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.Bloomberg via Getty Images
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.

"After they nationalized the electricity sector, the plants and lines were ignored and they let it deteriorate. This has been a huge problem," said Cardozo, who teaches political science at Venezuela's Central University.

Although the government's motives for the nationalization was to freeze energy rates for the poor, inflation grew in subsequent years by 15 to 35 percent. Despite the inflation, the government refused to hike up electricity rates which resulted in the state run energy company Corpolec being short on funds to construct and repair new power lines.

Since Chavez's election in 1998, Venezuela's shantytowns have seen a surge in electrical usage as a result of reduced poverty rates and high oil prices that have let the government spend lavishly on social programs. Satellite dishes adorn most of the rooftops of shantytown homes nowadays, while many residents take their electricity illegally through rustic cables attached to public lamps and power lines.

Meanwhile a new public housing program that in just two years has built over 200,000 apartments across the country has put additional stress on the nation's energy grid.

"They did not conduct studies to see how much electricity these buildings were going to use. They just build it without taking into consideration how much energy it was going to take away from other residents in the area," said Beatriz Olivo, the energy specialist.

Venezuela's socialist government however, has been very careful not to let these blackouts affect Caracas, Venezuela's largest city, where 20 percent of the country's population lives.

"It has the biggest concentration of people. It is the capital where all the media is concentrated. If the light fails there that could lead to political consequences even among Chavez supporters," said Ennio Cardozo

But the priority that Caracas gets in receiving power from the government has come at the expense of the other states in the country. According to Raul Perez a taxi driver from Barinas, these electrical blackouts have created chaos in peoples' daily lives.

"The food gets spoiled, the air condition doesn't work which means kids can't go to school, while the water stops. But in the end people get used to it and it becomes routine."

In recent years the government has started buying power from neighboring Colombia to help back up its antiquated grid. Nicolas Maduro in recent speeches has also signaled his intentions to explore using natural gas.

Maduro is most likely to beat Capriles in Sunday's elections. But he will need to solve this electricity problem if he wants to secure voters' support in future contests.