Venezuela struggles with repeated power outages

June 13, 2011 - 12:29 AM

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — President Hugo Chavez accused his political rivals on Sunday of sabotaging the country's electricity grid and trying to pin the blame on his government for blackouts plaguing much of Venezuela.

Repeated power blackouts in recent months have affected areas stretching from Venezuela's western border with Colombia to eastern regions where hydroelectric dams produce roughly a third of the electricity that Venezuelans consume.

Many Venezuelans in affected areas appear to be growing impatient as government officials promise solutions to a problem that has persisted since 2009 despite billions of dollars in investment aimed at revamping the power grid.

Opposition leaders, meanwhile, are trying to capitalize, blaming Chavez for a faulty power grid and the repeated outages.

Chavez accused his foes of provoking the outages, without presenting evidence of sabotage.

"Sabotage, we have to be vigilant," Chavez said, speaking from Cuba during a a telephone interview broadcast on Sunday by the Caracas-based Telesur television network.

The president suggested that "a group of the right-wing, anti-nationalist opposition that is willing to do anything" is sabotaging the grid.

The most recent blackouts hit western Venezuela on Friday and Saturday, affecting several border states and the country's second-largest city, Maracaibo. The outages began Friday night with the failure of a transformer in Zulia state, officials said. Other transformers exploded before dawn Saturday, knocking out 3,000 megawatts and affecting the states of Zulia, Trujillo, Merida, Tachira and Barinas.

Aixa Lopez, director of the Committee for People Affected by Power Outages, a pressure group that monitors the extent of the problem, said blackouts — some of them lasting up to 20 hours — have repeatedly hit Caracas and at least 10 of Venezuela's 24 states in recent months.

Lopez said blackouts at hospitals have interrupted surgeries, damaged thousands of home appliances and disrupted activity at numerous businesses and public institutions, ranging from restaurants to schools. Several major outages in Caracas this year have shut down the subway and street lights, further aggravating traffic jams that snarl through streets, causing chaos in the bustling capital, she added.

"The situation is serious, and it's unacceptable," Lopez said.

Vice President Elias Jaua said earlier Sunday the state electric utility, Corpoelec, is working to restore power in regions hit by outages.

Jaua called for patience and urged residents of the sun-baked, sizzling state to reduce their use of air conditioning units.

"We call on the people of Zulia to use electricity in a responsible manner," Jaua told state TV. "We don't blame the people, but there's a reality, a consumption limit. If we pass the limit, the system collapses."

Zulia Gov. Pablo Perez responded angrily, saying the government — not consumers — should accept the blame for the blackouts.

"We are not the ones to blame," Perez told a televised news conference.