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Blackout In Venezuela Leaves Its Leaders Casting Blame In The Dark

Amid a widespread power outage in Venezuela on Thursday, relatives of a patient walk in the dark halls of a health clinic in Caracas.
Ariana Cubillos
Amid a widespread power outage in Venezuela on Thursday, relatives of a patient walk in the dark halls of a health clinic in Caracas.

A massive power outage has swept across Venezuela, leaving its two leaders at odds over who is to blame for plunging the country into darkness at a time of deep political unrest.

The outage began Thursday evening at rush hour, bringing the subway system in Caracas to a halt. Thousands of commuters returned home on foot, their walks lit only by mobile phones and the stars.

President Nicolás Maduro was quick to blame the "electricity war" on the United States, which has supported Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaidó after he declared himself interim president in January and received endorsements from dozens of countries.

"The electricity war declared and directed by U.S. imperialism against our people will be defeated," Maduro said. "Nothing and nobody will vanquish the people of Bolívar and Chávez."

Minister of Communication and Information Jorge Rodríguez described the outage as an attack on Venezuela's electric system — "a criminal action" driven by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has been an outspoken critic of Maduro.

Guaidó said that 22 states were without electricity for hours, breaking a record for Caracas.

"Chaos, concern and indignation," he said.

"This blackout is evidence of the usurper's inefficiency," Guaidó said, referring to Maduro. "The recovery of the electric sector and the country comes by stopping the usurpation."

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echoed Guaidó's stance, faulting Maduro's regime for the energy shortage. "The power outage and the devastation hurting ordinary Venezuelans is not because of the U.S.A.," he said. "It's not because of Colombia. It's not Ecuador or Brazil, Europe or anywhere else. Power shortages and starvation are the result of the Maduro regime's incompetence."

He added, "No food. No medicine. Now, no power. Next, no Maduro."

Pompeo's remark follows a humanitarian operation that went awry in February. Truckloads of food and medicine were turned away at the border, and Maduro's government celebrated it as a victory against regime change.

Over the years, food and medicine shortages have sent millions of citizens fleeing for a better life. Hyperinflation is estimated to hit 10 million percent in 2019, according to the International Monetary Fund, and sanctions imposed by the Trump administration are likely to increase the country's economic plight.

Electricity shortages are not uncommon in the once rich country. Despite having vast oil reserves, the government exports its oil and Venezuelans rely on hydropower for their energy. Years of scant investment in hydroelectric infrastructure, combined with drought, have crippled the energy grid.

A decade after the nationalization of the energy sector in 2007, the government started switching off the power grid in cities and towns across the country. Because of the rolling blackouts, Venezuelans have seen their food decompose, their appliances ruined and even their health care suffer, with doctors saying they sometimes perform surgeries under the light of mobile phones. Last year, one outage resulted in the deaths of three people, including a newborn.

On Thursday, nurses at a wealthy Caracas health clinic held candles to monitor the vital signs of premature babies because backup generators had shut off, the Associated Press reported. Maduro ordered schools, businesses and government entities to shutter while crews tried to restore power.

Rubio reminded his followers on Twitter that Maduro's regime has gone so far as to blame iguanas for its electrical woes. And he hit back at Rodríguez, the communications minister, who accused him of fomenting the massive outage. "My apologies to people of Venezuela," Rubio said. "I must have pressed the wrong thing on the 'electronic attack' app I downloaded from Apple. My bad."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sasha Ingber is a reporter on NPR's breaking news desk, where she covers national and international affairs of the day.