When will the Lights go out in Venezuela?

My friend Jose tells me that the electrical outages haven’t so far had too great an impact on him and his family in Merida, Venezuela. I’d asked if the food in his refrigerator spoiled more quickly and he laughed. “Well, you know the ‘fridge stays cold for a while without electricity,” he said. “And besides, these days, there’s very little in the fridge.” He’d just come from spending eleven hours in a line: from 3 a.m. until 2 p.m., to get just two bags of flour, the first he’d had in some two weeks. Food was clearly a bigger concern than lack of electricity. But the electrical problems of Venezuela are potentially cataclysmic.

If you depend on the Bolivarian press for news about Venezuela, you may have come across an article here or there about occasional electrical blackouts due to the effects of El Niño and the drought it caused. In that case you’ll likely know that the government is hoping to remedy the situation by rationing electricity, shortening the work week by declaring three-day-weekends for two months and replacing incandescent light bulbs with energy-saving bulbs. There is also some abstract discussion about increasing generating capacity, but so far no concrete proposals.

What’s wrong with the official picture is pretty much everything. Light bulbs and rationing will do nothing to solve the problem, nor “a radical conduct based on love, solidarity and disciplined consciousness,” nor even will a deluge of rain. As journalist Damian Prat has tirelessly pointed out, the problem is not El Niño; the problem is the policies of the Bolivarian government that go back fourteen years.

In his book exposing what he calls the Bolivarian “rob-olution,” Guayana: The Reversed Miracle, Prat dedicates Chapter Nine, “The Long Episode of the Electrical Crisis: Lies and Irresponsible Dereliction,” to the disastrous problems with the electrical system and its causes. He notes that in 2002 then President Hugo Chávez and his cabinet were given a report on the state of the nation’s electrical system, put together by technicians at EDELCA (Electrificación del Caroní, CA, producer of about 75% of Venezuela’s electricity, now subsidiary of state-owned Corporación Eléctrica Nacional, CORPOELEC).

That report showed, number by number and detail by detail, the growth of the population and the expected electrical consumption and what would be the scenario if there were a new drought from the cyclical El Niño phenomenon. (p. 199).

The technicians recommended 1,000 megawatts of generation to the electrical system to be added per year, and they designed a detailed plan to reach that goal. As Prat wrote, to that plan:

The Chávez government had only to add the political will, allocate resources and not divert them and allow it to be done. They didn’t even need to design the projects. Nevertheless, they did nothing, or almost nothing.

Seven years of little to nothing led up to the drought in 2009-2010, brought on by a strong El Niño condition. The El Guri Reservoir Hydroelectric plant which provides 65-75% of the nation’s electricity was still hard at work, despite the fact that the Chávez government had “abandoned all investment in the electrical system.” In fact, as Prat pointed out, the Guri was overworked, especially in the second year of the drought, bringing the water-levels down to dangerously low levels.

A catalogue of ‘announcements’ made by Chávez and his team in 2010-2011 would be endless. On the other hand, the list of works carried out effectively would be very short. So short, in fact, that it would only take us a few lines [to recount].

Prat noted the situation with the various power plants “announced” and their state in 2012:

Center Plant (Planta Centro) hasn’t advanced in three years. ThermoSucre hasn’t been realized. La Vueltosa hasn’t been finished. The Thermal Power Plant of Tuy of the old EDC also hasn’t been built. The thermoelectric plants for Sidor are nothing more than promises.

Prat estimates that only some 20% of the promised generation and transmission was reached and the necessary 1,000 megawatts per year increase seemed more distant than ever, despite the fact that a windfall from historic high oil prices was flooding the country. What happened?

The authors of El Gran Saqueo (The Great Pillage, Caracas: La Hoja del Norte, 2015), Carlos Tablante and Marcos Tarre detail the overcharging, the “commissions” and bribes to get no-bid contracts in which the Venezuelan government paid companies like Derwick Associates (in its 12 no-bid contracts with the Chávez government) sometimes double or more the going price on the market for new turbines and received rebuilt or used (second or third-hand) turbines. Only three of the ten plants that company sold the Venezuelan government were functional (p.58, El Gran Saqueo).

Some of the companies, such as the Russian Technopromexport, turned out to be “empresas de maletín,” literally “suitcase companies,” or “fly-by-night.” Technopromexport was uncovered only after the company overcharged the government by $300 million for work on La Vueltosa.

Cuban “solidarity” turned out to be no better: none of the 1 to 15 megawatt diesel generators Venezuela bought from the country in 2003 was functional by 2010. And for those energy-saving light bulbs the Venezuelan government paid its communist allies $5 billion, it appears Cuba overcharged them by $3 billion, 932 million (p. 63 El Gran Saqueo).

As for the “unrealized,” partly finished, unfinished, incomplete plants Damian Prat mentioned above, most, if not all, of them involve greater or lesser degrees of graft and corruption that Tablante and Tarre detail in their book. The TermoSucre was finally completed at a cost of 1,400 Euros per kilowatt when the going price in other countries is 600 Euros per kilowatt, while two plants at El Tuy were completed at an overrun cost of 1billion 800 million Euros(p. 67, El Gran Saqueo). Nine years later, La Vueltosa had still not been completed even though, at the time Tablante and Tarre wrote, the plant had already cost the country $585 million (p. 66). President Maduro, however, refused to take any responsibility for the later fiasco, saying that the problem was, in fact, “the systematic sabotage exercised by sectors of the right.”

The electrical emergency, since it was declared in 2010 by then-President Chávez has been estimated to have now cost Venezuela some $60 billion (p. 61, El Gran Saqueo). That represents more than what Venezuela had spent on electricity over the forty years of democratic governments and it’s the only infrastructure of that previous investment (such as the Guri Dam), as Tarre and Tablante point out, that continues to generate electricity in the country.

At 240 meters the Guri Hydroelectric turbines will have to be shut down. The Bolivarian government is keeping the current water level a secret, refusing even to allow members of the National Assembly in to check on the water level. But most recent reports put it within three yards of that level. Meanwhile, to cope with the crisis the Maduro government is requiring hotels, commercial centers and other businesses to generate their own electricity up to nine hours per day. Power is shut down, apparently randomly, throughout the country. The “mega-outage” (mega-apagón) may come any day—and then again, the country may finally break its streak of bad luck and hard times and avert disaster this time. The only hope Venezuelans have is that God will bring rain since, it appears, the Bolivarian government has proven itself unable, or unwilling, to do its part.

Clifton Ross can be reached at clifross1(at)yahoo.com. His most recent book, Home from the Dark Side of Utopia (2016, AK Press) is a memoir of his experiences among revolutionary movements in the Americas, including the Bolivarian process of Venezuela. Read other articles by Clifton.