Venezuela Poor Under Socialist Rule

MARACAIBO, Venezuela (AP) -- A month-long blackout in Jennifer Naranjo's neighborhood in the Venezuelan port city of Maracaibo leaves her anxious. She's eight months pregnant and passes hot, sleepless nights with no air conditioning, swatting away mosquitoes, worried about her unborn daughter's future.

"I dream about getting ahead for my baby," said Naranjo, whose husband left in January to find work in Chile. "In Venezuela, the situation gets worse every day."

Blackouts are nothing new under two decades of socialist rule in Venezuela. But they've grown more frequent, and are lasting longer, as the OPEC nation's economy hits a breaking point with hyperinflation making increasingly scarce food and medicine unaffordable for many.

Naranjo's La Chinita neighborhood has gone without power since late March, when a transformer exploded. Officials repeatedly promised the parts needed to repair it would arrive the next day. So far they haven't come.

The four-block area is a small symptom of a vastly more widespread problem that is generating unrest across much of Venezuela, including Maracaibo, a city of 1.5 million people that has long exported energy in the form of oil across the world.

Venezuela's government doesn't publish figures charting power outages, but the human rights organization Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict reports that blackouts prompted 325 street protests across Venezuela in the first three months of 2018.

Maracaibo witnessed the greatest number of protests, said organization director Marco Ponce, including one where residents blocked a busy street and a 15-year-old boy was shot dead by a passing motorist.

A massive blackout put most of Maracaibo in the dark for Christmas Eve, and since then officials have rationed power across the sprawling city. Scheduled blackouts eat up at least 11 hours a day, not counting unplanned failures.

With air conditioners idle and daytime April temperatures often nearing 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius), families throw open their doors and windows to allow in any hint of a breeze --- along with mosquitoes. Naranjo, 20, fears a bite could infect her and her daughter, Pamela, with the Zika virus, which has stricken about 70 of Maracaibo's infants with microcephaly, according to the local charity My Miracle Foundation, which supports children with the illness.

With failing light switches and wall plugs, residents also can't charge phones or run television sets, so they often pass time chatting with neighbors in the street. They have to cook and eat by candles, which are costly.

"We can't wait any longer," said homemaker Elsa de Suarez, 58, who says her lifeless refrigerator doesn't allow her to keep food from spoiling. "It's an emergency."

Venezuela's status as home to the world's largest fossil fuel reserves should have made it immune to an energy crisis. It also has the Guri Dam, one of the world's largest hydro-electric projects and the cornerstone of an electrical grid once the envy of Latin America that has now fallen into disrepair.

Experts say only two or three of Maracaibo's 24 fuel-powered turbines still run after years of neglect, eking out just 10 percent of their previous output. Other power comes from the dilapidated national grid.

Maj. Gen. Luis Motta, Maduro's minister of electrical power, blamed a series of recent outages in Maracaibo on saboteurs attempting to undermine the government. They attacked power substations using Molotov cocktails, he said on state TV, without providing evidence. He didn't respond to a request from The Associated Press for comment.

However, experts say the power crisis is the government's own making. Powerful officials have been accused in U.S. court proceedings of looting investments earmarked for the electrical system and the country has kept home power bills among the cheapest in the world, around 1 cent a month, meaning the grid depends heavily on subsidies from a government with increasing financial problems.

The shortages are adding to the misery of a Venezuelan economic collapse on the scale of the Great Depression of the 1930s and as production in the oil industry --- the largest consumer of power --- has fallen to the lowest levels in decades.

Winston Cabas, president of the Association of Electrical Engineers of Venezuela, estimates that it would take an infusion of $50 billion over a decade to restore the country's electrical system, which he said is as precarious as Haiti's after the 2010 earthquake.

"The problem is not sabotage or terrorism," said Cabas. "The problem is corruption."

Venezuelans just want their lights on.

In downtown Maracaibo, more than 100 senior citizens recently grew frustrated standing in line for hours outside a bank waiting for the power to come so they could cash their monthly pension checks to buy food.

Across the bay, a group of fisherman mending shrimping nets paused when they heard the hum of their refrigerator die from another outage. They worried this was the one that would finally fry the refrigerator where they store their catches.

La Chinita residents show visitors the charred transformer box hanging on a pole. Then they roll up a sleeve to reveal fresh mosquito bites from the night before.

Many gather each evening on a corner in front of a mustard-colored flat-roofed home as dusk turns to dark. Bug repellent is too expensive, so one man burns a cardboard egg carton, which smolders slowly and helps keep the mosquitoes away.

A woman flips through the pages on a clipboard detailing the blackout's impact on La Chinita's 135 residents, including 29 young children and at least three bedridden elderly neighbors. She shows the record to officials urging their help.

Naranjo, pregnant, eats by the light of a shrinking candle stub. Unable to charge her phone at home, she can only talk to her husband in Chile once every three or four days. They often talk about her following him abroad.

For now, Naranjo remains fixated on finding money to deliver her baby in a good clinic and on buying her own mosquito net. She feels guilty asking relatives for too much help.

"Everything is so expensive," she says.

The candle flickers from a breeze and she stops eating to cup her hand behind the flame to shield it from blowing out and leaving her in the dark.