Power Shortages Become a Hot Topic in Venezuela's Presidential Race

PHOTO: A technician services electrical wires in the 23 de Enero neighborhood, a stronghold of support for President Hugo Chavez, in Caracas, Venezuela, on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013.

Venezuela's interim president Nicolas Maduro launched his presidential campaign in Hugo Chavez's home state of Barinas hoping that when voters head to the polls this Sunday they will identify him with the deceased socialist leader. Among those in the crowd was Juan Roman, a staunch Chavez supporter, who like all of the people in Barinas and most of Venezuela, is hit by weekly and sometimes daily power blackouts.

But according to Roman, Chavez and Maduro have no fault in his daily struggle with electricity.

"The [Venezuelan] opposition and the capitalists in the U.S. are trying to sabotage our energy installations so they can destroy this [socialist] movement. We won't let them do that," Roman said.

The Venezuelan government has long blamed the country's opposition and the United States for plotting to destabilize the country by disrupting the nation's hydroelectric power system.

And along with crime and food shortages, electricity has become one of the most widely discussed issues in the days prior to Venezuela's presidential election, which takes place on April 14.

Just last week, Maduro accused members of opposition candidate Henrique Capriles's campaign of conspiring with employees of the state-run energy provider, Corpolec to disrupt the national grid. Soon afterwards, Maduro ordered the military to take guard of every energy installation in the country.

Capriles has made the frequent blackouts throughout the country a key part of his stump speech by attacking the government's failure to upgrade and maintain old electrical lines and plants.

And while Maduro has a ten point lead in most polls, his campaign has taken Capriles's attacks seriously and responded last weekend by announcing the creation of new social program that would keep in place the military's protection of the country's energy infrastructure and also set aside money to upgrade and built new plants.

According to Beatriz Olivo an energy analyst who has worked in many government projects, Maduro and the previous Chavez government have not taken the maintenance of the power grid seriously.

"There has been very little investment in infrastructure. Instead they blame it on other people, when facilities are crumpling. Many of these electrical installations are over 20 years old," Olivo said.

The blackouts have been a major problem since 2009 when a drought caused the Chavez government to start rationing power. Despite having the largest oil reserves in the world, Venezuela is one of the few countries in the world that uses a hydroelectric system for power, as most oil is exported to earn hard currency for the government.

While the blackouts rarely affect Venezuela's capital, Caracas, they have become a weekly and sometimes daily occurrence in the western, southern and eastern parts of the country. Some blackouts last as long as eight hours. Professor Ennio Cardozo believes that the nationalization of Venezuela's electricity sector in 2007 by the Chavez government played a big part in causing the blackouts.

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