Venezuelans Shrug as Rolling Blackouts Begin

  • Many areas of the country have suffered blackouts for weeks
  • Government announced rolling national power cuts last week

Venezuelans took the first day of rolling national power cuts in their stride yesterday. After all, for many it was nothing new.

Residents of Charallave, a commuter city about 60 kilometers south of Caracas, have lived with daily blackouts for the past two months, shutting down many shops, factories and public offices. The only difference is that now the cuts are programmed.

Maria Teresa Quiroga
Maria Teresa Quiroga
Photographer: Wilfredo Riera/Bloomberg

“The electricity usually goes for two or three hours a day,” said Maria Teresa Quiroga, 62, a saleswoman in a specialized security key shop. “When there’s no electricity, sales fall because we can’t use the terminal for credit and debit cards. I’d say sales have fallen 70 percent from last year.”

The government last week announced four-hour rolling blackouts for most of the country except residents of Caracas, as a drought crippled generation at the giant Guri hydro-electric dam. It was the latest blow to an economy that the International Monetary Fund forecasts will contract 8 percent this year, after shrinking 5.7 percent in 2015. Venezuelans are learning to live with the crisis.

Charallave’s main street was crowded with people Monday, many waiting in line to buy rice, detergent and other staples and many others looking to get money out of the bank as prices rise on an almost weekly basis. At the Los Samanes shopping mall, all of the lights were out except for a single cyber cafe that had a generator running on the floor. Customers didn’t seem to mind the loud noise or the exhaust being pumped into the air. 

Residents wait in line to buy groceries in Charallave.
Residents wait in line to buy groceries in Charallave.
Photographer: Wilfredo Riera/Bloomberg

Life Adapts

The government had already instigated a four-day working week for state employees to reduce electricity demand, while urging Venezuelans to curtail the use of everything from hairdryers to clothes irons. It wasn’t enough though to counteract the impact of a drought authorities blame on the El Nino weather phenomenon.

Water levels at Guri dam have continued to fall and reached a record low of 241.67 meters on April 25, according to state power utility Corpoelec. If levels drop below 240 meters, the dam’s operator may be forced to shut down units at the plant that produces about 75 percent of the electricity that Caracas, the country’s capital and largest city, consumes.

The government has so far exempted Caracas from the daily rationing for being the seat of political and economic power. Plans have been made to ration electricity in some municipalities of the city should demand remain excessive, Electricity Minister Luis Motta Dominguez said April 22.

Hot Work

The Charallave warehouse where Denis Turiz, an employee for Chilean wood products maker Masisa S.A., works was particularly hot Monday. The air-conditioning system broke several months ago and replacement parts have been hard to find.

“We’ve been having power cuts for two months,” Turiz said. “Today, we thought they were going to ration, but they didn’t. Now we’ll see if the electricity company upholds the set rationing hours.” 

The blackouts had forced the manager to ask staff to change their schedules and work through their lunch break, Turiz said.

Last week’s “announcement was false in the sense that the rationing wasn’t new,” Luis Bernal, a 57-year-old taxi driver, said in an interview. “We’ve been living with rationing for more than a month. Last night, they cut the lights off at my house for five hours.”

The power outrages have damaged his refrigerator, forcing him to pay 40,000 bolivars ($110 at the weakest legal exchange rate, or more than three monthly wages) to fix it, he said.

“To whom do I complain? The food is being damaged,” Bernal said. “The rationing is dividing us as Venezuelans. Caracas is exempt and its everyone else who is affected. Am I not a citizen like everyone everyone else?”

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