Venezuela Weekly: The Blackout and More

A massive power outage starting Thursday, March 7 left more than 80% of Venezuelans without electricity for close to 100 hours. The blackout left Caracas and other major cities entirely dark, except for those buildings and homes with their own generators. It shut down Caracas’s main underground transportation system, led flights out of the international airport to be cancelled, and affected the water supply since electric pumping stations were down. Already thin food supplies were depleted and led to looting in many parts of the country, the worst of which occurred in Maracaibo where the electricity has been slow to come back on. Netblocks.org said that between 80% and 98% of the country was offline during the blackout. See here for a Twitter thread on what it was like to live the blackout.

People close to the electrical system suggest the problem was likely transmission lines from the massive Guri dam that provides 80% of Venezuela’s electricity and probably could not be fixed quickly. An article in Wired describe how hard it is and how much expert knowledge it requires to “black start” an entire system. The Government said it got Guri back on line on Monday after several failed attempts. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said it would be providing technical support to Venezuela’s attempt to stabilize its grid.

However, Nicolás Maduro recognized in his own way, that the problem would likely be recurring. He blamed the blackout on a foreign cyberattack and said he expected the attacks to continue and therefore recommended that people prepare themselves with candles, batteries and water. He even suggested there would be a new program to provide affordable access to plastic tanks so people could store water in their homes.

Maduro said their investigations had determined the attack was carried out from Houston and from Chicago, and that he was asking for the help of Russia, Cuba, China and Irán to investigate further. He also asked the National Constituent Assembly to investigate the involvement of Juan Guaidó. Some analysts said the idea was not entirely far-fetched. In Forbes Magazine’s blog Kalev Leetaru said that a “cyber first-strike” on the part of the U.S. could be an “influence operation” designed to further undermine support for Maduro.

But experts familiar with Venezuela’s electrical grid told AP that its computerized monitoring system is not connected to the internet, thus the only way a cyberattack could be carried out would be to through physical access to it (see here as well).

For those of us following Venezuela long term, the bigger surprise has been that the Maduro government has been able to avoid such an extended blackout for so long. Five and a half years ago Hugo Pérez Hernáiz and I wrote a piece, called “Venezuela’s Electricity Crisis” describing the blackouts in September 2013, the Maduro government’s accusations of sabotage, and the government’s plans that would make the system stable within six years. Of course the stories of massive corruption in the governments attempt to expand capacity abound (see here and here). And in the economic crisis of the past couple of years, basic maintenance in thermal electric plants has been abandoned leaving the country ever more dependent on Guri. It is also probable that some of the thermal-electric plants did not come on line for a lack of diesel fuel because of US sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry. Much of the fuel Venezuela itself consumes is imported because of reduced refining capacity.

Throughout Maduro’s presidency, power outages have been common in the interior, especially in the western states. Over the past year Caracas has been affected as well, with brief power outages occurring several times a week. The situation has not been as bad as expected because electricity demand has declined as the Venezuelan economy has shrunk by half since Maduro took office.

US Embassy pullout

  • US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the US was withdrawing all of its staff from its Embassy in Caracas since having them there had “become a constraint on US policy.” This of course piqued the attention of many as it reminded previous occasions when US withdrew diplomatic personnel from countries it was gearing up to intervene in militarily.
  • However, this move has actually been the making for awhile. When the US recognized Juan Guaidó as president on January 23, Venezuela announced it was breaking diplomatic ties with the U.S. and asked U.S. embassy staff to leave within 72 hours. When the U.S. refused—saying they did not recognize the Maduro government and it therefore could not break relations with it—Venezuela extended the deadline for 30 days, and then later for 15 more. This week apparently talks broke down and Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said that it was actually Venezuela that had told the US to leave, giving them 72 hours.
  • Last week, the German ambassador was declared persona non grata, apparently in retaliation for his going to the airport to accompany Juan Guaidó on his March 4 return to Venezuela.

Journalistic repression

  • On Monday, journalist and media activist Luis Carlos Díaz went missing on his way home from work, initiating a social media storm of people searching for him and demanding authorities reveal any available information. Only five hours later was it announced that the intelligence police (SEBIN) had detained him for questioning. The detention occurred days after state media put forward an Orwellian video suggesting Díaz was behind the electricity blackout—patching together video clips in which he was actually talking about what to do in case of a news blackout.
  • After revealing his detention, authorities searched his residence taking not just computers and pen drives but, insiders suggest, cash and jewelry. Díaz was given home arrest, was prohibited from speaking about the case, prohibited from leaving the country, and required to report to the court once a week.
  • Journalists and activists protested outside of the attorney general’s office, and 60, mainly Venezuelan, human rights organizations demanded Díaz’s release, as did several regional organizations including WOLA.
  • Last week, U.S. freelance journalist Cody Weddle was detained by military intelligence police who questioned about his contacts to military officials and opposition politicians. He was deported the next day.
  • Award-winning Venezuelan journalist Luz Mely Reyes suggested in New York Times Español that:

“It is time that the fight for the freedom of expression in Venezuela moves beyond energetic statements…It would also be greatly helpful to create an organization especially dedicated to offering us legal advising: a group of lawyers and human rights defenders that could research which international laws could exercise real pressure on a regime that is hostile to profession of telling the truth.”

Humanitarian Aid Burning

  • No image of the February 23 clash over humanitarian aid on the Colombia-Venezuela border was more widely distributed or commented than that of aid trucks engulfed in flames. The New York Times published an investigative report putting together video that suggested it was a wayward Molotov cocktail thrown by an opposition protestor that started the blaze, not the actions of Maduro government security forces as claimed by US government officials and the Venezeulan opposition. Research group Bellingcat came to similar conclusions with the video.

UN visit

  • UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet sent a team to Venezuela for eleven days in preparation for her upcoming official visit.
  • The AN held a session with testimonies of victims of torture and the families of people who have been killed by security forces, to get the attention of UN investigators.

Arbitration

  • Lost in all of the focus on the electricity blackout was very bad financial news for Venezuela. A World Bank arbitration panel awarded ConocoPhillips over $8 billion in a dispute of an expropriation carried-out by Hugo Chávez. That is about the same amount as Venezuela’s total foreign reserves.

 The goal of Venezuela Weekly is to provide a news digest that is brief yet highlights concrete information. Did I miss something important or get something wrong? Let me know at [email protected]