World News

06.28.14

Who Will Maduro Blame for Venezuela’s Blackout This Time?

Caracas was plunged into darkness in the middle of a televised speech by President Nicolas Maduro. Many residents are fed up with the government, but officials are looking for a much shadier culprit.

CARACAS, Venezuela—When it rains, it pours. This is particularly true in Caracas, where each year a fortnight of heavy downpours known colloquially as El Cordonazo de San Francisco (the lash from St. Francis of Assisi’s belt) deluges the Venezuelan capital, and heralds the advent of tropical winter. Currently, President Nicolas Maduro, the handpicked socialist scion to Hugo Chávez, likewise seems to be receiving his own heavy drenching, drawing heavy ire from critics on both the left and right, and seemingly in a constant state of damage control.

Where his predecessor managed to consolidate presidential control to heights unknown in Venezuela since its early 20th-century dictatorships, Maduro has struggled to solidify his authority throughout the first year of his tenure. Unable to evict Chávez’s daughters from the presidential palace, he was relegated to less lofty vice presidential quarters from the outset. Meanwhile, policymaking has been largely defined by a group of political party plutocrats spearheaded by Rafael Ramirez, the Venezuelan energy minister and head of the nationalized oil company PDVSA, and the National Assembly chief Diosdado Cabello.

Allegedly bowing to intra-party pressures from these circles, last week Maduro dismissed Jorge Giordani, the Marxist mastermind of Venezuela’s “revolutionary” economy, from the supervisory boards of both the Central Bank and PDVSA. Giordani was a high-profile ally of Chávez, and the intellectual architect of many of his signature policies—including Venezuela’s multi-tier exchange rates, price controls, hyper-regulation, and even oil diplomacy. Giordani’s removal represents a clear departure from the philosophical underpinnings of Chavismo. The move has garnered Maduro some uncharacteristically vicious backlash from the left-wing purists of the government’s support base, first among them Giordani himself.

Even before then, rampant scarcities of food and basic goods, sky-high inflation, and staggering crime rates have chipped away at Maduro’s popularity, reducing them to record lows. In early February, a rash of street protests and barricades paralyzed the nation, and were violently suppressed by state authorities in a series of crackdowns that saw several notable opposition leaders incarcerated. The resulting negative publicity led even previously supportive international media outlets, like the The Guardian to become more critical, and when Hollywood stars began chiming in against his government, the 2014 Academy Awards were pulled from the Venezuelan television lineup for the first time in 39 years.

And now this: in the middle of a triumphalist speech for “national journalists day,” broadcast by law on every Venezuelan television and radio station, the lights went out on Maduro—and on much of the country. Much of Caracas, and areas in nearly all of Venezuela’s other 22 states was affected the country’s aging and poorly maintained power grid struggled to get back online.

Julio Cesar Rosas (a pseudonym) owns a medium-sized business in Los Cortijos, a district in east-central Caracas. “The lights went out gradually,” he told me. “First it was the DirecTV and cable that shorted, then electricity was faded in and out around five times before finally blinking out.”

Although it was a busy workday preparing for the weekend, he let his employees go at noon since the Caracas metro had stopped working and they might have trouble making it home. “Once on my scooter, traffic was horrible. Hoards of folks that would normally be on the metro were overflowing the sidewalks and taking up much of the roadways, and all the stoplights were out.” The result was a perfect storm of commuter congestion where “normal Caracas chaos became absolute mayhem.”

After three major blackouts in the space of a year, Julio Cesar is fed up. “This almost never happened with Electricidad de Caracas,” he said, referring to the private company presiding over most of Venezuela’s power needs prior to the grid’s 2007 nationalization under Chávez. “These new dark ages stem from a corrupt and decaying power system—a reflection of the state of affairs in the country itself.”

Fernando Toledo, an associate at a data analysis outfit in downtown Caracas affected by the blackout likewise holds the regime responsible. “This government’s incompetence really doesn’t have any limits.”

But is the government really to blame? Well, they certainly don’t seem to think so.

On some previous occasions blackouts have been blamed on shadowy saboteurs from either the U.S. imperialists (“la CÍA”) or else sinister Venezuelan groups from the traditional elite (“los fascistas”). At other times, nature itself has taken the blame, such as in 2012 when a wire-hungry opossum was held responsible for a day-long blackout in Guayana City, or the iguana two years earlier whose “getting loose in the grid” sufficed to darken Anzoátegui State for an extended period. (The regime has, to date, never definitively weighed in on whether these troublesome critters had imperialist or fascist ties.)

Pending the outcome of Maduro’s investigation, preliminary culpability seems to have been attached to the wind, or, more specifically, the unusually heavy winds caused by El Niño, toppling a collection of electrical towers. Maria “Macarena” Paz, a Caracas engineer, is underwhelmed by this explanation. “So it’s no longer the cable-eating iguanas, the CIA, or the opposition, it’s the wind! Knocking down no less than eight towers specifically designed to withstand hurricane gales but swept away in unison by light breezes… they must really think we’re idiots.”