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Venezuelans Lose Half an Hour as the Country's Crisis Deepens

The time zone change in Venezuela is the latest in a litany of emergency measures ordered by President Nicolás Maduro to cope with an acute electricity shortage within a broader economic meltdown and a burgeoning political crisis.

by Alicia Hernández
May 1 2016, 3:00pm

Photo de Miraflores Press/Via EPA

The clocks went forward 30 minutes in Venezuela early this Sunday — the latest in a litany of emergency measures ordered by President Nicolás Maduro to cope with an acute electricity shortage within a broader economic meltdown and a burgeoning political crisis.

The effort to cut energy consumption by pushing the sunset back half an hour comes on top of a week in which the government announced four-hour daily blackouts, and ordered the closure of schools on Fridays.

The government also slashed the working week for most public employees to just two days. It had earlier ordered them not to work on Fridays and, prior to that, announced that the public sector working day should end at 1pm.

At the same time, much of the country is also suffering from severe water rationing, while long-standing shortages of food and basic goods in supermarkets are getting worse, within the context of three-digit inflation.

"This is not life," Luzme, a resident of the western city of Maracaibo, capital of the state of Zulia, told VICE News. "You end up organizing your day around the blackouts, and when there will be water, and when you will be able to find something to eat."

Maracaibo registered the most intense shortage-triggered protests within a wave of discontent around the country on Tuesday night. Barricades burned and looting was reportedly widespread until the army took control on Wednesday. That was the same day the political opposition began collecting signatures to oblige the electoral authorities to organize a recall referendum in an effort to force Maduro out of office.

Related: Venezuelans Are Pissed About Plan for Two-Day Work Week to Combat Energy Crisis

But public frustration with the government began to mount long before this week.

Though the four-hour daily blackouts were only announced last Monday, cuts have been common in much of the country outside the capital since March.

"They weren't officially announced, but we realized that the lights would go off every day at around the same time, " said Rubén Rodríguez, from the city of Valencia in the northwest.

Another Valencia resident, Johanna Acosta, said people had begun to routinely buy bags of ice to be prepared with fridges suddenly shut down.

"I've gotten used to candles now," said Frederick, a resident of the state of Barinas. "I used to think it was romantic, but it's been like this too long now."

The Venezuelan capital, Caracas, has got off relatively lightly so far though fears for the future are now palpable.

Ricardo said he thinks rolling electricity cuts will destroy his hairdressing salon in Caracas, where he said he was already having trouble dealing with water shortages. "I just don't know what we are going to do," he said. "We could put a generator but then the costs would go up a lot."

Many larger businesses invested in generators in 2010 during a previous round of blackouts. This time, some say, they are not enough.

"A generator works for a few hours in an emergency," said Eliecer Rivero, who works as a receptionist at a hotel in Valencia. "But there are days when we don't have electricity for 10 or 12 hours."

Power has long been a problem in oil-rich Venezuela because of the country's dependence on hydroelectric power. The government blames the current crisis on a prolonged drought that began in 2013 and was intensified this year by the El Niño climatic phenomenon. This, it says, means the nation's largest dam is approaching its minimum operating level.

But while rain in Venezuela has diminished by around 40 percent in the last few years, critics also blame the current shortages on lack of planning and basic maintenance of infrastructure since the start of the Bolivarian Revolution with the election of President Hugo Chávez 17 years ago.

'I call for total and absolute loyalty to the legacy of Chávez, and to me as the president of the republic who is in charge of carrying the legacy.'

The story is very similar when it comes to the water shortages that have also become a regular part of life in Venezuela this year.

Civil Engineer Eduardo Páez-Pumar stresses that very little attention was paid to the infrastructure while Chávez was in power, from 1999 until his death in 2013, or since Maduro took over after that.

"They have only built one reservoir for potable water, and they enlarged another one in the state of Zulia," he said. "The country's population has increased by almost nine million people."

Though, as with electricity, it is the outlying areas that are suffering the most, some areas of the capital have also been facing serious water problems for some time now.

"My house has been without a single drop of water for five days," said Eliezer, a resident of the La Pastora neighborhood in western Caracas. He said he relies on carrying water from the apartments of friends who have better supply. "It is very complicated for my children and for cooking. We've reached a limit."

Related: Last Days of Chavez's Legacy: The Fall of Chavismo in Venezuela

Alejandra Gómez, who lives in Chacao, a middle-class area of Caracas, said she has a water tank in her house but it is now never full enough for her to wash her clothes so she pays a man at a nearby farm to do this for her. "I send him everything except the underwear that I wash by hand any way I can," she said. "It would be too embarrassing."

In some parts of the country doctors are also beginning to notice a worrying increase in skin diseases, such as scabies. Miguel Viscuña, an epidemiologist from the state of Miranda, said the number of cases there has risen 40 percent so far this year. He added that things were made worse by the lack of access to hygiene products.

President Maduro, meanwhile, has been calling on Venezuelans to pull together in hard times, and reminding the population of the boom years under Chávez during which massive subsidies and social programs established a deep political loyalty among the poor.

"I call for union, and for total and absolute loyalty to the legacy of Chávez," he said on Tuesday. "And to me as the president of the republic who is in charge of carrying on the legacy of Comandante Chávez."

'This is one line I'm happy to stand on.'

He would later blame the unrest of that night on "infiltrators" sent by his political enemies. "The crazy right wing doesn't understand that a family has to come together in tough times," he said. "They are seeking to provoke a violent situation."

Meanwhile, the normally fractious political opposition has seized the moment to begin collecting signatures aimed at forcing a referendum on whether Maduro should continue in office. The drive began last Wednesday after the electoral authorities handed over the official forms required.

"This is one line I am happy to stand on," said Héctor, as he waited to sign the recall petition in Caracas. He was referring to the seemingly endless lines that form for limited supplies of basic goods.

The first stage of the process requires the opposition to obtain around 196,000 signatures, which would be one percent of the electoral register. These must then be verified. After that, the second stage would require obtaining close to four million signatures, or 20 percent of the register. These would also have to be verified before the electoral authorities called and organized the referendum.

By Saturday, the two-time presidential candidate and current governor Henrique Capriles Radonski, claimed that the drive had already got close to two million signatures. "We don't need any more," he tweeted. "Wait to sign for the 20 percent."

The future, however, does not look all bleak for Maduro and his government, though the hope appears to lie primarily in the heavens. The La Niña weather pattern, the opposite to El Niño, could be about to kick in. This should bring enough rain to at least reestablish electricity and water services for a while.

Related: There Was a Lot of Yelling During the First Session of Venezuela's New Congress

Follow Alicia Hernandez on Twitter @por_puesto

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hydroelectric power
Maracaibo
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