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Blackouts raise political heat on Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro

Venezuelans scavenged for food, drank water from mountain streams and looted supermarkets as the biggest power outage in the country’s history stretched into its fifth day on Monday, leaving thousands of homes without electricity.

With no resolution in sight, shops and businesses were closed as Nicolás Maduro’s government ordered people to stay at home. The president blames the rolling nationwide blackouts on US-backed sabotage, describing them as “the worst imperialist attacks on the country in 200 years”.

The opposition says the outages, which began on Thursday and remain widespread, are due to government incompetence and lack of investment in the country’s dilapidated infrastructure.

Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader who is trying to force Mr Maduro from power, said the National Assembly would discuss the situation later, although the debating chamber in the ornate 19th-century building in central Caracas was also reportedly without power.

“We’re still monitoring the situation,” tweeted Mr Guaidó, who wants the assembly to declare a national emergency. “Our people continue living with the worry of new blackouts, while the cynics lie and make light of pain and death.”

Night-time satellite imagery gave a graphic insight into Venezuela’s plight, showing the country in darkness, in stark contrast to the brightly lit cities of neighbouring Colombia and Brazil.

People collect water from a sewage canal at the river Guaire in Caracas © AFP

In Caracas, people walked up the Ávila, the verdant mountain that looms over the city, in search of running water to drink and in which to wash. Supermarkets sold food at discount prices before it rotted. The metro was out of action.

“I’ve just walked the distance between six metro stations to find a kiosk where I can buy things with a debit card,” said Carmen Vera, an architect. “I don’t have internet. I don’t have cash and I’m trying to contact my family in San Cristobal [in western Venezuela].”

In a line of cars at a petrol station, Euclides Díaz said he was filling up “as a precaution”. “At home the power has been off and on for days — the fridge, the TV. We don’t have a telephone and we don’t have a mobile signal.”

On social media, one man said his area had been dark for 87 hours. A woman wrote that the lights had come on late on Sunday “after 75 hours and 19 minutes without electricity”. Another woman said her family had not had running water since March 3.

People queue to collect potable water in Caracas © AFP

“This situation only confirms the existence and magnitude of the humanitarian crisis that the Maduro regime refuses to recognise,” the Lima Group of mostly Latin American nations, and backers of Mr Guaidó, said on Sunday. “We hold Maduro’s illegitimate regime solely responsible.”

“Maduro’s policies bring nothing but darkness,” Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state said on social media. “No food. No medicine. Now, no power. Next, no Maduro.”

The blackouts have compounded Mr Maduro’s woes after two months of intense pressure from Mr Guaidó and his US backers. They claim the president is an illegitimate leader who should quit. The US and about 50 other countries have formally recognised Mr Guaidó as the nation’s interim leader.

But other countries, including Russia and China, support Mr Maduro and, crucially, the armed forces have remained loyal to him. In response to the power cuts, General Vladimir Padrino, the defence minister, said the armed forces were working tirelessly to put things right.

Meanwhile, Washington said it was freezing the assets of a Moscow-based state-owned bank that works in Venezuela in a sign that Washington was widening punitive measures against not only US companies that deal with Caracas but those elsewhere.

Evrofinance Mosnarbank is owned jointly by the Venezuelan state fund, Fonden, and Kremlin-controlled lenders, VTB and Gazprombank. It was set up to fund joint Russia-Venezuela oil and infrastructure projects.

Russia has been one of Venezuela’s biggest foreign backers in recent years and a lender of last resort. Caracas owes Moscow about $3bn, while Russia’s state-owned oil producer Rosneft is owed more than $2bn, and also owns a number of stakes in Venezuelan oil and gas assets.

President Donald Trump’s US administration is also trying to stop India buying crude oil from Venezuela. New Delhi has replaced the US as the biggest cash-buyer of Venezuelan oil since January 28 when Washington in effect snuffed out all US purchases of Venezuelan crude.

“We say you should not be helping this regime,” Elliott Abrams, the US special envoy on Venezuela, told Reuters at the weekend when asked about India’s oil trade with Venezuela. “You should be on the side of the Venezuelan people.”

Venezuela, which sits on the world’s largest energy reserves, suffered significant blackouts in 2008 and 2013 but both were resolved in less than six hours. Oil output has fallen by two-thirds since 2001 to about 1m barrels a day, a decline that long pre-dates the US sanctions.

Additional reporting by Vanessa Silva in Caracas, Aime Williams in Washington and Henry Foy in Moscow


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