Venezuela cuts workday, extends school cancelation over blackouts

By AFP   March 31, 2019 | 05:20 pm PT
Venezuela cuts workday, extends school cancelation over blackouts
Venezuela has been hit by two vast blackouts in March 2019 that have saged its already tattered economy. Photo by AFP/Federico Parra
Venezuela's government announced Sunday that it is reducing the length of the workday and keeping schools closed due to devastating electricity blackouts plaguing the country.

Crippled infrastructure, little investment in the power grid and poor maintenance mean that the widespread blackouts that have hit Venezuela throughout the month of March are likely here to stay.

Add to that the country's economic deep crisis, eye-popping inflation rate and the "brain drain" of qualified personnel -- some 25,000 people in the electricity sector have left the country, part of the 2.7 million Venezuelans who have emigrated since 2015 -- and you have the makings of a crisis with no end in sight.

On Sunday, authorities acknowledged that there was not enough electricity to go around.

"To achieve consistency in the provision of electricity, the Bolivarian government decided to maintain the suspension of school activities and establish a workday until 2:00 pm in public and private institutions," Communications Minister Jorge Rodriguez said on state television.

With no electricity, pumping stations can't work so water service is limited. Street lights and traffic lights go dark, pumps at fuel stations stand idle, and cell phone and internet service is non-existent.

"This is going to continue, the situation is very serious, there will be more blackouts and rationing," said Winton Cabas, president of the Venezuelan association of Electrical and Mechanical Engineering.

"The whole power grid is barely generating between 5,500 and 6,000 megawatts, when it has the capacity to generate 34,000 megawatts," he told AFP.

Who is responsible?

The Maduro government has blamed "terrorists" for alleged attacks that have damaged the Guri hydroelectric power plant, which generates 80 percent of Venezuela's electricity.

The Guri plant, however, was already showing signs of trouble: back in 2010, then-president Hugo Chavez said that electricity would be rationed in some Venezuelan states because water was low at the Guri dam due to a drought.

Jose Aguilar, a Venezuelan consultant living in the United States, says that the problems with the power grid run deep.

"Over the past 20 years, the infrastructure has been abused due to a lack of maintenance and the postponing of upgrade plans," he told AFP.

Add to that the "de-professionalization" of the sector after Chavez nationalized the privately-run power company in 2007, which led to pro-government loyalists taking positions as managers and engineers.

The blackouts have worsened the dire economic and living conditions in a country that is witnessing a political showdown between Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaido, recognized as interim president by the United States and some 50 other countries.

Spreading protests

Demonstrations by Venezuelans angry about the blackouts broke out Sunday in Caracas. Some demos, according to protesters and human rights NGOs, were attacked by "colectivos" -- pro-government enforcers that the opposition describe as armed paramilitary thugs.

Maduro has given the "colectivos" a green light to contain protests that he describes as violent mobs aiming to oust him from power.

Joaquin Rodriguez, a 54-year-old lawyer, was among the protesters gathered in Los Palos Grandes, a once-prosperous neighborhood that has endured blackouts for more than a decade.

"Once again a nationwide blackout is affecting our quality of life," he told AFP.

"We don't have water, we don't have any light, we don't have internet access, our phones don't work... we are even worse off than we could have imagined."

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