Nerves fray, tempers flare as Venezuela blackout hits fourth day
CARACAS (Reuters) - Furious Venezuelans lined up to buy water and fuel on Sunday as the country entered a fourth day of a nationwide blackout that has left already-scarce food rotting in shops, homes suffering for lack of water and cell phones without reception.
Authorities have managed to provide only patchy access to power since the outage began on Thursday in what President Nicolas Maduro called an act of U.S.-backed sabotage, but critics insist it is the result of incompetence and corruption.
With no coherent official explanation of the problem or likely time frame for solving it, Venezuelans, who have for years found ways to laugh about the privations of the economic crisis, are now fretting that the blackout could extend indefinitely.
The country’s worst-ever power outage comes as Maduro faces a hyperinflationary economic collapse and an unprecedented political crisis. Opposition leader Juan Guaido in January invoked the constitution to assume the presidency after declaring Maduro’s 2018 re-election a fraud.
Angry residents of the Caracas neighborhood of Chacao on Sunday set up barricades along a main avenue and on side streets to protest the continued outage.
“The food we had in our refrigerators has spoiled, businesses are closed, there’s no communication, not even by cell phone,” Ana Cerrato, 49, a merchant, standing in front of a pile of razor wire and debris.
“No country can bear 50 hours without electricity. We need help! We are in a humanitarian crisis!”
Lines extended for blocks at fuel stations as drivers queued up for gasoline and busses waited fill up with diesel. Families stood under the sun to buy potable water, which is unavailable for most residents whose homes do not have power.
State oil company PDVSA said on Sunday that fuel supplies were guaranteed, but many service stations remained shuttered for lack of power.
Merchants unable to maintain refrigerators working began giving away cheese, vegetables and meat to clients.
“I’m going to give this to street kids that I see,” said Jenny Paredes, owner of a cafe, in reference to milk that she could not keep any longer.
Other shops had supplies stolen.
A small supermarket in a working class area of western Caracas was looted on Saturday night after protesters barricaded an avenue and clashed with police, according to neighbors and the shop’s owner Manuel Caldeira.
“They took food, they broke the display windows, they stole scales and point of sale terminals,” said Caldeira, 58, standing on the shop floor littered with glass. “We weren’t here (when it happened), we got here and found all of this destroyed.”
The air in the shop still reeked of tear gas from the night before, when police had fired canisters to disperse the looters. Two employees were struggling to open protective steel doors that were damaged by the thieves.
“The national electrical system has been subject to multiple cyber attacks,” Maduro wrote on Twitter on Sunday. “However, we are making huge efforts to restore stable and definitive supply in the coming hours.”
Guaido in a Sunday press conference criticized severely the government for failing to explain what was going on.
“The regime at this hour, days after a blackout without precedent, has no diagnosis,” he said.
Guaido invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency in January, arguing that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was fraudulent. He has been recognized as Venezuela’s legitimate leader by the United States and most Western countries, but Maduro retains control of the armed forces and state functions.
Despite pressure from frequent opposition marches and U.S. sanctions on the country’s vital oil sector, Maduro is not open to negotiations on ending the political impasse and seems intent on trying to stay put, said Elliott Abrams, the Trump administration’s envoy for Venezuela.
Speaking on U.S. broadcast network ABC’s “This Week,” U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton said on Sunday he thought momentum is on Guaido’s side.
“There are countless conversations going on between members of the National Assembly and members of the military in Venezuela; talking about what might come, how they might move to support the opposition,” Bolton said.
At hospitals, the lack of power combined with the absence or poor performance of backup generators led to the death of 17 patients across the country, non-governmental organization Doctors for Health said on Saturday. Reuters was unable to independently verify the figure, and the government’s Information Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
Power returned briefly to parts of Caracas and other cities on Friday, but went out again around midday on Saturday.
“One can infer from the delays and the results of the failure that it was a problem in the lines that leave Guri, rather than in the plant itself,” said Miguel Lara, a former president of the state-run entity responsible for the electricity system, referring to the Guri hydroelectric power plant, one of the world’s biggest, that supplies most of Venezuela’s electricity.
Additional reporting by Shaylim Valderrama, Vivian Sequera and Corina Pons and Miguel Angel Sulbaran in Caracas, and by Susan Cornwell in Washington; Writing by Luc Cohen; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Marguerita Choy