By Simón Rodríguez Porras
On the afternoon of 7 March 2019, the electricity supply was cut off in more than 80% of Venezuela. This blackout was the highest point in a decade long electricity crisis, a collapse that industry workers had warned about for years, despite government attempts to completely silence their reports. For the majority of the country, power was not restored for more than 36 hours and in some areas the outage lasted more than 100 hours. In some regions, such as the western state of Zulia, power had still not been restored a week later.
The blackout came on top of major problems in water, gas and petrol supplies, food shortages and the collapse of public hospitals, particularly in inland regions. Due to the hyperinflationary adjustment by the government, money is virtually worthless, and the collapse of nearly all communications made all purchases with debit or credit card impossible, paralysing trade. The government suspended all work activity between 8 March and 13 March. Looting and riot cases multiplied across the country. Among the victims of the blackout, a currently unknown number of patients died in hospitals because of failures in life support equipment.
The Minister of Electric Power, military officer Motta Domínguez, initially claimed that the blackout would last three hours. This lie was soon uncovered, but the government came forward with a familiar ‘sabotage’ cover story under the new term ‘electrical war’. The Communication Minister, Jorge Rodríguez, said that it was the biggest terrorist attack of the country’s history and that president Maduro personally led operations to restore the electricity supply. In an attempt to display himself as a leader in the midst of chaos, Maduro released a video on Monday 11 March, in which he issued orders and reported there would be three attacks. Many Venezuelans were completely isolated for several days, waiting for official updates on the situation. The sabotage theory is rejected by union leaders of the sector and even by former officials of the Chavez government. Former electric power minister, Héctor Navarro, responded to the government’s “cyber-attack” claim explaining that the Guri dam, a major electricity supply in Venezuela, works with similar equipment. He blamed corruption and lack of maintenance for the electrical collapse. Ali Briceño, executive secretary of the leftist trade union Fetraelec, explained that the workers reported a fire that affected energy transmission in three cables that connect the Guri dam with substations in the centre of the country. For years the military did not carry out preventive pruning of vegetation which would stop the pylons being damaged. The result of this was a forest fire that caused one of the cables to overheat and stop transmitting energy. This created a domino effect and the other two cables stopped working after overcompensating for the failure of the first cable. Briceño also alleges that poor management decisions were made due to lack of military expertise when trying to restore the service, prolonging the downtime.
An official statement with no evidence
With no actual evidence of sabotage, the government proceeded to invent its own, in the manner of fascist and Stalinist judicial farces. According to the communication minister, Jorge Rodríguez, tweets issued after the blackout by US officials and the president of the National Assembly, Guaidó, “prove” that they knew in advance about the blackout. Rodríguez even said that on Tuesday 12 March, followers of Guaidó planned to sabotage the restoration of electricity by increasing energy consumption in homes, turning on several household appliances at the same time (!). In another farfetched effort to support the claim of the “electrical war”, on 11 March, journalist Luis Carlos Díaz was arrested by the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (Sebin). He was detained for statements issued on 27 February this year, in which he established a parallel between a hypothetical interruption of internet access by the government and an electrical blackout. Government official, Diosdado Cabello, said those statements indicated that the journalist knew beforehand about the blackout. In the end, even for Chavez’s judicial authorities, that idea proved implausible and the journalist was not accused of “sabotage” but “incitement to commit crimes”, in a new attack on freedom of expression. Around the same time, a wave of persecutions against the electrical workers was unleashed. With reference to detained workers, Cabello said that “a serious investigation is being carried out because of the way they threatened the lives of Venezuelans.” Worker Geovanny Zambrano, forced into retirement as retribution for announcing a labour decline and electrical infrastructure failures on February 18 this year, was kidnapped on March 11 by Sebin and was missing for 11 hours. He was released and captured again the next day. They are chasing him over the statements made in February and, while writing this piece, his whereabouts are still unknown. Angel Sequea, a Corpoelec employee, Head of office and operations in Guyana, was arrested by Sebin on 7 March and killed the next day. According to his captors, he was murdered during a “riot” where he was being detained. Another political prisoner killed.
Venezuelan people are currently being held hostage by both a civic-military dictatorship and an interference campaign and economic siege by the US imperialist government. During the blackout, Trump administration announced it was recalling its diplomatic staff in Caracas and the Maduro government responded by “expelling” those officials. Interference continues to rise. However, this does not prove that the electric collapse was the result of a cyber sabotage attempt on the part of the USA. It would be unjust to recognise these sabotage claims without evidence, until they can be proven. That is called conspiracy. It would not be the first time the government has lied about alleged sabotage to evade its responsibilities; the track record is extensive. The most notorious case is that of the explosion at the Amuay refinery on 26 August 2012, in which more than 40 people died and more than 150 were injured. In 2013, the government confirmed initial “suspicions” that it was a terrorist sabotage. However, the supposed terrorist attack, the most severe in our history, was never officially commemorated as such, nor was a report ever published with the conclusions of the investigation. Before the explosion, the oil workers, led by the C-cura revolutionaries and the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSL), had condemned the operational collapse of the refineries and the increasing frequency and severity of accidents, resulting in a government response of redundancies and prosecutions. The “electrical war” could possibly have the same fate as the “terrorist attack” of Amuay: oblivion from the state.
Boliburgues looting created the conditions for the collapse
The repression of the government could not hide what many workers and experts had been predicting for many years: that corruption, incompetence and total lack of investment made an electricity crisis inevitable. In 2016, journalist Víctor Amaya interviewed former Deputy Minister of Electricity of Chavez’s government, Víctor Poleo. He said that system decline was recognised in 2005 and that since 2007, energy supply has not met demand, which forces the implementation of rations. Political corruption halted power generation projects, such as the construction of Tocoma dam on the Caroní River, which was to be built between 2002 and 2012 at a cost of two billion dollars. The contract, awarded to the Brazilian company Odebrecht, rocketed to a cost of ten billion dollars and was never completed. The wind farm projects in the states of Falcón and Zulia also failed. They generated less than 1% of the energy consumed in the country, despite the many millions of dollars pumped into them by the corrupt systems of Chavismo. The creation of thermoelectric energy has also fallen, leaving the country relying heavily on the Guri dam.
Here is how the Chavismo era and the greatest oil boom in Venezuela’s history, was to succeed in destroying the electricity industry, coming into 2010 with an electrical emergency declaration that would become one of most destructive and corrupt operations in our history. In 2009, a severe drought caused a significant fall in power generation at the Guri dam. The deterioration of thermoelectric plants prevented supplying demand and the situation resulted in severe rationing, causing protests amongst the working class in regions such as Mérida and Zulia responded. In February 2010, Chávez announces an electrical emergency and awards dozens of contracts without fair bids for the importation of plant and equipment. One of the organizations that benefited the most from this contracting method was Derwick y Asociados, a questionable company run by a young middle-class group from Caracas, with no experience in the electrical field. They received a dozen contracts worth more than $ 2.5 billion to import equipment. They bought used equipment estimated at more than $ 1.4 billion from a US company, according to research carried out by journalists from several Venezuelan media platforms, including Armando.info. The research shows that Derwick had started proceedings related to the importation of electrical equipment up to a year before the electrical emergency was declared. This implies that there was an agreement with Chavez’s government for corrupt procedures. The pretention of the so-called “bolichicos”, a term coined by the opposition for the emerging bourgeois group created by Chavez’s government, has been scandalous, while the country suffers the deadly consequences of the electrical crisis. For example, one of Derwick’s owners, Alejandro Betancourt, bought a 1,600-hectare estate in Spain with a medieval castle outright. Meanwhile most of the scrap he imported in 2010 was unusable. Some equipment did not even work. The so-called “electric shield of Caracas”, in which millions of dollars were squandered, was a complete sham.
PDVSA was one of the buyers of the electrical equipment resold by Derwick. There was such a significant overlap of the “bolichicos” with Boliburgueses such as Rodolfo Sanz or Rafael Ramírez, that the company joined the oil business in association with Russian businessmen from Gazprombank and the Venezuelan government, in the joint venture Petrozamora, at a site in the state of Zulia. Corruption scandals also broke out with that. Most of the money from the “electrical emergency” was laundered through Swiss banks, the rest went to tax havens like Barbados. This was the “electric legacy” of Chavez.
In October 2012, the electrical union, Lara (Sitiel), announced the death of 7 workers due to a breech of industrial safety conditions by the authorities as well as increasing repression: “The workers receive constant visits and check-ups from Sebin, and when a worker is absent from work, with or without explanation, Sebin conducts an inquiry.” The government’s campaign to hide the effects of corruption and lack of investment as well as blaming workers for alleged acts of sabotage, led to lynching and kidnapping of workers in working class areas plagued by blackouts. Sitiel recounts the lynching of a worker in the Aragua state in 2012. That year, while campaigning for his re-election, Chavez acknowledged that electrical problems continued, but said that if it were not for his government, people would be cooking with firewood and using lanterns for light. As the crisis worsened, in April 2013 Maduro occupied the industry with military control. Military safety zones were created to restrict the freedom of the electrical workers union. There was talk of a “Great Electric Mission”, a new sham.
Problems would continue to worsen with the divestment and a new militarisation was declared in April 2017, after widespread and recurring blackouts in 2015 and 2016. Another national blackout occurred in August 2017. The situation was so serious that Chavismo union leaders broke off from the party line and criticized military management. Elio Palacios, leader of the electrical workers union of the Capital District, Vargas and Miranda, issued a statement at the beginning of February 2018, at a time when six states remained without power, reporting the imminence of a widespread electrical collapse. Among the causes he mentioned the “stampede of technicians”, due to very low wages and exploitation, poor maintenance and incompetence of the military officials, starting with Minister Motta Domínguez, whom he described as technically illiterate. The deficit of qualified staff calculated at 60% by Palacios forced workers to work shifts of up to 30 hours in a row. “We have a breeding ground for a blackout … it will not be sabotage or a failed operation by workers … Telecommunications will be affected, all basic services, such as drinking water will be affected, Because the pumps run on electric power, the pumping of oil, in a nutshell, will paralyze the country. This is an almost inevitable situation from everything we are seeing,” Palacios warned. Furthermore, he reported the absurd tactics used by the government to attack the unions and proceedings in courts and official institutions to prevent the holding of union elections. How did the Maduro government respond to these serious complaints? With their usual methods, sending the secret police to kidnap the union leader on February 14, 2018. Dozens of workers and workers leaders have been dismissed and chased for reporting the operational collapse.
Guaidó’s response to the blackout showed him in all his opportunism and incompetence. He simply stated that the light would come on when “illegal infringement ceases” along with other ambiguous messages. The only response to this came from working-class communities. He did not clearly state what his “Country Plan” proposes to get out of the crisis, which is the privatization of public services. The leftist opposition opposes Guaidó’s plans and aims to: rescue the electrical industry on the grounds of worker’s organisations and through making significant investments with the resources obtained from non-payment of external debt and the nationalization of oil. Instead of forgiving corrupt civil and military officials, including those who destroyed the electrical industry, as Guaidó and the AN argue, properties of the corrupt officials should be confiscated measures taken to repatriate their assets.
The great blackout in March marks another milestone in the process of economic destruction driven by bourgeois and mafia government policies, such as the appropriation of oil income via overbilling of imports, the exclusion of national production to pay foreign debt, or the handover of the oil industry and mining businesses to large transnational companies. That policy has been more destructive than a thousand sabotages. The “electrical war” conspiracy is nothing other than the government’s propaganda attempt to hide the true causes of crisis, victimizing itself to justify the deepening repression and crimes against workers and the Venezuelan people.