03-16-2019 | News
Photo credit: Vladm | Dreamstime.com
The Venezuelan Blackout: A Struggling Country Hits Bottom as It Goes into a Five-Day Darkness
A few days ago, I was asked to write an article about the current Venezuelan reality as seen through my eyes. As a Venezuelan university professor, I was struggling with the many unbelievable events that are taking place in my country; the difficult economic situation and the fact that two men are currently disputing the legitimate presidency were at the top of my head. However, as a national power cut that would last five days struck the country, my reality and everyone’s in Venezuela would suddenly change.
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It is important though, that before I continue with my story, you know a little about the person who is writing this article: in my opinion, one of the lucky ones. The current crisis is somehow affecting everyone in the country; the economy is crazy and terribly suffocating for the citizens, but still, some people manage to be very rich (very few), and there is also extreme poverty (a lot of poverty). When I say extreme poverty, I mean that just the other day (March 13, 2019) I saw at least three people looking for food from the garbage downtown in the city I live in.
When I say rich, I mean that I also passed by fully functioning establishments (that serve food and drinks) on that same day, and saw (expensive) cars parked outside and people going in as if there is enough peace of mind to spend, celebrate, and have fun these days (well, I am actually glad that some people still do, I don’t aim to criticize). Nevertheless, it is important to understand, if you know little about Venezuela, that the majority is far from rich and though there is also a group in the middle (where maybe I would be placed), it seems like the tendency is to be dragged into a class that has no access to the basic services that a lifestyle of good quality should have; and if this is the case with basic services, imagine what it’s like with the wonderful advancements that the 21st century offers.
Therefore, it is important that the reader of this article know that my reality is not the same as all in my country; furthermore, by having a full stomach, good health, electric power at home, water service, internet connection, a smartphone, a vehicle with gasoline, and peace of mind to be writing this, I am way above average. This does not mean I am one of the “rich ones” (actually, I am very far from that), but I surely am one of the very lucky (and grateful) ones, as I count with these advantages. Nevertheless, the past week, in a matter of hours, I went from worrying about things like getting a postgraduate degree, buying my own house one day, etc., to going into “survival mode.” In a matter of hours, I went from worrying about not having good internet connection for working to checking if there was enough food at home as businesses throughout the country had paralyzed almost completely. As a 5-day national blackout struck Venezuela, the crisis would take a drastic turn.
It is not unusual to see the public services fail in Venezuela, and the electric power service is not an exception. There are frequent power cuts, sometimes they are previously announced, but most of the times, they just happen and last an indefinite amount of time. When the power cut struck on Thursday 7th this March, it did not seem unusual, at least not to me. However, on Friday morning, I opened my eyes to still no power service. At this point, the concerns started in my household; refrigerators are a big issue: food starts to go bad, and this situation occurs at homes and food-related businesses without an electric plant. In Venezuela, the frequency of these power cuts has led many citizens and businesses to acquire gasoline-powered electric plants; nevertheless, these machines are expensive, so few can afford to buy them.
By Friday 8th, I was certain, the blackout was a national event; communications were not functioning, no one knew what was happening, but protests were beginning to be seen in many cities, probably since the day before in others. At this point, everyone started to cook and eat all the food that would spoil, food-related businesses were starting to give away the meat, and in some establishments, it would end up going bad. As the electric power was lost, people in many residencies that use electric-powered water supply systems had also woken up to a day with no water service.
Since the blackout started, on Thursday 7th, until Sunday 10th we had not heard anyone speaking live in any radio station we had tuned into; by Saturday we had already heard music playing, but not a single person speaking. By Sunday we heard people on the radio for the first time, they were saying that the electric service had been restored in some states and even in some areas of the city where I live, which gave us hope. Then, they started to talk about the big economic losses, then about cases of expensive medicines that had gone bad because they needed refrigeration. I remember hearing about the case of a person who lived in a 21st floor apartment having to carry an enormous bucket of water upstairs because entire families had no water supply caused by the lack of electricity; I heard it on the radio. Later, they talked about numerous cases of violence, looting, and deaths; deaths included newborn babies that rely on electric-powered machines for surviving—many hospitals did not have a power plant either. I didn’t know if I wanted to know any more.
At this point, my problems became microscopic. By Tuesday morning we ran out of drinking water. It was the as the fifth morning that we would wake up to still no power service. We started drinking the water we had boiled using firewood like we had cooked everything else, but water tasted awful - at least we did have water to drink. There are awful stories going around about people who drank from contaminated rivers. There are also big discussions on whether these stories are, or aren’t true, we can only hope they are not, but the odds in this desperate situation, and the pictures I have seen online, make me, personally, think otherwise.
We communicated with family members and friends abroad as there were sudden moments when WhatsApp and other direct messages got sent/were received; however, it was hard to communicate via text message or make national calls. In any case, if you could make the call, the people you were calling probably had no way of charging their phone batteries. Landlines were not functioning either; in my particular case, it made no difference. Over a year ago, the area where I live was struck with an unbelievable crime: the cable work that is used to provide people with the service offered by the public phone service was stolen. It is known that copper, and numerous other goods, are taken from Venezuela to the Colombian side of the Venezuelan borders and sold. As a result, at home, I have no landline or good internet connection, I struggle to pay a very expensive limited package of internet data provided by a private company; at least, there are some options left to communicate and try to keep up with the world without staying in isolation.
These problems seem minor to me today, as while writing this article, power was cut and restored immediately in what I hope is not a reminder that there are other rough days to come. At times it seems like my problems are meaningless; however, I do suffer from epilepsy to which and have not been able to find the medicine in Venezuela for a few years now. With this medicine, I can live a normal life; without it, I am at risk of having a seizure at any time. I do not worry about it because my relatives who have left the country have sent me the precious medicine; I would have to save over 10 months of salary to afford half a month’s medication. I am lucky to count on the support of relatives, and have some of it at home; however, this does remind me that maybe my regular concerns are not so meaningless.
At present, this university professor is writing this article with a moral responsibility of getting this story across. Nevertheless, I feel like too much will be left unsaid; as I said, I am one of the lucky ones. People who had it the worst are still facing the consequences of these dark days, some are preparing for worse days. As I write, I think about having the need to nonperishable food products, collecting water and being able to finish all my freelancing responsibilities (which actually support me economically in addition to my sister’s help); I think about getting a gasoline supply and the fact that people I know have spent 14 hours waiting to acquire this fuel. Furthermore, I think about a friend who also left the country and whose mother was taken to a hospital after the stress suffered these past days.
Life has gone back to “normal” in some places, but it truly hasn’t. We are all in “survival mode” as we attempt to get the country functioning. The blackout happened exactly one week ago, and I can’t help but think that it will again today. As opposed to what I would like to do with another piece of writing, my main interest with this article is to send it before something else happens, to try to make it the most powerful I can before a new power cut strikes; it feels like any at any second I will lose contact with the newspaper and the world. It seems that at any moment, we will have to go back to controlling how much food we eat, getting firewood, and getting more supplies. Support, among relatives and community members, was crucial during these days; Venezuelans are incredibly resilient, and though there were some violent events, I also witnessed great generosity.
We are still in fear; we are still on “survival mode.” We fear things might get worse; I fear more blackouts, shortages and the fact that we rely on electronic transactions for all businesses in Venezuela. With the exception of transportation, there are no services or items you can pay with cash; on the one hand, because the prices of goods have costs that would require stacks of cash. On the other hand, due to these high prices in relation to the type of bills available in Venezuelan currency (a result of hyperinflation), there is a shortage of cash and banks dispense ridiculously small amounts of money per day. During the blackout, even if you had money in your bank account, the only way to buy with a debit card was if there was a miraculous moment of internet connection at a store, or with foreign currency (US dollars, Colombian pesos, etc.)
We fear the things that happened will repeat or worse; we fear the consequences of these days, which are still to be seen. If lack of water did lead people to drink from polluted waters, hospitals will diagnose many diseases. Many deaths have already been reported as well as huge economic losses. We fear a war; we fear that regardless of how much talent, effort, good intentions and resilience, there are things that we cannot control; you cannot make plans, you cannot have dreams, you can only survive, and very importantly, you cannot speak your mind.
I know that this piece of writing might not accomplish much; so I guess the final message is to the readers—the regular citizens of the world—is one of hope regarding the actions of those in control of our futures, i.e., those in power. To the readers, I can only say that a crisis comes unannounced; there may be numerous warnings, but when it comes, you are never truly prepared. Taking a moment to assess how long you would last if you were stripped of basic services, might help you prepare and survive a difficult moment. However, one thing I can tell you, you would be surprised at how much you can do and how strong you are when you have to survive and take care of your loved ones. An optimistic attitude is key. To those responsible for my people’s hardships, I don’t think there is anything you could say to make such heartless creatures regain a conscience. Nevertheless, I will say this: if humans make mistakes, how is it possible that the people who have run this country for the past 20 years claim that every single fault has been everybody else’s fault but theirs? Is it really possible? Are these people so perfect and god-like that there is not one thing they are responsible for even though the country is literally falling to pieces? Can this be? Or is it that maybe, just maybe, they have not been up to the task? For how many more decades will the government of Venezuela play the victim? Are they defending an economic model or just their positions in the government? Every government faces opposition and obstacles, the question is, after years of protests, violence, economic decay, massive exodus, an enormous decay in health conditions and deaths, can the Venezuelan people afford to justify the government's faults? Furthermore, those working to help with the political transition, do they really have the people’s best interests at heart?
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