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Wall Street Journal / Life - Entertain

The Lights Have Gone Out in Caracas

Just 15 years ago, Venezuela’s capital was one of Latin America’s urban gems. Now the city is unraveling, with scarce water, hyperinflation, and shotgun-toting troops manning checkpoints. Many sell at a loss to leave.

A view of a largely dark residential building in the Caracas neighborhood of La Carlota.

CARACAS, Venezuela—The young family bought their dream home six years ago, a five-bedroom triplex with marble floors in a luxurious building with a swimming pool in this city’s fashionable La Castellana district.

They paid $1.5 million, including renovations, for the penthouse apartment, according to the real-estate company that handled the deal, and got a 360-degree view over Caracas, for decades one of Latin America’s most expensive urban gems.

No more. This city is unraveling fast: Water doesn’t reach most homes, mass transit is grinding to a halt and businesses are closing in the face of hyperinflation expected to top 13,000% this year. Shotgun-toting troops wearing camouflage and balaclavas run checkpoints. Cash is so scarce people can’t pay for the smallest necessities like bus fare.

Last year, the family fled their apartment in La Castellana, sold it for a third of what they paid and moved to the U.S. Since then the exodus from this city has only accelerated, as Venezuelans escape an increasingly authoritarian government and an economy that has contracted by 40% in five years.

People line up to buy baguettes in a bakery located in the Palos Grandes neighborhood of Caracas.

Few here see much hope for change as President Nicolás Maduro seeks reelection in a vote on Sunday, May 20, that the U.S. and other governments say will be rigged.

“There are an enormous number of properties [for sale] because everyone wants to leave,” said Aura Corzo, who was a real-estate agent here until fleeing to Colombia recently. “They’re desperate to go.”

Just 15 years ago, Caracas was one of Latin America’s most modern capitals, home to the region’s tallest skyscrapers, a sleek subway system and a university campus described by UNESCO as a “masterpiece of modern city planning.” Its museums displayed works by Pablo Picasso and Luciano Pavarotti performed at the renowned Teresa Carreño theater. Some Venezuelans dined here at world-class restaurants, sipped imported whiskey and flew to Paris on the Concorde to shop.

Now, the city’s lights are going off.

“Living in Caracas is hellish and inhumane,” said Ángel Luis Lecuna, 32, a lawyer who has seen 10 relatives flee Venezuela. “It’s so bad it makes you think the government is being negligent just to humiliate us.”

Most international flights have been canceled, leaving the airport’s runways nearly empty. The Teresa Carreño, now a theater in decay, is used for Socialist Party rallies. And the once bustling nightlife has gone quiet in a city with roving bands of kidnappers and one of the world’s highest murder rates.

In today’s Caracas, malnourished families rummage through garbage for food, and young men wade into a toxic open sewer searching for scraps of metal to sell. State employees, unable to get to their offices because of a dilapidated transportation system, are increasingly abandoning work; their salaries have been rendered all but worthless by inflation anyway.

Orlando Figuera, 35, teaching in a mostly empty classroom at the Central University of Venezuela. Attendance has evaporated as students leave the country or drop out for lack of money or transportation.

Yulimar Toala, 26, says the lack of means to pay for the bus has left her unable for weeks to show up at work or take her two small boys to school.

“Oh, dear, this city isn’t the same,” she said. “I used to go out. I could give things to my kids. I could buy them shoes. Now, I can’t buy them anything.”

A dozen private schools in the city have recently shut their doors. The teachers in those still open increasingly suffer from anxiety, depression and panic attacks, said Abel Saraiba a psychologist with a children’s-rights group here.

“At the majority of schools, we’ve seen an important deterioration in the mental health of teachers,” said Mr. Saraiba. “It is related to the loss of hope.”

Particularly vexing to Caraqueños, as residents here are known, is the breakdown in services. Garbage piles up on streets. Streetlights are out, leaving many of the city’s byways in total darkness at night. The city’s decrepit waterworks has largely broken down, creating the cruel irony of a lack of water in a country replete with rain forests and raging rivers.

A woman filling bottles with water dripping from a spring next to the Cota Mil highway in Caracas.

As Mr. Lecuna’s neighborhood enters its third month without water, he says he has to skip work so he can visit friends and relatives in other parts of the city to load plastic jugs with water. “It’s draining to live this way,” he said.

Those who say they can no longer withstand the hardship are selling homes at a fraction of what they paid, desperate for cash to start fresh elsewhere.

A 66-year-old therapist remembered falling in love with her three-bedroom apartment when she first walked into the hilltop building on a quiet, residential street more than 40 years ago. She recently turned down an offer of $150,000—less than what she paid for the place in 1975.

“The country I grew up in is no more,” she said. “It will take at least two generations to get the country back on its feet. I don’t think I’ll see it in my lifetime.”

Views, above and below, an an apartment owned by a 66-year-old therapist who has moved to Florida.

In the exclusive Palos Grandes neighborhood, the owners of a 3,900-square-foot apartment once valued at $800,000 have been trying to sell for two years. They recently rejected an offer for $400,000, according to their real-estate agent. Like many other Caraqueños who can afford it, they ended up simply locking their doors and quietly moving abroad. That way they hope to ward off squatters or any effort by the Socialist government to expropriate unoccupied apartments.

The owner of a one-story house with a big lawn was willing to take $250,000 but scoffed at an offer for $100,000, a quarter of what he paid seven years ago. The prospective buyers “are looking to benefit from the desperation of people,” said the owner, who needs the money to move to the U.S.

Some agents and buyers see opportunity, believing that change could come to Venezuela and then result in a spike in value. Freddy Mijas, 50, recently bought an apartment for the equivalent of $45,000 that would have cost three times that much three years ago.

“It is an opportune moment to invest,” he said.

Real-estate agent Maria Camejo isn’t so sure. Last year, she sold just three properties. Her main income now comes from taking care of empty homes. She stops by to water the plants and turn on the lights for clients who have left Venezuela, having balked at selling at bargain-basement prices.

“I wouldn’t invest in a property,” she said, noting that some buildings are overrun by squatters encouraged by the government. “To me, that seems crazy.”

A deserted business district in the Palos Grandes area of Caracas on a Monday evening.

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