Venezuela in darkness

Massive power outage raises tensions amid crisis in troubled country

Saturday, March 09, 2019

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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Hospitals struggled to get back-up generators running, businesses shuttered, and families anxiously tried to contact loved ones amid Venezuela's worst-ever power outage yesterday, raising tensions in a country already on edge from ongoing political turmoil.

Much of the nation of 31 million people was still without electricity as the blackout stretched into a second day and patience began to wear thin.

“This has never happened before,” a frustrated Orlando Roa, 54, said, decrying President Nicolas Maduro's Administration for failing to maintain the electrical system and letting qualified engineers leave the country. “This is the fault of the Government.”

Maduro ordered schools and all Government entities closed and told businesses not to open to facilitate work crews trying to restore power.

By many accounts the blackout hit 22 of 23 states, striking during the peak of evening rush hour Thursday, and sending thousands of people on long night-time treks home through some of the world's most violent streets. Until now, Caracas has been spared the worst of a collapse in the nation's grid, but the outage was still wreaking havoc more than 17 hours after it began.

Venezuela's socialist Government blasted the power failure on right wing extremists taking orders from the United States, including Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, and said they were intent on causing pandemonium for several days but offered no proof.

“The electricity war declared and directed by the imperialist United States against our people will be overcome!” President Nicolas Maduro wrote on Twitter in his only public comments on the outage. “No one can defeat the people of Bolivar and Chavez. Maximum unity patriots!”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shot back saying only Maduro was to blame.

“Maduro's policies bring nothing but darkness,” Pompeo wrote on social media. “No food. No medicine. Now, no power. Next, no Maduro.”

The outage comes as Venezuela is in the throes of a political struggle between Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaido, the head of congress who declared himself the nation's rightful president in January and is recognised by the United States and about 50 other nations.

Without power to charge cell phones, normally hyper-active social media was eerily quiet. Even state TV — the Government's main vehicle for handing down a political line to its followers — went silent. Those who managed to get a signal used the hashtag #SinLuz — meaning without light in English — to share images of cities throughout the country that on Friday resembled ghost towns.

One user posted a video of a nurse manually pumping air into the lungs of an infant. Others posted photos of long lines of cars queuing up at gas stations in hopes of getting fuel. A man anguished that he'd gone 17 hours without hearing from his mother.

“What impotence!” he lamented.

The director of Code vida, a coalition of Venezuelan health advocacy groups, reported that thousands of dialysis patients were going without treatment as a result of the blackout. While some hospitals were able to rely on back-up power sources, others were dark.

At the maternity ward at the Avila Clinic in wealthy eastern Caracas Thursday night, several mothers wept as nurses held candles to monitor the vital signs of premature babies in incubators.

Carlos Ramos stood outside the hospital early yesterday along with medical staff and patients in the fading hope he'd be able to see a doctor. He rejected the Government's assertion of sabotage as false.

“They always say that,” Ramos said.

Venezuela's electrical system was once the envy of Latin America, but it has fallen into disrepair after years of poor maintenance and mismanagement. High-ranking officials have been accused in US court proceedings of looting government money earmarked for the electrical system.

While intermittent outages have become regular occurrences in Venezuela of late, rarely have so many states simultaneously been without power for such an extended period.

The Government keeps home power bills exceptionally low — just a couple dollars a month — relying heavily on subsidies from the Maduro Administration, which is under increasing financial duress.

The nation is experiencing hyperinflation projected to reach a mind-boggling 10 million per cent this year, is grappling with food and medical shortages, and has lost about 10 per cent of its population to migration in the past few years — including many with valuable energy expertise. Venezuela's economic woes are likely to increase as US sanctions against its oil industry kick in.

State-owned electricity operator Corpoelec blamed the outage on an act of “sabotage” at the Guri Dam, one of the world's largest hydroelectric stations and the cornerstone of Venezuela's electrical grid. Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez described it as a “cyber” attack intended to derail the whole system. He said electricity in Venezuela's eastern region had been restored within hours.

“What's the intention?” he said. “To submit the Venezuelan people to various days without electricity to attack, to mistreat, so that vital areas would be without power.”

Pro-Government officials often blame outages on Venezuela's Opposition, accusing them of attacking power substations with Molotov cocktails, though they rarely provide any evidence.

The blackout snarled traffic amid confusion generated by blackened stoplights; the subway in Caracas broke down; an international soccer match in the central city of Barquisimeto was suspended; and there were reports a flight from neighbouring Colombia was turned back because the Caracas airport's backup generators failed, leaving customs officials without the ability to screen those arriving.

A video posted online of the Caracas airport showed angry passengers waiting in front of check-in counters in the dark, demanding to be let on planes.

“Flight! Flight! Flight!” they cried out.

Guaido took to Twitter to blast Maduro for the outage, looking to capitalise on what some decried as a sign of Venezuela's new-found status as a “failed state”, even though it sits atop the world's largest oil reserves.

“Sabotage is stealing Venezuelans' money, sabotage is burning food and medicine, sabotage is robbing elections,” he wrote yesterday.

Rubio, who has been driving the Trump Administration's confrontational stance toward Maduro, seemed to relish Rodriguez's accusations that he was somehow to blame for the power crisis.

“My apologies to people of Venezuela,” the Florida Republican said in a message on Twitter. “I must have pressed the wrong thing on the electronic attack app I downloaded from Apple. My bad.”

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