March 26, 2019 / 2:49 PM / in 3 months

Second major blackout leaves Venezuelans fearing power cuts will be the norm

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela’s government told workers and school children to stay home on Tuesday as the second major blackout this month left the streets of Caracas mostly empty and residents wondering how long power would be out amid a deepening economic crisis.

Commercial area is pictured during a blackout in Caracas, Venezuela March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

President Nicolas Maduro’s Socialist government, which had blamed sabotage by the United States and the opposition for the previous power cut, said an “attack” on its electrical system caused the blackout that first hit on Monday. The outage shuttered businesses, paralysed the country’s main oil export terminal, and stranded commuters.

Intermittent service has long affected Venezuela’s largely rural interior, but residents of Caracas fear the increasing blackouts in the capital mean that unreliable power is becoming the new normal for them, too.

“I hope that now with these blackouts in Caracas they can do something, that everyone reacts,” said Maria Melendez, a seamstress in the western city of Punto Fijo who said she has had to replace damaged appliances during previous blackouts.

“They used to say that Caracas is Caracas, and everywhere else is weeds and snakes. Now Caracas will also be weeds and snakes if we continue like this.”

The blackout came amid tensions with the United States over the weekend arrival of Russian military planes, which led Washington to accuse Moscow of “reckless escalation” of the country’s political crisis.

The United States believes the planes were carrying “cybersecurity personnel,” a U.S. official told Reuters on Tuesday. That would suggest part of their mission could be helping Maduro’s loyalists with surveillance and protecting the government’s cyber infrastructure.

Russia, which has major energy investments in OPEC member Venezuela, has remained a staunch ally of Maduro, while the United States and most other Western nations have endorsed opposition leader Juan Guaido.

Citing the constitution, Guaido in January assumed the interim presidency, saying Maduro’s re-election last year was fraudulent. Maduro says Guaido is a U.S. puppet attempting to lead a coup against him and has blamed worsening economic difficulties on sanctions imposed by Washington.

Upon leaving a National Assembly session on Tuesday, individuals threw stones at the vehicle in which Guaido was travelling and tried to open its doors, according to a Reuters witness. Referring to the event on Twitter, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “we condemn the attack on @JGuaido’s caravan.”

GOVERNMENT BLAMES “FAR RIGHT”

Power had returned to many parts of Caracas by noon on Tuesday, but businesses remained idle and few pedestrians were walking the streets. Those who went to work because they had not heard that the workday had been cancelled were returning to their homes.

“How am I supposed to find out, if there’s no power and no internet?” said dental assistant Yolanda Gonzalez, 50, waiting for the bus near a Caracas plaza. “Power’s going to get worse, you’ll see.”

Venezuela’s western cities, including Maracaibo and Barquisimeto, as well as the central city of Valencia, also had no power on Tuesday, according to witnesses.

The main oil export terminal of Jose and the country’s four upgraders that make its crude exportable were paralysed by the outage, industry workers said.

Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez on Monday said the blackout was the result of an attack on Venezuela’s main hydroelectric Guri dam which had affected three major transmission lines.

He did not explicitly blame the outage on any individual or group. But he said, “the intention of Venezuela’s far right is to attack, generate anxiety and anguish, in order to seize power and steal all our resources.”

Brazil Mines and Energy Minister Bento Albuquerque said on Tuesday that Venezuela had not complied with its contract to supply northern Roraima state with energy since March 7, without providing details.

Slideshow (2 Images)

The first of Venezuela’s blackouts this month began on March 7. For nearly a week it left millions of people struggling to obtain food and water and hospitals without power to treat the sick. Looting in the western state of Zulia destroyed hundreds of businesses.

Electricity experts say the outages are the result of inadequate maintenance and incompetent management of the power grid since the late President Hugo Chávez nationalized the sector in 2007.

“The new normal for the electrical supply is greater vulnerability and less reliability,” said Miguel Lara, a former president of the state-run entity responsible for the power system.

Reporting by Vivian Sequera, Brian Ellsworth and Corina Pons; Additional reporting by Mayela Armas; Writing by Brian Ellsworth and Luc Cohen; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Rosalba O'Brien and Lisa Shumaker

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