fire.

The blaze was caused by a fuel leak, according to firefighters, who say it has become increasingly common in Venezuela due to rising maintenance costs for cars, trucks and buses after years economic turmoil.

A firefighter extinguishes a fire that started in a car, in Maracay, Venezuela, on April 24. PHOTO: Stringer/Handout via Reuters.

So far in 2022, some 595 vehicles have caught fire, according to firefighters. There were 590 such cases in 2021, according to the country’s mechanics association.

These fires did not cause any death, according to the former vice-president of civil protection of the central state of Carabobo, Jacobo Vidarte. But many incidents have resulted in injuries.

“I received a blow in the arm, but I’m fine. Fortunately, the children were not injured, we were taken to hospital, but we are fine and at home,” the coach said. Alvarez.

Experts say the fires happen because people delay car maintenance, use unsuitable parts and tamper with fuel or fuel injection systems due to gasoline shortages.

“There are many vehicles with maintenance defects,” said Luis Mantilla, fire chief for the municipality of Santa Rita, who took part in the rescue operation on a highway to Maracaibo.

“When they start moving, they generate these type of accidents,” he said, estimating that they had roughly tripled in the fourth quarter.

Despite slight improvements in the Venezuelan economy since the easing of exchange controls in 2019 and the broader adoption of the US dollar, the country is still marked by extreme income inequality, limiting access to certain goods.

Due to low production, the Venezuelan vehicle fleet has aged and most cars on the road have exceeded their recommended lifespan, said Gino Fileri, president of the mechanics association.

“The country’s economic situation leads people to Google how to remove the [fuel] injectors, assemble them, but they don’t have the knowledge, experience, preparation or training to do so,” Fileri added.

Meanwhile, vehicle production in the country is minimal after companies like General Motors Co or Ford Motor Co abandoned or drastically reduced their operations in recent years. Imported cars remain out of reach for most Venezuelans.

The communications ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

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Firefighters and union spokespersons said Venezuelans in need of emergency repairs have increasingly relied on inexperienced curbside mechanics who have been popping up in several towns offering makeshift parts facilities.

Unable to afford genuine auto parts, people also tend to buy unsuitable parts sold in hardware stores, they added.

Repairing a car with partial engine damage can cost up to $2,500, Vidarte said.

This amounts to a heavy blow in a country where the minimum wage is around $30 a month.

“Unfortunately, we live in an economy in which people are looking for the cheapest,” said Angelo Sangregorio, vice president of the chamber of mechanical workshops.

“And the cheapest is no good.”