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Venezuela Runs Short On Power And Fuel


The crisis in Venezuela is going from bad to worse. Nicolas Maduro is no longer recognized as President by the United States and dozens of other nations. They consider the leader of the National Assembly, Juan Guaido, to be the head of state. Yet Maduro still has the military power to block the borders, preventing the delivery of humanitarian aid to a desperate population. And his country is running short of power and fuel, as NPR's Philip Reeves found out in the capital, Caracas.



PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Nicolas Maduro is inside his presidential palace and is about to give a press conference.



REEVES: Venezuela's state-run TV interrupts its programming to broadcast this live.



REEVES: Maduro appears and starts lambasting the United States.


MADURO: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: He's in full flow when, suddenly, the lights go out.


REEVES: The TV cuts off. And for an embarrassing moment or two, the president, in his palace, is plunged into darkness. That outage on Friday hit a large part of the surrounding capital.

SUNI: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: (Speaking Spanish).

A few miles from the palace, this one-room auto repair shop came to a standstill - for an hour, says the proprietor, Suni, who declines to give her full name for fear of reprisals.

SUNI: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Suni says, these days, there are a lot of power outages, making it even harder to do business in a country in the grips of a political crisis.

MAURO ZAMBRANO: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Mauro Zambrano is a union official at the University Hospital in Caracas. We meet in a discreet restaurant out of view of the authorities who routinely monitor him.

ZAMBRANO: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Zambrano says, just under one month ago, on the 12 of January, the electricity blacked out. "The hospital has a generator," says Zambrano.

ZAMBRANO: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: But it didn't work because the battery was missing and there was no diesel to run it. The emergency room went dark. Electrically powered resuscitation equipment didn't work.

ZAMBRANO: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "It was chaos," says Zambrano. Because of this, two middle-aged men ended up dying in emergency, he says. And a third person died shortly after the outage ended. Maduro's government blamed that blackout on sabotage.

Venezuela's infrastructure has been crumbling for years. Now the situation is critical. Victor Salmeron is a Venezuelan journalist who specializes in economics

VICTOR SALMERON: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "The electricity sector is a mess," says Salmeron. Part of it runs on diesel. Supplies of diesel and also gasoline are running very low in Venezuela. Industry experts say in some parts of the country, there's only enough to last a few days.

SALMERON: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Salmeron says this is a major concern for Venezuelans. Everyone's talking about it, he says. He thinks Maduro's government will somehow find enough fuel to avert total paralysis...

SALMERON: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: ...But that Venezuela's rural areas, which already have shortages, will suffer even more.

Despite its vast reserves of oil, Venezuela has to import fuel. Its state-owned refineries can't produce enough. They're blighted by poor maintenance. Thousands of staff have left to find work abroad after hyperinflation rendered their salaries worthless. Analysts estimate that these refineries are now operating at less than a third of capacity.

Maduro had been importing gasoline from the U.S. Washington's latest round of sanctions stopped that. The sanctions also took a huge bite out of Maduro's hard currency income by cutting him off from the billions his government used to make selling crude to the U.S. Now it's much harder for them to find dollars to pay for fuel, even if he can find someone to sell it to him. Fixing that takes time, says professor Norma Garay, an expert in Venezuela's oil industry.

NORMA GARAY: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: She doubts that what she calls Maduro's illegal government can manage this crisis, which is why she thinks it's time for him to go. Maduro still has followers who disagree, like this man, a former banker who only gave his first name, Melvin, for fear of reprisals.

MELVIN: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Melvin says the U.S. is plotting to take control of Venezuela's oil. Why would you let someone take over your country? - he asks. These days, he's in the minority. That power cut that disrupted Maduro's press conference in the palace also caused delays in the metro in Caracas.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: This man used his mobile phone to video a big crowd stranded on a platform. He shouts out, what do you think of Maduro?




REEVES: The crowd's unprintable reply says it all.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Caracas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.