A Venezuela where race tracks glistened and hotels housed tourists

Plans to transform a former greyhound race track into a 'socialist city' has a guest blogger asking what can be gleaned from Venezuela's changes over the past 25 years.

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, Caracas Chronicles. The views expressed are the author's own.

In the late 1980s, my dad took me and my sister on holiday to Margarita. We drove all the way to Puerto La Cruz and then ferried to the island. One of the highlights of that trip was a night we spent at the Canódromo Internacional de Margarita, then a brand new greyhound racing track.

At the time, I thought it was pretty cool. Even today, I remembered it fondly because the dog I bet on won and I got 29 bolivares out of it, back when that was something. That was the first time I’d gambled (and just about the last).

Why I’m telling you this story? Days ago, I found out that the location of the Canódromo is to be as the site for a new “Socialist City”. How is it possible that after all this time, there wasn’t any kind of plan for this place? It’s like the story of La Carlota all over again.

What happened between that night in the late eighties and the present? To make a long story short, the track went bust years ago. It wasn’t an isolated case, in fact the whole dog track world has been in decline for years and it’s still facing tough times today.

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The land was owned by the national racetrack institute (INH), which was then responsible of all horse-racing activity in the country. Then there was not much progress made at the time and the situation stalled further when Chavez took over: He decided then to liquidate the INH and replace it with a new state agency, the SUNAHIP.

What was left of the Canódromo has been abandoned for years and years. Skateboarders are probably the few users of the main stand, hanging around and having fun. Sometimes, the area was used on a temporary basis for concerts and karting races.

In 2008, a deal to sell the land was reached between what was left of the INH and some businessmen, but there were irregularities according to the General Comptroller’s Office.

Some communal councils started to ask for the expropiation of the terrains in 2010 and the following year the Supreme Court took over the case. Still, the overall control of the Canódromo indirectly fell back on Chavernment’s hands when they expropriated the insurance company La Previsora, which was involved in the judicial case.

Fast forward to June this year, when La Previsora reached a deal with 22 Communal Councils to build the Ciudad Socialista Manuelita Sáenz, including houses, sports areas and cultural centers. Of course, the opposition-run state government of Nueva Esparta was left aside.

What can be learned of the Canódromo episode? First, the concept of urban planning went MIA in Venezuela a long time ago, giving way to serial short-term improvisation. Second, the current situation of Margarita is problematic: with hotels used as shelters for people who lost their homes in floods, tourists robbed on the beach, electric blackouts that last hours, etc.

One thing is for sure, Margarita is not what it was 25 years ago.

– Gustavo Hernandez Acevedo is a writer for Caracas Chronicles, the place for opposition-leaning-but-not-insane analysis of the Venezuelan political scene since 2002

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