MARACAIBO, Venezuela – Norela Soto likely won’t forget April 7 anytime soon.
That’s when Soto, holding her baby, left her home to try to find a taxi on the streets in this western city that had been darkened by a blackout that started at 3:40 p.m. that day. A little more than two hours later, at least 17 states still were without power.
“My baby’s food got spoiled, as I could not keep it frozen,” Soto, 26, said. “We left for my mother-in-law’s home because I could not put my baby to bed like that: Without air conditioning, the heat and the mosquitoes could hurt my child.”
It wasn’t until 10 p.m. that power was restored throughout the country, including in the nation’s capital of Caracas. The hours of darkness shed light on the recurring problem of rolling blackouts, which began last year and have made living in the Andean nation rather difficult.
The blackout was caused “by a failure in three electrical towers located 250 kilometers (156 miles) west of Caracas,” said Venezuelan Minister of Electric Energy Alí Rodríguez. The towers were rendered useless for hours because a forest fire in the central states of Carabobo caused the transmission lines to collapse, according to a statement by state-owned electric generator Corpoelec.
In Caracas, the blackout stopped the Metro transit system, forcing thousands onto the street, where the influx of those searching for transportation caused the city’s bus system to come to a grinding halt.
Thousands of businesses closed their doors.
Another blackout affected the eastern zone of Caracas on April 9, leaving the entire neighborhood of La California without power for more than 12 hours.
Corpoelec said that for the foreseeable future, there will be three-hour blackouts daily (7 p.m. to 10 p.m.) in the western states of Trujillo, Barinas and Mérida so technicians can repair the thermo-electric plant that was damaged by the blackout.
Residents are not happy.
“This is not fair. We thought this was over,” said Arantza Hamoudi, a 20-year-old stay-at-home mother in Valera, a city in the state of Trujillo. “The blackouts delay everything and make things unsafe. When will this end?”
But Venezuelans’ concerns extend beyond the three-hour power outages.
“Now, we have a problem with [the delivery of] cooking gas,” said Hipólito Benavides, a 56-year-old retired professor in Maracaibo. “Water comes every other day and we are still dealing with the electricity problem.”
Businesses also have been affected by the power outages.
“I can lose a full work day two or three times a week because of the blackouts,” said Edgar Suárez, 47, who owns a car wash in Punto Fijo, a coastal city in western Venezuela that is home to one of the country’s major oil and gas refineries. “In 2008, they opened a thermo-electrical plant here and the rationing continues.”
Venezuelans wonder who will pay for the home appliances that were damaged by the blackouts, especially in a country where gargantuan inflation and currency controls make purchasing these items extremely difficult.
“With the blackout on April 7, the refrigerator I purchased last year was damaged irreparably,” said Luis Araujo, a 44-year-old construction worker who lives in the San Miguel neighborhood of Maracaibo. “Now, I have to buy ice to keep my children’s food safe. Who is going to pay for this? Who is going to pay me for what I have lost thanks to this problem?”
But lack of electricity is not the only problem Venezuelans are facing, as a series of strikes staged by students and nurses has rattled the nation.
Students staged a hunger strike for 31 days at the steps of the United Nations’ building in Venezuela to demand increases in scholarships and improvements in food and transportation services.
The students reached a deal with the government on March 26.
But nurses continue to protest nationwide, demanding higher salaries, better working conditions and improved distribution of medical supplies.
“This protest is not political,” said Amalia Barriga, 57, a nurse for 37 years who is currently on strike in Maracaibo. “We are struggling financially even though we are university-trained professionals. Some of us have graduate degrees, so we cannot be making Bs.$1,400 (US$325 at the official exchange rate of Bs.$4.30 per US$1) a month.
“When we go to the supermarket, we leave with tears in our eyes because we cannot feed our families. We are hungry, and we want our work to be valued,” Barriga said.
More than 37 nurses in 10 states are staging the hunger strike, said Hania Salazar, president of the Nurses’ Union for the state of Zulia, in Maracaibo. Salazar is participating in the protest.
“We are Venezuelans, too,” Salazar said. “We have the right to receive part of the riches of this country. This country cannot be rich for everybody else. [How can the Venezuelan government] give US$10 million to fund a hospital in Uruguay when the hospitals all over Venezuela are falling apart?”
So why aren’t Venezuelans voicing their displeasure to government officials directly?
The reason? Simple, Salazar says.
She said criticizing the government can have major consequences.
“Many people are afraid [of protesting] because they don’t want to be fired,” Salazar said.
But Salazar said the nurses aren’t afraid of losing their jobs.
They just have one immediate goal: to engage in a peaceful conversation with government officials.
“We ask for dialogue,” she said.