2019 Venezuelan blackout

A light map of Venezuela on the night of 7 March 2019 and the night of 8 March 2019.[a]

A widespread electrical blackout in Venezuela began on 7 March 2019 at 4:56 pm local time (GMT-4).[3] The largest power outage in the history of Venezuela,[4] the blackout affected the electricity sector in Venezuela in most of its 23 states,[3][5] causing serious problems in hospitals and clinics, industry, transport and in water service.[6]

On 12 March, power returned to some parts of the country, but Caracas remained only partially powered and western regions near the border with Colombia remained dark.[7] By 14 March power had been restored to much of the country,[8][9] though power outages persisted for many days after that.[10]

Nicolás Maduro's administration attributes the blackout to sabotage;[11][12] experts and state-run Corpoelec (Corporación Eléctrica Nacional) sources attribute it to lack of maintenance and a lack of expertise in the field resulting from a brain drain.[13][14][15]

History

Most of Venezuela's power comes from one of the largest hydroelectric dams in the world, Guri Dam in Bolívar State, Venezuela on the Caroni River; as of 2019, 70–80% of Venezuela's power comes from Guri.[4][16] Venezuela has a history of electrical blackouts dating at least to 2010;[17] Juan Nagel wrote in Foreign Policy in 2016 that the problems resulted from "massive government corruption [...] and the country’s disastrous energy policies".[18] Univision also reported that the problems in the energy sector resulted from corruption and "lack of maintenance and investment".[17] A report from Transparency Venezuela said that maintenance was abandoned for twenty years beginning in 1998.[17] The aging infrastructure made the problems worse,[16] and critics were silenced; a union leader for state power workers was arrested in 2018 by the Bolivarian Intelligence Service for warning that a blackout was likely.[5]

The private company, Electricidad de Caracas was owned by the United States' AES Corporation until 2007; according to The Wall Street Journal, "Venezuela's power grid was once the envy of Latin America".[4] Then-President Hugo Chávez created the state-run Corpoelec by nationalizing the electric sector and expelling private industry in 2007;[17] hence, the state has been solely responsible for energy supply for over ten years.[18] Univision says Chávez "admitted failures (...) such as the 'insufficient' availability of the thermoelectric generation plant and the limitations of the national electric power transmission network and distribution systems";[17] he signed a decree in 2010 declaring a "State of Emergency of the National Electric Service".[17] Chávez had Corpoelec speed up projects, and bypassing the process of public bidding for projects, he "authorized 'contracting by direct award'," which facilitated corruption.[17]

In 2009, the Chávez administration declared a national electric emergency and invested $100 billion US dollars towards solving it.[19] The Chávez administration "distributed million-dollar contracts without bidding that enriched high officials of his government and the works were never built", according to Univision.[17] The Wall Street Journal stated that the government awarded electrical contracts to companies with little experience in the energy sector.[4] Billions of dollars were awarded in contracts for projects that were never completed, leading to international investigations of "high officials of the Chavez regime today persecuted for plundering the coffers of the Bolivarian Republic".[17] Critics say that one company, Derwick Associates, was given projects although they had no previous experience; Derwick denies any bribes were involved.[4][17] Of 40 energy projects approved between 2010 and 2014 analyzed by Transparency Venezuela, 17 are not completed as of March 2019, none are operating at capacity, and overcharging by billions of dollars was identified.[17]

Hugo Chávez in Brasilia in 2011

Further complicating the technical matters, the administration of Corpoelec was handed over to a Venezuelan National Guard Major General, Luis Motta Domínguez, who has admitted to a lack of experience in the energy industry.[17] Restarting an aging power grid requires specialists and equipment that may no longer be available in Venezuela,[16] as a result of a brain drain; thousands of workers have left the country,[20][21] or have left Corpoelec because of "meager wages and an atmosphere of paranoia fed by Mr. Maduro's ever-present secret police", according to experts cited by The New York Times.[15]

There were two major blackouts in 2013.[16] In 2016, Venezuela had a severe electricity crisis that caused blackouts, industry shutdowns, and the decision by then-President Nicolás Maduro to cut back on government employee's work hours.[18] Maduro's administration has put rationing in place several times, and changed the country's clocks to accommodate a daytime commute.[16] Nagel wrote in 2016, "... there are two main reasons for the crisis: excessive electricity consumption and insufficient production. And the root of both of these problems is bad governance: populism, poor planning, inflexible ideology, and overwhelming corruption."[18] And in 2017, there were more than 18,000 power outages nationwide.[20]

In 2017, the National Assembly investigated the $100 billion dollars invested in the electrical system and determined that over $80 billion was embezzled, that more than 14 thermoelectric stations were not functioning, and that neither the electrical transmission nor the distribution system had adequate maintenance.[22]

Attempts to explain the ongoing power failures, despite the billions of dollars spent, have led to public scorn and ridicule on social media;[17] in 2018, Motta Dominguez said on Instagram, "Comrades! In some cases, faults in the electrical system are produced by animals such as: rats, mice, snakes, cats, squirrels, rabbits, turkey vultures, etc., that are looking for burrows, nests or hiding places, and are introduced into the system's equipment causing the failure."[17] In March 2019, two Venezuelan citizens—Jesús Ramón Veroes and Luis Alberto Chacín Haddad, who live in the US and have long associations with Corpoelec's Motta Domínguez—were charged in Florida District Court with money laundering, violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and "misappropriation, theft and embezzlement of public funds by or for the benefit of a public official"; the complaint alleges millions of dollars were transferred from Corpoelec to their Florida bank accounts in 2016 and 2017.[23]