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The city of Maracaibo, founded in 1571, is the capital of the State of Zulia and is Venezuela's second largest population center. The 1990 census assigned a population of 1,249,670—a number that many considered to be understated.

Maracaibo was founded on the western side of the lake. Favored by prevailing winds and a protected harbor the city is located on the shores of Lake Maracaibo where the narrows, which eventually lead to the Gulf of Venezuela, first become pronounced.

During the city's first 390 years or so Maracaibo remained isolated and separated from the rest of the country. Land transportation was only possible across the lake by ferry or other marine transport.

Cars, buses, and trucks, with their constant flow of manufactured goods and agricultural product, depended on the ferry system between the city and the eastern shore with their roads to connect to the country's highway system.

This isolation was both a challenge and an advantage. The very nature of the city's location made for a population known for independent thought and character.

The separation from Caracas, the seat of national government, created a liberty of thought and character for the "Maracucho" (those that called Maracaibo their home). This characteristic of scrutiny and suspect of "national decision" served the city well. Even in today's connected world the national government's decisions are a bit more suspect and debated by Maracaibo's citizens than in the rest of the country. A protective watchdog attitude remains today by this "independent" population.

The dictatorial regime of General Marcos Perez Jimenez of the 1950s set as a goal the construction of a bridge connecting the two lakeshores. Various bridge projects for the spanning of the Lake Maracaibo narrows near the city were in the works. The General's government had decided that this "city of independent thought" should be more "connected" to the rest of the country.

Proposals for a bridge design that included rail transport and tourist facilities were seriously considered. The fall of the Perez Jimenez government in January 1958 quickly led to a less elaborate design project that was approved and funded by a democratic and more conservative government.

The building of the "El Puente Sobre El Lago de Maracaibo "General Rafael Urdaneta"—(General Rafael Urdaneta Bridge over Lake Maracaibo) named after the distinguished hero of the War of Independence was opened to public traffic in 1962. The project was completed on schedule in 40 months.

This bridge construction project was a remarkable feat. Built under very difficult conditions, when completed, it became the longest prestressed concrete bridge in the world. The structure is in constant use and remains today as the most important link between Maracaibo, along with much of the State of Zulia, and the rest of Venezuela.

Historical perspective

The view by a foreigner of any culture is often interesting. The travel journal written by F. Depons, who was "Agent from the French Government to "CARRACCAS" (his spelling) has some fascinating comments and insights regarding the good people of Maracaibo.

Published in 1806 in London under the title "TRAVELS IN PARTS OF SOUTH AMERICA during the years 1801, 1802, 1803 and 1804" Included are his perspectives of "A VIEW OF THE CUSTOMS AND MANNERS OF THE SPANISH AND NATIVE INDIANS". The journal makes for good reading.

Following are a few excerpts from Depons' book in the section where he comments on the local population of Maracaibo.

"They perform coasting, or long voyages, with equal facility; and when all trade is suspended by the operations of war, they enter privateers. Bred up in the neighborhood of the lake, they are mostly all expert swimmers and excellent divers. Their reputation stands equally high as soldiers. Those who do not enter into the sea service, form plantations, or assist in cultivating those, which belong to their fathers. Nothing proves better their aptitude for this kind of occupation, than the immense flocks of cattle with which the savannas of 'Maracaybo'(his spelling) are covered."

The following comments hold true today, I believe, reflecting the Marabino's love of literature and the arts and their general respect for education and culture.

"But what confers the greatest honor on the inhabitants of Maracaybo, is their application to literature; in which, notwithstanding the wretched state of public education, they make considerable progress." He goes on to tell us that: "They likewise acquired the art of elocution, and of writing their mother tongue with the greatest purity; in a word, they possessed all the qualities which characterize men of letters."

These following thoughts must have been written down after a "bad day" experienced by the journalist Mr. Depons.

"Lawyers are a great pest at Maracaybo, for they tend to foment discord, and frequently contrive to render causes, which might be easily settled, endless and ruinous to both parties."

On a happier note we conclude with his comments that:

"After allowing that the inhabitants of this city possess activity, genius, and courage, we have nothing further to say in their praise. They are accused of violating their promises, and even of attempting to break through written engagements. Their character, in this respect, is so notorious, that every stranger whom business induces to visit Maracaybo, affirms, that it would be much better to enter into commercial speculations with the women, because they appear alone to possess that sincerity and good sense which are every where else considered as belonging particularly to men."