Living Through Venezuela’s Blackout

Mar 15, 2019
1:37 pm

MARACAY, VENEZUELA — Last week’s blackout happened on the highway, returning to Maracay in central Venezuela from a meeting with some colleagues in Caracas. Radio stations suddenly went quiet. At the time, I didn’t think it was such a big deal. Small blackouts are not uncommon, particularly in hot months when the aging grid gets overworked and the Guri Dam’s water level falls.

The Guri Dam is located in Southeastern Venezuela. It’s one of the largest electric dams in the world and supplies most of the country’s electricity. It was only a few hours later, after waking up from a nap, that my mother tells me something was wrong with the Guri Dam and nobody was sure why. This wasn’t just another blackout.

Thanks to the phone data and a portable battery pack, we managed to keep ourselves informed. Less than two hours after the fact, the Minister for Electrical Power declared the blackout as an act of sabotage and promised that in three hours the whole system would be running.

We went to bed with flashlights. Outside, some neighbors of our downtown neighborhood were yelling to the dark, empty streets, “Maduro, coño tu madre” (roughly “Maduro, motherf•cker”), something of a war cry in opposition protests. Eventually they got tired, which took a while.

The next day was Friday. We had arepa flour, rice, and spaghetti, so food wouldn’t be a problem as long as our building didn’t run out of gas, which happens two or three times a month. Streets were deserted, with people queuing up in the few stores that had their own power generator. Meanwhile, stores with perishable food that didn’t have their own generator gave away their stock, seeing no point on letting it rot.

Soon, we discovered our debit cards —how much of cash-strapped, inflation-ridden Venezuela handles money— didn’t work since banks were also offline, so we scrambled the little cash we had to buy two candles and a matchbox.

“You had to offer them dollars,” my aunt told me later on. “I went to [an ice factory] and people were selling one bag of ice for one dollar, then two dollars, then two bags for five dollars.”

On Saturday, the power came back long enough to charge up our devices. It went off around noon, when telecommunications started to fail until a few hours later, when we were completely disconnected.

Every few hours, I would try to reach colleagues and relatives on a landline, to no avail. Radio was another issue. Only a few stations remained, mostly running an endless playlist. The exceptions were a Christian station running sermons nonstop and the government-run Radio Nacional de Venezuela.

The government’s programming mostly consisted of interviewing ministers, governors and other officials and repeating statements of President Maduro and Information Minister Jorge Rodríguez, saying U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio knew about the blackout beforehand, based on these two tweets:

Here is a March 8 video of what Rodríguez said:

By then, our main concern was water and gasoline. Problems with running water are common, so we have a small tank. We could last with this water for a few days, but no power meant no drinkable water dispensers to refill our bottles or pumps to get water a few days a week.

We ended up driving to the mountains north of Maracay to refill our bottles with spring water. Many didn’t have that advantage, though, in some cases breaking city pipes looking to find some water.

So far, water hasn’t been restored in many areas, including my neighborhood.

On Saturday evening, we heard in the distance a protest with people yelling “Maduro, coño tu madre.” It lasted for a while until we heard some motorcycles. Then sirens. Then it was over. The next day, Sunday, we saw the remains of some barricades around downtown.

We also found a gas station running with a power generator next to a military complex. After waiting over an hour in line, the supply ran out with only three cars ahead of us. To save gas, I pushed the car while my mother was on the wheel.

By then, we already had a little routine going on: playing dominoes or Monopoly in the afternoon and making arepas with a flashlight for dinner. Later I would go to the parking lot downstairs to listen to the radio and charge my phone a little. It was futile since my phone wasn’t picking any data. According to Netblocks, up to 96% of Venezuela’s internet went down last weekend.

On Monday, at midnight, after 72 non-consecutive hours, the power came back. But tension still could be felt. Hospitals nationwide were affected, stores opened just a few hours fearful of looting, and much of western Venezuela was still in the dark.

At the moment, despite the official claim that 100% of the grid is working, problems still persist. Many that were latent before now have been aggravated. Th light comes and goes in some areas, communication is spotty, and it’s still hard to determine how much damage was caused to the water supply.

But whatever happens, those of us who work reporting from our country will continue as long as we can.

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José González Vargas is a Venezuelan journalist who has written for several outlets, including Latino USA, Latino Rebels, Caracas Chronicles and Into. He tweets from @Maxmordon.

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