Hair left half-cut in Venezuela as electricity crisis deepens

Maracaibo, April 30

Carmela de la Hoz sent a customer away with his hair half cut when the power went off in her salon. The customer will be back — but so will the blackouts.

The rolling electricity cuts the Venezuelan government ordered across the country starting this week have hit the city of Maracaibo hard.

Security forces are patrolling the streets to prevent unrest following reports of looting in Maracaibo and other towns, a sign that Venezuela's economic crisis is close to boiling point.

In their green uniforms, they guard subways and entrances to supermarkets where locals queue for hundreds of metres (yards) to buy rations of food and supplies.

Citizens have already been short of basic goods for months. Now the power cuts prompted by an electricity shortage are driving locals to despair.

“This is a disaster,” De la Hoz said. “We can’t live here.”

“How can I work without electricity? How can I pay my five employees and rent the premises?”

The city is home to an old fishing community beside the Maracaibo lake that gives onto Venezuela's northern gulf in Caribbean. It lies near one of world’s biggest oil reserves.

They once helped fuel an economic boom, but the price of the oil has plunged, slashing the state’s revenues, and critics say the government has failed to provide economic alternatives.

President Nicolas Maduro says a drought has dried up Venezuela's hydroelectric dams. His opponents say his government has mismanaged the entire power network.

Maduro announced four hours of power cuts a day for 40 days from Monday.

But locals here say the lights have been going off for much longer periods.

While blackouts have not been enforced in the capital Caracas, poor families in cities like Maracaibo are suffering the consequences.

Sweating in the sun, carpenter Jose Ortega, 45, stands in the doorway of his home — a rickety house mounted on piles on a bank of the lake.

Inside his workshop, the saw and sander are not working because of the power cut. “It’s hitting us hard. We can’t get supplies at any price. We are eating mostly bananas, although the fish we get from the lake help a bit,” he said.

Switching the power supply on and off causes irregular surges of current that burn out the resistors on refrigerators and televisions.

“They turn off the power with no warning,” Ortega said. “You have no time to turn anything off and the equipment gets damaged.”

One of his neighbours, Ramon Morillo, 58, had to pay the equivalent of hundreds of dollars to get his fridge fixed.

He catches fish to help feed his eight children. “We are screwed with the light, the water, the food,” he said.

Critics say Maduro’s power cuts are misguided.

The former head of the state electricity utility, Miguel Lara, said he considers the blackout plan technically flawed, saying the cuts would be followed by periods of high use that would saturate the network.

Francisco Martinez, president of the business association Fedecamaras said the measure is curtailing activity just when the country needs more working time to boost production.

The blackouts 'will hugely affect production of goods and services and will increase scarcity', he said.

When night fell on Thursday in Maracaibo, locals blocked roads and lit fires in the otherwise dark streets in angry protest.

Analysts have warned of growing unrest in a country the UN ranks as one of the world's most violent.

At her ‘World of Beauty’ salon, De la Hoz said bandits killed her 32-year-old son to steal his car.

“This is a pressure cooker,” she said. “It's about to explode.”