Venezuela Blackout, in 2nd Day, Threatens Food Supplies and Patient Lives
CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela ground to a halt Friday as a national power blackout entered its second day, stalling public transportation, decimating already scarce food supplies, crippling the vital oil industry and threatening the lives of thousands of chronic patients.
A failure at the Guri hydropower plant, which provides the bulk of Venezuela’s electricity, has left most of the country without power since Thursday afternoon. While power returned intermittently to parts of Caracas, the capital, by Friday afternoon, many states remained without electricity.
Officials in Venezuela quickly blamed the opposition and the United States for causing the blackout through “sabotage,” but did not provide evidence. Guri is a militarized zone protected around the clock by soldiers.
Analysts and electricity-sector contractors said the blackout was the result of years of mismanagement and corruption, which have brought the grid, transmission towers and generation plants to the breaking point. Not one of more than a dozen diesel- and natural gas-powered backup plants built by the government in the last decade came online to compensate for the Guri outage.
“It’s further evidence of the government’s lack of resources to maintain critical infrastructure,” said Risa Grais-Targow, an analyst at Eurasia Group with expertise on Venezuela. “It seems to be a transmission issue at Guri, which would normally be offset by thermoelectric generation but in this case isn’t, both because of the decay in that infrastructure and potentially due to lack of thermal inputs to fire those plants.”
Elliott Abrams, the Trump administration’s special representative for Venezuela, denied during a briefing on Friday that the United States bore any responsibility for the blackout, whether direct or indirect, through the sanctions it has imposed on the country.
“This is a multiyear decline in Venezuela,” Mr. Abrams said. “The situation there, due to the mismanagement, the economic policies and the sheer corruption of this regime, are the cause of those problems.”
President Nicolás Maduro has not addressed the nation since the start of the blackout, confining himself to one Twitter post on Thursday evening in which he said the “electrical war” unleashed by the United States against Venezuela would be defeated. His public silence has fed the tension gripping Caracas.
In his absence, the opposition leader Juan Guaidó took to the streets of eastern Caracas Friday to question Mr. Maduro’s explanation and denounce his poor governance.
“Sabotage is corruption, sabotage is lack of free elections, sabotage is the blockade of food and medicine,” he posted on Twitter. His message is likely to be lost to most Venezuelans, who remain without power or cellular coverage.
Mr. Guaidó, who claimed Venezuela’s presidency earlier this year, pointing to evidence of fraud in Mr. Maduro’s re-election, has called the population to demonstrate on Saturday.
The Maduro administration has been responsible for grossly mismanaging the economy and plunging the country into a deep humanitarian crisis in which many people lack food and medical care. He has also attempted to crush the opposition by jailing or exiling critics, and using lethal force against antigovernment protesters.
The blackout may further anger the population and increase pressure on Mr. Maduro, and if it does not end soon, could fuel clashes in the coming days, said Ms. Grais-Targow.
“On the political and social front, it’s problematic for a government that is trying to avoid any potential catalysts for social explosions in an already tense political and social environment,” she said of the blackout. “So far, the population seems to be relatively calm, but if this persists without resolution and starts to hit food supplies and hospitals’ ability to function more severely, the popular backlash will probably be severe.”
As much of the country remained without electricity, the sole television station transmitting to the few households with power mostly showed soap operas and old news.
Downtown Caracas was largely empty Friday morning. The government canceled classes and most shops, banks and government buildings, including the Ministry of Electric Power, remained shuttered. Units of special police forces patrolled the main streets, where groups of public-sector workers loitered in vain hope of resuming work.
Backup generators buzzed around hospitals, which were trying to keep the most vulnerable patients alive.
About 50 babies requiring intensive care are born in Venezuela daily, and there are about 15,000 kidney patients in the country who need dialysis treatment, said Jaime Lorenzo, head of the Venezuelan medical charity Médicos Unidos. They could die if the power is not restored, he said.
In the emergency rooms of Dr. José María Vargas Hospital in Caracas, doctors scrambled to rotate critical patients on the few pieces of equipment connected to a backup generator.
“There were stretchers jumbled everywhere in the emergency and doctors taking off oxygen masks from some patients to put them on others,” said Belisario Jiménez, 52, who was admitted to the hospital’s intensive-care unit after falling down a set of stairs. “A lot of us are going to die here. At least I have lived my share.”
At the Olam Deli bakery in downtown Caracas, workers scrambled in darkness to sell the remaining loaves of bread before they went bad. They said the power cut had soured a day’s worth of dough, worth the equivalent of 56 minimum monthly wages in the country. The bakery’s supply of expensive cheese and cold meats sat in a thawing freezer.
“All I can do is pray that the power comes back before I lose everything,” said the bakery’s manager, Kevin, who asked that his last name not be used for fear of government reprisal.
The blackout will further depress Venezuela’s already collapsing economy, which is being squeezed by bad governance, graft and sanctions imposed by the United States. The sanctions have affected Venezuela’s ability to import and produce the fuel required by the thermal power plants that could have backed up the Guri plant once it failed.
The power failure risks hurting the already declining oil production, Venezuela’s main source of revenue, by damaging equipment and operational systems, said Ali Moshiri, formerly the top Chevron executive overseeing company operations in Venezuela.
“All of the oil field production is tied into the public grid and if the public grid goes down, those fields get shut in,” he said. He added that for years he had advised the government to install independent power supplies for the oil fields to guarantee reliability, but officials did not follow up.
To add to the regime’s economic woes, a World Bank arbitration panel on Friday awarded ConocoPhillips, an American oil company, more than $8 billion for Venezuela’s seizure of the Houston-based company’s production assets in 2007. Venezuela may appeal.
An earlier arbitration awarded ConocoPhillips $2 billion, which Venezuela agreed to pay last year when the company began seizing the Caribbean assets of Pdvsa, the national oil company.
To many Venezuelans, conditions already feel unsustainable. At the hospital, one of the doctors who spent the overnight shift trying to keep intensive-care patients stable broke into tears outside the neurosurgery unit.
“Yesterday I felt impotence,” said Rosangel Zuta, about the night spent trying to help and protect patients without the proper equipment to do so. “I am angry. This time, it was my patients, but what if later on, it is my family?”