As New Blackout Hits, Venezuelans Brace for More Hardship

In Caracas, lights flickered on and off in various districts, raising hopes and then dashing them

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Eva Marie Uzcategui/Getty Images

Venezuelans reacted with despair and resourcefulness on Tuesday as nationwide power cuts closed schools and businesses, paralyzing a nation that was only starting to recover from its worst blackouts earlier this month.

The new outages, which began Monday, forced people to follow now-familiar routines: scour neighborhoods for food in the few shops that were open or seek out the few spots where they could find a signal on their mobile phones and get in touch with family and friends. The collapse of the power grid was yet another setback for a country whose oil reserves made it one of Latin America's wealthiest decades ago.

"Venezuela doesn't stand a chance anymore, there is no life here," said Johnny Vargas, a frustrated restaurant worker who said he wishes he could leave the country. "People can't work anymore; we can't do anything."

In Caracas, lights flickered on and off in various districts, raising hopes and then dashing them as people once again reflected on divergent explanations from the government of President Nicolas Maduro, which alleged sabotage, and the U.S.-backed opposition, which said state corruption and incompetence is to blame.

Communications Minister Jorge Rodriguez posted a video of a fireman training a hose on smoking equipment at a power facility, seeking to reinforce his claims that Venezuela is under attack by "terrorists" executing a U.S.-led scheme to sow chaos. Authorities said they had detained six people in connection with the outage, but provided no details outlining the accusations against them.

The U.S. and Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido say allegations of sabotage are an attempt to deflect attention from government failures.

The government's allegations aren't credible in part because it said the military had deployed to protect the entire power grid after the last blackouts, Guaido said.

Jose Aguilar, an expert on the Venezuelan electrical grid, said images of a blaze shared by the government as well as information from engineers on the ground indicate the fire began inside one of three critical transformers near the Guri dam, which provides most of the country's electricity. He attributed the blaze to neglect, saying equipment that facilitates an electrical current's passage was not regularly maintained.

Sitting on a bench in a plaza, 72-year-old Armando Taioli gestured at people walking in the streets or traveling in buses and said they were adapting as best they could to the power outages, but that he fears social unrest if the situation deteriorates.

"That calm, you have to be worried about it," Taioli said.

Vice President Delcy Rodriguez said schools and industries would be suspended for a second day on Wednesday as officials work to restore electricity.

After the last blackouts started on March 7, the situation became increasingly desperate for many Venezuelans who lost access to water because pumps failed without electricity. Looters ransacked hundreds of businesses in the city of Maracaibo. The blackouts eased nearly a week later, but many areas only had intermittent power even after the government said the problem was solved.

The new outage appeared to have affected the majority of the 23 states in Venezuela, whose steep economic decline contributed to the flight of more than 3 million people, or one-tenth of the population, to other countries as the crisis escalated. Guaido says Maduro's re-election last year was rigged, and the U.S. has imposed sanctions on Venezuela in an attempt to force the Russia-backed president from power.

Simmering political tension was apparent Tuesday, as a video circulating on social media showed a man appearing to kick a car and other men throwing objects at it. Guaido's spokesman Edward Rodriguez said the incident was an attack on vehicles carrying lawmakers from the opposition-controlled National Assembly after a session. Opposition activists say they are sometimes targeted by "colectivos," a term for pro-government enforcers in civilian clothing who are seen on Caracas streets from time to time.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the attack and called on state security forces to protect civilians against violent armed groups.

"These acts of intimidation will not succeed in delaying the inevitable — the peaceful restoration of democracy, stability, and prosperity to the people of Venezuela," he said.

Netblocks, a non-government group based in Europe that monitors internet censorship, tweeted Tuesday that network data shows 85 percent of Venezuela was offline "with little evidence of recovery."

Dr. Julio Castro, one of the leaders of the non-profit Doctors for Health, said on Twitter that one person had died as a result of the latest outage — an 81-year-old woman who perished after doctors were unable to connect her to a respirator on a different floor of the Central Hospital of Maracay because they could not use the elevators. A survey of hospitals conducted by Castro's group found most had power or access to a generator but lacked water.

The country's main airport at Maiquetia said its emergency generator was operating and that international flights were on schedule. Many international airlines have stopped flying to Venezuela in recent years.

Debit cards are a common form of payment in Venezuela, where cash is scarce and hyperinflation hit several years ago. Without power, the cards weren't working on Tuesday. So some shops that were open gave meat and dairy products to customers in hopes of getting paid later, since the goods won't last without refrigeration.

Shopkeeper Jose Ferreira, 59, said he'd rather give to a stranger and hope for payment later than lose everything. "There are still honest people in this country," he said.

Rocio Perez, 31, bought a kilogram of meat on credit.

"I'd like to buy more, but I have to cook and eat it immediately to avoid problems," Perez said. "I don't even want to think about getting sick."

Associated Press journalist Clbyburn Saint John contributed.

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