Venezuela’s power outage threatens information blackout as internet collapses

Venezuela began sputtering back to life Friday as the country slowly recovered from a severe power outage that lasted for more than 20 hours in many areas. While the power failure upended critical services in the country of 32 million, it also created an information blackout.

NetBlocks, an internet monitoring organization, said much of Venezuela’s internet went down during the outage, making it one of the largest network collapses the organization has recorded.

Alp Toker, the organization’s executive director, said internet connectivity in Venezuela had bottomed out at just 2 percent of normal activity on Friday morning and was hovering around 5 percent at noon. Service will undoubtedly be restored as sections of the power grid come back online. .

“We’ve seen fairly large power disruptions before, often covering entire regions, but this is extremely rare, not just for Latin America but on a global scale,” Toker said.

Among the areas that are being hit by the internet outage are the Caracas metropolitan area and Maracaibo, the country’s two largest population centers. But Aragua, Bolivar, Carabobo, Cojedes, Guárico, Vargas, Táchira, Mérida, Zulia, Barinas and Nueva Esparta were also having connectivity problems, the group said.

Venezuelan authorities say “sabotage” and an unspecified “attack” on the Guri dam hydroelectric station in Bolivar state — one of the world’s largest — are causing the problem. Vice President Delcy Rodriguez suggested that Florida Sen. Marco Rubio had ordered the attack.

“The electrical warfare announced and directed by the imperialist United States against our people will be defeated,” Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro tweeted Friday. “I call for maximum unity patriots!”

The opposition says the power failure is one more symptom of government mismanagement, corruption and the broad economic collapse.

The outage began Thursday shortly before 5 p.m. local time, slamming vital infrastructure. Venezuela’s international airport in Maiquetia was plunged into darkness, and service on the Caracas Metro rail was suspended as thousands of people spilled onto the streets of the capital. The Associated Press reported about hospitals having to use manual ventilators to keep newborns alive.

As of Friday afternoon, there were reports of power being restored to parts of the capital and Miranda state.

The lack of internet connectivity — a lifeline for many people looking for information outside of official government channels — comes at a critical moment, as interim President Juan Guaidó is trying to unseat Maduro.

Amid the political power struggle, online censorship seems to be on the rise, with several opposition news websites being blocked intermittently. On Thursday, NetBlocks said there were indications that state-run internet provider CANTV had blocked YouTube for at least 20 hours prior to the blackout. That interruption seemed to coincide with a meeting Wednesday of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, whose sessions are often webcast on YouTube.

NetBlocks, a U.K.-based organization which monitors internet activity across the globe, said Venezuela seemed to be a world leader in internet censorship at the moment.

“Venezuela is on a different scale right now in terms of the number of incidents,” Toker said.

Guaidó spent Friday on the streets of Caracas talking to people impacted by the power crisis and holding a rally as part of International Women’s Day. But few in Venezuela were likely aware of his activities, as cellular coverage was spotty and millions were unable to charge their phones.

Both the opposition and the government are calling for demonstrations on Saturday, and the power disruption is likely to play a prominent role for both sides.

On Friday, Guaidó dismissed the government’s claims that the Guri power plant had been attacked.

“Sabotage is stealing money from Venezuelans,” he wrote on Twitter. “Sabotage is stealing elections.”

Jim Wyss covers Latin America for the Miami Herald and was part of the team that won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for its work on the “Panama Papers.” He and his Herald colleagues were also named Pulitzer finalists in 2019 for the series “Dirty Gold, Clean Cash.” He joined the Herald in 2005.