Blackouts force Venezuelans to live and work — even perform surgery — in darkness

Streets of Zulia state in Venezuela are darkened by frequent power outages.
Streets of Zulia state in Venezuela are darkened by frequent power outages. Special to the Miami Herald

When the lights go out in their sixth-floor apartment yet again, the Molero family knows the drill.

First, 27-year-old Marcos José Molero, a quadriplegic since birth, begins muttering swear words in his bedroom, angry that he won’t be able to watch his favorite TV series or the latest Barcelona soccer game.

Then his father, Marcos José Molero Sr., drags sleeping mats into the living room — “It’s fresher in here,” he said during a blackout last month ­— so his son can find some comfort in the blistering darkness.

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Marcos José Molero Sr., left, and his 27-year-old son Marcos, who is a quadriplegic, say they suffer in the dark and heat during frequent power outages in the city of Maracaibo, Venezuela. Gustavo Ocando Alex Special to the Miami Herald

Next, the 56-year-old civil engineer takes turns with his wife laying wet towels on his son’s body to help cool him so he doesn’t get another heat rash on his legs and back. They know the apartment can quickly heat up to 95 degrees with no air conditioning.

And finally, as they sit in the dark, they play soothing music on a battery-powered radio.

“He loses his good mood and his appetite,” his father said. “It’s been hard.”

Blackouts in Zulia state, an area of northwestern Venezuela that includes the country’s second-largest city of Maracaibo, have become commonplace in the last year. Food and medicine were already increasingly scarce in Venezuela, but the power cuts that come without warning — sometimes more than once a day — are a new form of misery.

And though some widespread outages have reached the capital of Caracas, Zulia — the heart of Venezuela’s energy industry — has turned out to be particularly vulnerable to the rolling blackouts.

The government has blamed the outages on a variety of things — including pesky animals. In an Oct. 20 tweet, Energy Minister Luis Motta Dominguez named “rats, mice, snakes, cats, squirrels” as possible culprits in shorting out lines. He added: “In the list of animals mentioned above, of course iguanas are included.”

Critics, however, say insufficient investment by the government is the cause, following the 2007 nationalization of the electricity sector.

The crisis began 14 months ago in the Punta Iguana substation, next to Lake Maracaibo, where a major failure occurred, leaving the entire state in the dark. It was the first in a series of breakdowns at 16 substations that have caused massive power outages, daily electricity cuts and energy surges.

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The night view from Henry Ocando’s home in Maracaibo, Venezuela, during a blackout. Courtesy

Starting in August 2017, the national government started to shut off the power grid for periods from four to six hours at a time in dozens of cities and rural towns.

The shutdowns have taken a toll on the lives of people like the Moleros. “We had to throw away chicken, bread and vegetables because they decomposed during blackouts that lasted more than 15 hours each,” Molero Sr. said.

Two of the Moleros’ air-conditioner units and a refrigerator were damaged early this year during power surges. They had to begin keeping plastic bottles of frozen water in the fridge so the food wouldn’t rot during longer periods without power.

Some Venezuelans have generators, but they’re too expensive for most. They cost between $250 and $450 — and Venezuelans’ monthly minimum wage is only $9.

So the Moleros, like most people they know, stay prepared. They keep cellphones fully charged at all times and the frozen water bottles in the fridge. They wear light clothes since the weather will likely be hot when the next outage occurs. They keep a couple of flashlights or candles at hand and have learned to cook on gas stoves in the dark. And they routinely disconnect household appliances when they’re not in use to prevent damage during times of fluctuating power.

Some people have become periodic nomads, searching for shelter at a friend or relative’s house with power. But the Moleros can’t.

“The [wheelchair] is too heavy and unsafe to carry down the stairs for six floors. We’re trapped. We can’t stroll through a mall or something with Marcos as we normally do,” the father said.

Power crashes

Zulia has experienced 11,131 power failures between January and September this year, according to a civil association called the Blackouts Committee, which receives daily reports of power cuts from citizens.

In September alone, there were 2,947 power crashes in Zulia, said Aixa López, chairwoman of the group, who called the numbers “horrifying.” The government stopped revealing any statistics about the national power system eight years ago.

Public transportation, already diminished by the economic crisis, becomes even more dysfunctional when the power flickers and goes out. Communications work erratically. People’s routines are on hold. Lines of cars are two blocks long at gas stations. Commerce and education are paralyzed.

Pablo Ortega, a computer engineering student at the University of Zulia, was shocked on his first day of classes in September when he saw the dark classrooms and laboratories.

It’s been a month now and dozens of students, including Ortega, are unable to resume their lessons.

“It’s frustrating. With no power, we can’t start at all,” he said, standing in the shadowed halls of the science department.

Claudia Carvajal, a graphic design student in her 20s, lived in darkness for a week after a nearby electric substation exploded, frying her power lines.

“My father and I had to sleep outside on our mattresses. We had a terrible time bathing, feeding and clothing my 82-year-old grandma,” she said.

And though her mother posted a plea for help on Facebook and managed to gather $220 to fix the problem, she said, the days took a toll. “It was a terrible situation.”

Old equipment

Omar Prieto, Zulia’s governor and a support of President Nicolás Maduro, declared in early October that the electric crisis in Zulia was over.

But then a massive power failure in a substation in Carabobo left 11 Venezuelan states, Zulia included, without electricity for 12 to 18 hours on Oct. 15.

José Aguilar, a Venezuelan power generation and risk consultant, says the power system has been in trouble since 2009, prompting the late President Hugo Chávez to announce new investment and more emphasis on the power system.

He said that more than 80 percent of power generation in Zulia isn’t working due to lack of maintenance and corruption. “The government is overloading power lines, old equipment, and generation and distribution substations,” he said.

And he thinks the crisis is far from over in Zulia and especially Maracaibo, once known for being the third Latin American city to have regular electricity in its streets. He thinks Zulia will experience more blackouts between January and February next year, when the general power demand traditionally grows.

“We’re going to hit rock bottom again very soon,” he said.

Aguilar, who works in Latin America but is not in Venezuela, is aware of the risks of speaking out about what he sees as shortcomings of the government-run power system.

At least five Venezuelan electrical engineers and power company officials were prosecuted, threatened, silenced and even forced to leave Venezuela in recent years for their warnings about the instability of the nation’s power system. The government said they were seeking to undermine the regime.

Surgery by cellphone lights

Henry Ocando, an obstetrician, gathered with his family at home in Maracaibo earlier this month to watch the second game of the National League baseball playoffs between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Milwaukee Brewers.

There were drinks and laughter, but it all came to an end when a heavy rain started about 10 p.m. That is always bad news in Zulia because it usually means an imminent failure on power distribution lines.

That night, there were three major power surges before everything went dark. No one got to see the Brewers win the game.

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The Ocando family in their home in Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second largest city, during a power outage. The outages have become so frequent in the past year that people routinely use candles to see at night and freeze water bottles in their refrigerators to keep food from spoiling. Courtesy

Ocando has seen much worse at public hospitals, though. “Power generators won’t start running sometimes, and pretty often we end up performing surgeries under cellphone lights. That’s very common,” he said.

Trosky Sánchez’s house flooded from the rain that night, but with the power out — and he’d forgotten to charge his cellphone — the 44-year-old English teacher couldn’t see which rooms were affected. He had to wait until dawn to clean up the mess.

“Nights like this are terrible. It’s hot. I can’t sleep at all. I can’t keep my mind clear to teach the kids,” he said.

One of the most affected districts in Zulia is Guajira, a town next to the Colombian border whose population is mostly indigenous. Recently, the residents have been living without electricity for two or three days at a time until the service comes back up, usually for only four uninterrupted hours.

“Our power system is grim,” said Rómulo Castro, a local professor and father of three from his house in Guajira. He used to have five-hour shifts at work, but now his school is open for two hours a day, at best.

He and his wife keep a candle lit all night so they can cook, eat and live in the darkness, a routine that makes them think of their ancestors.

“We’re back to the old times when our people lit up homemade torches,” Castro said. “That is just chaos and anarchy.”