A research by Johhana Osorio and Nadeska Noriega.
Research Unit from El Pitazo in alliance with Connectas and the International Center for Journalists.
The government of Nicolás Maduro promised 50 vertical gyms in 18 months; in every building, people would practice 15 sports, and the structures would low cost and high quality. The documented facts in this research are different from the initial promise: only 37 gyms were finished in six years, only in one of them get offered all the sports disciplines, and the budget for the construction tripled the reference prices, without securing values structures, according to the experts consulted.
Athletes, coaches, and citizens in the communities interviewed for this work said they felt disappointed in the little social benefits to reached by the 420 million dollars project, which was not achieved with its goal of decreasing the crime in those zones affected.
Examples of these were collected by the team of El Pitazo in Venezuela. To the inhabitants from the state of Falcón, in western Venezuela promised two vertical gyms, but they just built one, and only four sports are teaching: soccer, boxing, gymnastics, and karate. In that state, 300 wrestling practitioners waited for space to improve their talents, and coaches like Nelson Hernández felt foolish with the promise of a place where he could train high-performance athletes.
In the county of San Francisco, in Zulia state, the boxer Eduard Bermúdez also felt disappointed. When the gym in Ciudad de Sol opened its doors, he saw in the place the opportunity to teach everything he knew, after he represented Venezuela in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. But the money they pay him is barely enough for the bus tickets. For him, that is one of the reasons why there are no other coaches.
High expensive spaces like the room for the practices of fencing are empty in most of the vertical gyms for that reason: there are not coaches willing to work for the precarious salary offering by the Peace and Life Movement. In a vertical gym like the one located in Sotillo, Azoategui state or the one in Tubores, Nueva Esparta state, only teach two sports; the one in La Victoria town, in the Aragua state, it teaches four. The average is seven sports per gym, but not all have optimal spaces neither proper teachers for children or teenagers, as the initial project stated.
Even though the government said that the gyms would receive sports clubs, El Pitazo checked that only 17 buildings from the 37 in total fulfill this premise, but only seven clubs got fixed spaces and hours.
A political transformation
In 50 spaces in 15 states of the country, El Pitazo also checked that the Sports and Peace Centers project turned into the Great Bases of Peace Missions, the excuse to transform the sports centers in a political and ideological space. There, activists for the Venezuelan Socialist Party (PSUV in Spanish) gathering to do a proselytizing job, forgetting the initial goal:
keeping young people away from crime through sport.
The change was a proposal by the Peace and Life Movement Foundation (which is part of the Ministry of the Presidency) ordered in 2017. The executive secretary of the Movement, Alexander Mimou Vargas, assured in a press release that the vertical gyms would become in the “urban heart of every community.” He also said that the goal was enabling 50 missions bases in the country, that 14 buildings were in construction, and they would invest $10 million for each to finish them. But, the intention was no improve the quality of life to the users but to look the chance for more investment in the project.
The transformation turned gyms in centers of political partisanship. El Pitazo checked that the 37 enable gyms develop in their facilities no sports activities. Therefore, 86% of these spaces work exclusively to political activities from chavism activist encounters to the collecting of signatures against Donald Trump. Actually, in one of the gyms in Falcon works a Chavista radio station.
In the buildings, there is a permanent ode to the characters of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro. It looks like the dissent is not allowed, even when they are spaces for sports and peace. “You have your opinion, your point of view, but in the vertical gyms, you can not express it. In the places are posters like ‘Here, we cannot talk bad about Chávez’ or ‘Loyals forever, traitors never.’ It is like you must agree with Maduro to use the gym,” said Fernando Martínez, who usually goes to the gym located in El Valle, Caracas.
What Martinez said got checked to visit they gyms outside Caracas. In Zulia, Trujillo, Anzoategui, and Sucre, El Pitazo also checked that in the libraries of the vertical gyms, there are only books about the Cuban Revolution, some written by Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez biographies, and even The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx.
Of the 37 gyms that work, 16% demand to people the Carné de la Patria to accesses the facilities. The carné is an ID card, created by Nicolás Maduro to know the socio-economic status of the population who wants access to the social programs of the government. However, it has been denounced as a mechanism of social control and exclusion.
The project was used indirectly for political purposes. The climax of the vertical gyms opened was in 2017 when the Chavista government finished and launched 16 new gyms during the electoral campaign for governors.
For experts, the mistake of the project was its initial goal. “Those gyms are not part of a national sports policy. It is not a program to training highly competitive athletes, is not a training center system located in the barrios to create a local impact either, as it is not a public policy, there are no concretes goals. There is no monitoring or follow-up, much less statistical quantification of social achievements and fulfillment of objectives and goals,” said the Venezuelan architect David Viloria, professor of the Central University of Venezuela and expert in urban development and social architecture.
Viloria also evaluates the project and ask some questions: How many young people who use those gyms are professional players in collective sports? How many youngs found a profession in the sport and are working in the area? How many hectares of urban landscape got recovered? How much the crime rate fell in the communities where the gyms got located? How many jobs created to coaches, sports advisors, maintenance managers? Probably, there are no answers to these questions, and that is a big sign of the failure of the vertical gyms.”
The testimony of Timothy, a young man in the community of Las Casitas, in the state of Bolivar, is evidence of the failure that Viloria mentioned. The promise of the vertical gym in his barrio is just empty land. “It supposed that this would be a help for us because there is no sports field around here, but I don’t know what happened. Due to the lack of material or what do I know, the project dropped, and you can see what it is now, just bushes,” he told and also said that after 6:00 pm, the place is a shelter of criminal. El Pitazo checked that in a third of the vertical gyms in the country, situations of insecurity have arisen.
El Pitazo requested interviews through letters delivered in the offices of the officials involved in the project as Nicolás Maduro, Alexander Vargas, Daniel Tascón, Ilich Lárez Brito, Walter Gavidia Flores y Carmen Meléndez. Also tried to contact the governors and officials involved in the beginning or the ending of the projects: Aristóbulo Istúriz, Omar Prieto, Henry Rangel Silva, Tareck El Aissami, Jorge García Carneiro, Stella Lugo, Vielma Mora, Nidia Escobar, Alexis Ramírez, Carlos Rosales, Luis Acuña, Carlos Mata y Yelitce Santaella.
Through e-mail, the team of the correspondent from El Pitazo requested an interview Ramón Carretero Napolitano and his company Landscape Vision Corporation, located in Panamá.
Also delivered requested of interviews to the companies and public institutions linked to the project: Fundación Propatria 2000, PyC Buenavista, Inmecica Centro and the Consorcio Estructuras Metálicas Modernas.
In the fiscal address of PyC Buenavista, it is working another company that denied any relation with the company searched. In the place where Inmecica should locate according to its address, there is no company working.
In the office of Consorcio Estructuras Metálicas Modernas, its director, Juvenal Alfaro, talked with the team of El Pitazo, but did not receive the letter and refused the interview. “I don’t like the modus operandi of El Pitazo. I don’t have to give any information because this is a private company. I’m not going to do you any favor,” he said. Alfaro also refused to receive the letter to Alex Saab, who is the owner of the Global Construction Fund, at the same time, is the owner of Consorcio Estructuras Metálicas Modernas.
During the reporting of this research, three journalists from the states of Nueva Esparta, Anzoátegui, and Zulia, were harassed by police and surveillance officers while they visited the sports facilities. In Caracas, a female journalist got verbally assaulting when she requested an interview with a businessman.
None of the interviews requested by El Pitazo was answered before the publication of this research.
You can read the full research in Spanish clicking this image.