Blackouts hit much of Venezuela again
Liliana Labarca, a 23-year-old Venezuelan university student, has slept with a whistle beside her bed since Monday. Her uncle has also had one at hand while doing watches on the roof of her house in Barrio Calendario, one of the most dangerous and populous slums of Maracaibo, in northwestern Venezuela.
They plan to make noise in the darkness of the night if robbers come around the neighborhood as a general power outage has left her community — and 80 percent of the country — without electricity for four days in a row.
“These days have sucked,” she says one morning while waiting for a bus to take her back home from the north side of the city.
Maracaibo, a city of 1.6 million residents, is about to enter the fourth day of the general power outage that occurred around 9:45 p.m. on Monday and that affected at least 20 Venezuelan states.
She has felt sick with worry because the nearby areas of her slum were the epicenter of violent looting of dozens of stores when the first blackout of the month occurred from March 7-13.
After three days of fury during that outage, 520 stores had been ransacked in Maracaibo, the capital city of the most populous state, Zulia, and the richest region in oil production of Venezuela. Labarca and her neighbors fear the violence will resume if the lights don’t come back on.
“There is no food. All the businesses are either empty or closed. People are saying that they can’t stand the hunger,” she says, echoing the voices on the streets that talk about new plans of looting.
The Chamber of Commerce of Maracaibo released a statement earlier this week demanding that local authorities put a security plan in place to prevent more looting from taking place during the new power outage.
The manager of one of the largest stores in La Curva de Molina, in western Maracaibo — where the ransacking began on March 10, said he has dozens of armed vigilantes guarding most of the businesses owned by his boss in several locations of the city.
“We’ve heard rumors of looting and we’re not taking any chances. If this blackout is like the other one, we’re afraid it’s going to be worse,” he says, asking the Herald to protect his identity for fear of reprisals.
Nerio Paz, an employee of the city’s cleaning system, says that people around his slum, Los Pescadores, in the north side of Maracaibo, are planning to plunder if power is not restored.
He and his two daughters and grandchildren ate the little beef and chicken they had at their fridges in the first two days of the blackout.
“We had to eat it quickly. Now we’re eating only grains. The past outage was pure terror. People came running from the slums across the street to ransack supermarkets and drugstores. If this situation keeps going, it’s about to get really bad,” he says, after stopping for a while from his daily long walk from home to work.
A ghost-town atmosphere prevails both night and day since the Nicolás Maduro government, which blames the opposition and foreign forces from United States for the outage, has suspended work and school activities in the whole country since Monday.
Street lights are off. Venezuelan towns look grim at night as people light candles and flashlights in their homes. Just a few hotels, restaurants, drugstores and shops remain open, thanks to generators.
There was no vacancy at the Intercontinental Hotel on Wednesday night, for instance. The actual rooms were not filled, though: Dozens of people occupied its lobby, restaurants, lounge, the elevators area and most of its spaces to enjoy a little electricity in their lives.
The uncommon visitors sat and stood all over the luxurious building, just ordering a glass of water or nothing at all, taking turns charging phones, laptops and a wide variety of electronic devices in the few outlets available.
While the electric service has been coming back on and off in Caracas and 19 other regions, the state of Zulia, especially Maracaibo and its nearby towns, has not been as fortunate.
Since the power outage began Monday, Zulia — as of Thursday evening — had not received a single kilowatt to its power grid from the National Electric System, which mostly relies on Guri’s Hydroelectric Dam in the eastern side of Venezuela, 664 miles away. Maduro has blamed a fire due to a “sabotage” for the first general failure.
On Wednesday, Maduro blamed a sniper for the damage.
Zulia is actually the last link to the Venezuelan electric chain. So, as the country starts to light up, it will be last to receive electricity and there is always the possibility that it won’t receive any service at all if something goes wrong along the way in dozens of substations and power lines from the other states.
Efforts to bring some service to Guri’s 21 districts have failed so far amid the collapse of the national power grid in at least two opportunities since Monday.
Despair in the waiting
Diana Belloso, a 34-year-old mother of two admits she is in despair while she waits for the power grid to start functioning properly again.
Valentina, her teenage daughter, suffers from lupus and she has skin rashes all over her body. Belloso points out the scars in her neck and forehead near Indio Mara Square, in northern Maracaibo.
The girl hides most of them under a white and hot sweater. She blames the blackout for it. Zulia is a state with average temperatures over 86 degrees and people fight back the heat waves with air conditioning in almost every house and buildings. Without electricity, temperatures become unbearable.
“We’re in pretty bad shape. We’re sleeping on mattresses on the floor outside our house. I’m anguished, I’m worried,” says Belloso, almost in tears.
Food is also going rotten due to the lack of power to keep fridges running. Alexander Villalobos, a fruit salesman in his 50s, says that he has lost several baskets of oranges, melons, watermelons, grapes and peaches.
“We have no ice to keep them cool. We have never lived something like these power outages of March,” he says while cleaning one of his fridges.
Villalobos and his business partner, Alfran Zambrano, 20, say they are actually afraid of a looting rampage that may burst anytime during the blackout, even in daylight.
.“We’re afraid, yes, but, what can you do? We have to sell whatever we can,” Zambrano says as he tends to a customer willing to buy ripe bananas. “We’re praying to God not to be seen by looters if they come out to the streets.”