Back in 1999, Hugo Chávez promised to take the Venezuelan people to the same “sea of happiness” that Cubans enjoyed under the Castro brothers dictatorship
Incredibly enough, they still voted for him. Now, 17 years later, they are finally arriving at that promised “sea of happiness” and they don’t like it.
About the only thing that can be counted on around the clock at Gustavo Diaz’s home these days is the gas stove.
The food in the fridge is spoiling. The microwave oven sits unused. The television is dark and the stereo system silent. It’s sweaty and uncomfortable inside, thanks to government-imposed electricity blackouts meant to deal with chronic power shortages across the country.
Even getting running water is a problem.
“We can’t go on living like this,” he said. “We Venezuelan people deserve much better.”
Power outages are nothing new for Venezuelans, including Diaz, who lives with his wife and three daughters in a Caracas suburb. But with the government’s recent announcement of a formal rolling blackout program set to last at least 40 days, things have only gotten worse, he said.
“We’ve had rolling blackouts since last month. We used to lose power two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon, but now it’s four hours straight,” Diaz said.
Opposition blames corruption, mismanagement
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and other government officials blame the El Niño weather pattern and epic drought for the problem. The water level at the Guri hydroelectric dam, which provides 75% of Venezuela’s electricity, is at a record low.
But opposition figures blame mismanagement and corruption for the problems.
Caught in the middle: people like Diaz. Life has taken on new rhythms, dictated by the ebb and flow of power.
“We unplug everything when we lose power so that the appliances don’t get damaged (with power surges) when we get the power back on,” Diaz said.
The blackouts are the most significant step yet the government has taken to save energy.
On April 6, Maduro forced government employees and other workers to take Fridays off. He also plans to push forward Venezuela’s time zone half an hour in May to give people more daylight during working hours.
The capital district in Caracas and some adjacent municipalities are exempt from the rolling blackouts because they house government officials. Nueva Esparta and Vargas — states that heavily depend on tourism — will not be affected either.
But for most Venezuelans, the blackouts add to a litany of other daily burdens.
‘This life is killing us’
The government — cash-strapped because of low oil prices — can’t pay for basic imports such as sugar, flour and eggs. Many Venezuelans wait several hours in lines outside supermarkets, hoping shelves won’t be emptied out by the time they arrive.
Venezuela’s economy shrank 5.7% in 2015 and is expected to contract another 8% this year, the International Monetary Fund says. Inflation has skyrocketed, and it could rise another 500% in 2016, according to IMF projections.
The bolivar, Venezuela’s currency, is worth less than a penny on the black-market exchange.
In Charallave, a working-class area that has historically been supportive of the late President Hugo Chavez and the socialist government, just about every business displays the same sign.
“No hay luz,” it says. (“There’s no power.”)
At a paint store, owner Luis Marcano said sales are way down, not just because of the power outages, but the economic crisis as well.
“I’ve been waiting all morning to sell something,” he said.
At another shop, a woman started to cry when a reporter asked how hard things had been. Unless something gives, she’ll likely have to shut down before the end of the year.
“We can’t live like this anymore,” said the shop owner, who feared reprisals and asked not to be identified. “This life is killing us.”