We experienced, as they used to say, “minor technical difficulties”. Where’s an IT guy when you need him? Sorry about that. Let’s get back to it…
Chapter 4/ continued…
When I first visited Venezuela in the ’90s there were occasional power outages, as is common in third world or emerging market countries. They would last for an hour or maybe a few hours and everyone adjusted to it. It was simply an annoyance. To a foreigner like myself it was actually kinda’ quaint. You know, “Well, there it goes again..” I was in a tourist area so the service was better than in some locales and the capital of Caracas also had better uptime than rural areas.
When Hugo Chavez came to power one of the things he vowed to fix was the unreliable power grid, which was mostly hydroelectric. With the abundance of fossil fuels and plenty of potential for thermal power generation, not to mention lots of rivers to expand the hydroelectric system, it simply had to be made a priority.
In 2007 Chavez nationalized the various independent electric companies and combined them into on entity, operated and regulated by the government. To great fanfare many projects were announced, primarily thermal and hydroelectric. Natural gas was largely ignored, used for generating power for oil wells or simply burned off. (FYI, in addition to having the world’s largest proven oil reserves they also have the 5th largest natural gas reserves) It’s not hard to imagine the frustration of living near Maracaibo, the country’s second-largest city and the heart of the oil industry, and seeing the flames of the natural gas burning off while you sit in darkness due to a power outage. “Hey, couldn’t we just use some of that stuff?” It’s even more frustrating when you think that Maracaibo was the first city in Venezuela with city-wide electric power ie; street lighting etc.
The prioritizing of increasing hydroelectric and thermal power wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Better for the environment, right? The problem, as with anything Chavismo- related, came in the implementation. The over $50 billion spent on these projects has produced, to date, zero, yes…ZERO, kilowatts of electricity. Billions more were wasted, misallocated, or simply disappeared.
During the Chavez and Maduro years there were several times of crisis where major blackouts occurred and power rationing was put into effect. The primary reason for these was drought causing dangerously low water levels , primarily at the Guri dam which provides most of the country’s electric power. During these times the government would point to the Tacoma dam project (Yes, one of those zero kilowatt gems) as the solution. Then the rains would return and everybody would forget about the drought and the associated blackouts. It was also a Chavista favorite to blame power outages on sabotage by right-wing terrorists, CIA plots to “bring down The Revolution”, etc.
In 2013 and again in 2016 the government was warned about deficiencies in the power grid and concern over lack of maintenance. Their willingness to address the issue was typified by their response to union leader, Elio Palacios’ warning in 2018 that a crisis-level event was imminent. They threw him in jail.
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