Caption: people collect water from a leaking pipeline
Nearly two months after Juan Guaidó, with the support of the National Assembly, declared himself an alternative president of Venezuela on 23 January, incumbent Nicolas Maduro has declared victory over his US-backed challenger.
Maduro praised the armed forces for remaining loyal to him and defeating the “coup”. But the claim came amidst mass blackouts that began on Thursday 7 March, affecting at least 18 of the country’s 23 states.
The blackouts have badly impacted hospitals and other vital services, leading to a reported 26 deaths, including six babies. On Monday 11 March, the opposition-held National Assembly declared a national state of emergency, with Guaidó calling on Venezuela to halt oil shipments to Cuba “so that the oil the Venezuelan people urgently need to attend to this national emergency is not given away”.
Engineers at the Central University of Venezuela attribute the blackouts to a bush fire that took out a section of the power grid between the Malena and San Geronimo B substations in the eastern part of the country. The engineers offer two further explanations.
First, the fire might have damaged part of the transmissions network. Second, the fire might have caused a turbine failure at the El Guri hydroelectric dam. The El Guri dam powers 80% of Venezuela’s power grid and repairing it could take up to three years.
Guaidó attributes the power grid failure to years of under-investment, whereas Maduro accuses the US and the Venezuelan right of launching a cyber-attack on the system in a plot to remove him.
On 12 March, chief prosecutor Tarek Saab announced an investigation into the alleged sabotage and Guaidó’s purported involvement in it. Guaidó is further accused of sending messages inciting people to rob and loot during the blackout.
Rival protests in Caracas continued on 9 March, which the government designates as “anti-imperialism day”. This name refers to Barack Obama’s 2015 declaration that Venezuela is “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security of the United States”. Thousands took to the streets. Predictably, pro-government and pro-opposition news outlets both claim that their side’s demonstration had the larger turnout.
On 10 March, the New York Times published new video evidence indicating that, contrary to allegations by Colombian and US officials, Venezuelan government forces did not burn the aid lorries that caught fire when crossing the Colombia-Venezuela border. It seems that the fire was accidentally started by a pro-opposition protester throwing a Molotov cocktail at security personnel who had fired tear gas at the assembled demonstrators. The lit rag of the Molotov cocktail separated from the bottle in midair and flew towards the aid lorry instead.
Since the military has overwhelmingly remained on his side, Maduro certainly retains the upper hand. But the direction of the crisis is far from certain.