Will Chavez's unfulfilled promises affect Sunday's election?
Worsening power outages, crumbling infrastructure, and other unfulfilled promises could impact Sunday's election to replace socialist President Hugo Chavez, who died last month.
It's just after nightfall and the power is out again in untold hundreds of thousands — probably millions — of Venezuelan homes. If the government knows how many, it's not saying. It hasn't issued reports on problems in the public power grid since 2010.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Venezuela after Chavez
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In Venezuela's third-largest city, Pedro Martinez dons a shirt for visitors drawn by the flicker of candles inside his one-story, cement-block house in a middle-class district. The Caribbean heat is sticky thick inside. A mesh hammock hangs by the front door.
"This happens nearly every day," Martinez says of the blackout, holding a candle close so a reporter can take notes. It's the day's second outage. The first struck just after noon.
It's been like this for five years, pretty much everywhere but Caracas, the capital. Worsening power outages, crumbling infrastructure and other unfulfilled promises witnessed this week in a trip through the country's industrial heartland could be an important factor in Sunday's election to replace socialist President Hugo Chavez, who died last month after a long battle with cancer.
His political heir, Nicolas Maduro, is favored to win, largely on the strength of Chavez's generous anti-poverty programs, which the late president emphasized over public works with one big exception: housing.
But polls show that support may be eroding and the outages are a testament to the neglect many Venezuelans consider inexcusable in this major oil-producing state. Violent crime, double-digit inflation, official corruption and persistent food shortages are other factors.
Some of the rolling, intermittent blackouts are still scheduled. But most are no longer announced. They generally last three to four hours a day on average, said Miguel Lara, who ran the power grid until Chavez forced him out in 2004 for being "a political risk."
Jose Aguilar, a U.S.-based consultant with extensive and more recent experience in Venezuela's electrical industry, says it is suffering "a downward spiral of deterioration." Insufficient transmission lines are running so hot that 20,000 distribution transformers burned out last year, he said. "They run them cherry red."
Electrical substations are in a precarious state, Aguilar and Lara said. If one goes offline, others fail. Employees don't even have fuses, said Lara. "They have to cobble together their own to keep things running."
"There's no money to buy parts for something that breaks," said Giovanni Rinaldi, a 15-year employee at a hydroelectric plant in the eastern city of Ciudad Guayana, which he said is plagued by four or five power outages a week despite being in the region that generates more than 70 percent of Venezuela's electricity.
He was fired this week, he said, after posting photos on Twitter of a state utility company vehicle that was used to distribute Maduro campaign posters and other material around town.
"We had put our own money into keeping those vehicles running because the company didn't," Rinaldi, a 40-year-old father of two, said by phone. "It's not right."
The government hasn't adequately spent to expand and strengthen the power grid, critics say.
They also blame problems on Cuban, Iranian, and Uruguayan technicians brought in to run by Chavez to run the system. Accidents are up tenfold, and there are places in remote states that suffer outages for as long as three to five days, says Lara.