Venezuela: A country shrouded in shadows
So it begins
Venezuela as usual, in a tense calm amid an unprecedented political situation. Life however, goes on, people at work, children at school, open business despite the political uncertainty. Everything as usual, in an absurd normalcy for citizens that seem to be mired in disgrace. But on Thursday, sometime after 4:00pm, the country started shutting down in the most literal sense. States, one by one, lost the state-owned electric service, leaving in the dark the nation that has the second largest hydroelectric plant in the world, and with additional two large ones, that were, in their era, guardians and pioneers of their kind in Latin America.
"But on Thursday, sometime after 4:00pm, the country started shutting down in the most literal sense".
Thursday 07 of march, those same electric sources turned culprits of horror, anger and sadness for Venezuelans. With that we began what could be dubbed as the longest weekend in the country in recorded history. But this is not recent. Signals have been popping up for over a decade, ever since the nationalization of the hydroelectric industry.
Chronologically speaking, the Thursday blackout started in the farther states. Zulia, in the most western state in the country, has been suffering from electric issues for the past years. Being one of the hottest states, it usually suffers from lack of electricity for a quarter of the day. For them, amid the absurdity, not having power has become the norm. Telephone lines and internet went down too, as usual. From Thursday at 4:00pm, many families don’t know about their loved ones. Nearby states like Mérida, Trujillo, Lara, Portuguesa, and Yaracuy fell into the shadows simultaneously. A shadow that by Tuesday, almost 4 days later, continues in many states.
The state that produces most of electric power for the country stands in awe since 4:00pm of Thursday. Reports of a national blackout are not affecting it, Bolívar state seems to elude the horror by sheer luck. But not for long; Ciudad Bolívar, the capital of the state falls into the blackout zones. 45 minutes away, Puerto Ordaz keeps electric energy almost like a solitary fort, it’s the only place where the situation doesn’t seem to be as bad as it looked like on social media.
But not for long: hours after the larger blackout, as the rest of the country, the lights go off in Bolivar state. The final account that news and citizen platforms reached in disbelief? Out of 24 states, 20, later corrected to 22 with other reports, fall into the deepest darkness. That’s how you turn off the lights of a country with 3 large hydroelectric power plants on Thursday, 07 of March.
Caracas shuts down
Caracas, the capital, has been a strange paradise over the past years. Spearheading the lists of insecurity and with a sky high criminality rate, the city hasn’t endured the hardships of constant power outages the provinces suffer on a daily basis. Water and electric power outages are almost non existent in comparison with other cities. Except this time: Caracas shuts down completely. And the millions of people that inhabit the capital of the country face the cruel reality: walking home from across the city. Caracas’ don't fit anymore for everything that lives within, hundreds of citizen travel to work from the famous sleeping cities that surround it, and late at night they return to their homes to prepare for the next day. Without transport, they’re stuck in the stopovers and Metro (subway) stations. Many of those sleep on the floor, waiting for the electricity that will sadly, not arrive.
"Caracas’ don't fit anymore for everything that lives within".
The city moves like river in the dark, with a seemingly endless flow of people that bravely decided to walk enormous distances on their way home. All in the most complete disconnection: without electricity, telecommunications fade out entirely. Children cry, adults cry, and Caracas is their silent audience. Thursday night, there’s not much hope of electric power appearing. And people complain in their procession through the veins of an semi-apocalyptic city, their weeps and cried of frustration fall in the empty deafness of a frozen metropolis that sinks into darkness shadowed by the Ávila mountain.
This is just the beginning of the horror that will occur during the following hours. The scarce mobile data services and phone batteries, power banks and places with portable electric plants manage to show pieces of the national crisis: it is not just the average working citizen suffering from the outage. Millions of people in health institutions nationwide, and with chronic conditions start to suffer, and reports pour in.
Health crisis unfolds
Clinics and hospitals start their cried for help: many of them don’t have independent power plants, and they stand helpless as each of their patients shut down too. The number of deaths over the electric outage scalates at a dizzying rate since Thursday night. Patients with life support die despite the efforts of thousands of doctors that are nationally, flocking into health institutions in vain: without electric power and under a severe healthcare crisis, there’s not much to do. The most moderate reports offer numbers over 50, but the social media data reflects otherwise, many are way over 100.
During the weekend, there’s a public confirmation of 13 deaths in the Manuel Nuñez Tovar Hospital in Maturín city, newborns, trauma, obstetric and internal medicine are the aisled deathly affected by the power outage. And that’s just the smallest number, because in the scarce moments when mobile signal connects, reports fly; patients that need life support, even with the doctors and nurses providing manual breathing, die in darkness. From the soul of the country, tears stream, hundreds will die if electricity doesn’t return. And the dictatorship remains in stoic silence, almost disconnected from the reality of a suffering nations.
Images that generate shock appear after Thursday. By Friday we wake up with videos of streaming rivers of people walking across Caracas, of a city in the dark. Venezuelans abroad ask for help while trying to contact their family. Brothers, parents, children and relatives,all disconnected inexorably. Without electric power, there’s no mobile data to use, and in many places Digitel fell first, then Movistar and finally the state owned Movilnet. Cantv, national state-owned house landline is no longer trustable, hasn’t been in years, whether by lack of distribution or lack of maintenance. Over there, some manage to contact their family and friends, and in solidarity, many walk out searching for information for others that as them, are terrified over the disconnection. Acquaintances and strangers make bridges to support and communicate. “We’re okay” some say to their anguished loved ones, and those living outside our borders, stay silent to avoid crying. A different ordeal began: the food.
Without power, there’s no card service and no transfers not even PagoMóvil, the trusted payment methods that Venezuelans use on a daily basis. Cash? Over the past years that has been a mythological product, the little people have is saved up to purchase food on lower prices. And there’s not much, right now that money’s worth its weight in gold. Many go out to purchase in the scarce foreign currency they’ve been saving. And the food they have in their fridges starts to decompose. But amid the darkness, Venezuelan solidarity shines through. Business and families with gas kitchens open their doors to those in need. And people with electric power by portable power plants offer their fridges to those needing to store their medicines.
Refrigeration chains for vaccines, cancer treatments, insulin and many others break. And the thousands that depend on it, panic. These medications should be in ideal temperatures. Without electric power, they’re bound to damage. And these are hard to come ny, and in many cases represent thousands of dollars and donations. Chronic patients suffer. Treatment with machinery, like dialysis, stand still in places without power plants. In a wing where dialysis patients stay, you hear a someone screaming for help: “We need power, or we’d die!” somebody screams at the top of their lungs. Then, silence. The entire country bows in front of those that like that person, are facing the blackout in an entirely different way.
Outside on the streets, people struggle to eat. Basic need products are scarce, there’s not enough money in the pockets and bank accounts to cover basic food basket with a meagre salary. 18.000bs are barely enough to cover 4 to 5 products. These don’t last a month. A kilo of white cheese represents 15.000 to 20.000bs. That same cheese that right now, is rooting in the fridges of many establishments that don’t have how to keep the equipment powered. Business owners give away or sell it in laughable prices before they root. And those that have money in their accounts, can’t buy either: without networks, there’s not much to do. Give into silence and wait for a miracle.
The first reports of the weekend arrive: the official hypothesis of the dictatorship is sabotage from USA. The reality is very different: ever since the hydroelectric were nationalized, juicy contracts with the dictatorship and the known corrupt boliburgueoise have bleed out the industry. Derwick associates, with Alejandro Betancourt (yes, the one financing Spain’s Hawkers with over 30 million dollars) took a big chunk of that money.
The current situation is sketchy at best: official reports don’t speak honestly. Lack of maintenance over phony and corrupt contracts took oil money along with other national assets abroad or in illicit business within national territory. As the electric sources burn away, and substations blow up, the dictatorship speaks to its people: “It’s sabotage” they say with a clean face, with a hint of lie tugging at the corner of their lipps. They (and we) know that’s a sham, they know the stolen money should have fixed and boosted out hydroelectric. The Tocoma Dam, a multi-million dollar project, languish with low-quality materials and a surprising inefficiency from the people that made the ”enchufado” job, lending their silence for the indecent theft to a whole country.
Large scale consequences come fast. Bolivar state is not only the heart of the hydroelectric industry, the “basic industries” are surrounding Puerto Ordaz city, plants with metal production that in other times, were gigantic sources of income through exports. Before Thursday, only two of those were operative in the aluminum industry: CVG Alcasa and CVG Venalum. Production cells for each were 12 and 59 respectively. Friday at 1:00am, electric energy shuts down in the city, and the countback starts. These cells can’t be disconnected more than 8 hours: they cooldown and are lost permanently. Engineers and workers do what they humanly can to patch down during a blackout that they hope its brief.
By 7:00 am in the shift change, many leave exhausted and crestfallen, hoping for the best. The incoming personnel see the higher ups on operative areas, running side to side with long and anguished faces. The situation is grim at best. By 10:00 am they decree the inevitable: CVG Venalum has died. It’s cells cooled down beyond repair, and the last stronghold of the aluminum industry in Bolívar State dies with it along with CVG Alcasa, both falling into an unofficial and unannounced technical shutdown. “I hope we can see each other soon” says the president of CVG Venalum, Rafael Tellechea Ruiz. People grieve. Years of work have been destroyed by a blackout, and many families remain without jobs or benefits.
A grim weekend
The weekend starts for a Saturday and Sunday that seem to stretch forever. Only counting the population of the states of Zulia, Mérida, Lara, Portuguesa, and Sucre they add up to 10.000.000 Venezuelans without power. Fear starts to fill the silence in the streets. Will the electricity come back? And if it does, for how long? Some houses light up suddenly, other lose it for over 12 hours. Many fridges have seen their content root away. New reports of horror come in with the scarce power: a mother carrying her 19 year old daughter with chronic malnutrition. The child weighs only 10 kilos (22 pounds). But she’s not taking her daughter to a health center, she’s taking her to the morgue: because there was no power, the sick child couldn’t be treated at the CDI in Trapichito, so she died without lifesaving medical attention and this woman carries the cadaver for who knows how long. People stare at the video with apprehension, this would be the first of hundreds that will appear during these days where humanity and hope is lost bit by bit.
But where a light goes out, many light up in ways that seem almost literal. “I have a portable power plant, you can charge your phones here” is something that happens like a tidal echo across the country. “If you have an electric kitchen, you can cook at my home, I have gas” some say in chorus with “You can store your food here so it doesn’t spoil” and “If you have medicines to keep cold, I’ll give you some ice or you can store it here”. Venezuelans, even in disconnected darkness, help each other. Some sale these things, others give them away freely. Those that support each other selflessly account for the larger number. And it shows.
Monday starts with electric power. But with the fear of whispered reports that predict at least 15 more days to reach something akin to normalcy in the nationwide electrical service. This without accounting the thousands of small disasters that seize the country. Dead bodies are not sheltered, lives were lost, and anxiety and tears that thundered over 30 million people over 4 days seem an ever present shadow. Electricity came back, but Venezuela is still shrouded in darkness.
The Scars that remain
By the time of publication, over 80% of the country has electric power, but the fear remains. Looting is reported, there’s no water supply in most of the country and the latent risk of another blackout in the next hours remains. The damage is incredibly large for the country, that lost millions of dollars in damages, hundreds of human lifes and it has earned the sad trauma of one of the largest tragedies in the modern history of Venezuela. The scars will forever stay as a reminder of what we’ve endured.