While I was in Venezuela in early June, maybe the most bizarre event was the power outage in Maracaibo. Electrical power problems have been mounting all over Venezuela in recent years. Drought in the Orinoco River basin has threatened the El Guri hydroelectric plant on the Orinoco River, which supplies about three-quarters of Venezuela’s electricity. Since the electrical utility was nationalized, maintenance on the national grid has fallen way behind schedule. The opposition blames the government for replacing electrical engineers with Chavez cronies.
Power outages outside of Caracas are common. While I awaited my flight to Caracas at Santo Domingo airport, the power died for 10 minutes.
The cause of the great Maracaibo outage was the explosion of transformers at a local substation. Hospitals, gas stations and traffic lights were down. The city was paralyzed. The resulting 40-hour blackout in Venezuela’s 2nd largest city, with over two million residents, and appeared to be spreading to parts of 3 states.
Maracaibo is often almost intolerably hot. It was 95 degrees farenheit with a humidity of 70% when the blackout started, making it feel like about 117 degrees.
What was most bizarre was the Federal government’s response. First the governor of Zulia State claimed he had no information. Finally the Feds spoke up. First they blamed sabotage, then …… residents, for consuming too much. They said, “Venezuelans can live without air conditioners set at 60 degrees all the time.”
Well, maybe they have a point: Inflation has spurred a buying bonanza. The people who can have loaded up with more air conditioners and other appliances, TVs, stereos etc. But when something like a power outage happens, government, if they are responsible, needs to own up to it, make clear the present condition is unacceptable, and restore power quickly. They don’t win hearts and minds in a crisis by making excuses.
Then there is the bizarre prison battle. As I write, it is in its fifth day, after prison gang violence began on June 12th. While government troops lay siege to the El Rodeo prison, prisoners were texting family, fearing a massacre. Some prisoners who have gotten out said as many as 37 people have died, but no one knows the real number. They are heavily armed. This is not unusual; many prisons in Latin America are controlled by gangs while prison guards keep a watchful eye from outside.
One man was quoted as saying, “I get strip-searched every time I visit my brother in there, so can you explain to me how these weapons make it inside if it is not the corrupt guards?”
Then there is the absence and complete silence of President Chavez, convalescing in Cuba from surgery. He normally can’t stop talking. His long absence and mysterious silence during Venezuela’s worst power outage and prison battle accentuate two of his government’s biggest failures, crime and crumbling infrastructure.