Venezuela's government has imposed rolling power outages as they struggle to deal with shortages
At some point in our lives, we’ve all experienced the annoyance of a power cut in our home. You’re in the middle of watching TV and the screen goes blank.
After fumbling around in the dark for a minute you locate a candle and a set of matches, and with one strike you can (sort of) see again. Feeling a bit stressed, you head to the kitchen to make a cup of tea but you can’t boil the water because the kettle won’t work. You try to heat some on the hob but then you realise that your cooker is electric, and then you start to worry how long those raw chicken breasts will last in the fridge...
Well imagine living in a country where this is a regular occurrence and, not only that, your government has announced that it will have to cut the power for four hours every day for two months.
This is the reality for 24-year-old Irishwoman Sinead Whitty, along with millions of others living in Venezuela.
Sinead has been resident in the country since last August, and while she is no stranger to the odd power cut, these latest measures are unlike anything she has experienced before.
Venezuela is currently in the middle of an electricity crisis. A major drought has caused water levels at its main dam and hydroelectric plant to reach critically low levels. The Guri Dam provides approximately two-thirds of the energy needs for the entire country.
In an effort to alleviate the situation, the Venezuelan government has been introducing a series of temporary measures.
In February, shopping centres, hotels and cinemas were ordered to reduce their opening hours and provide their own generators. The Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro also urged women to minimise their use of energy-heavy appliances like hairdryers.
He is quoted saying: “I always think a woman looks better when she just runs her fingers through her hair and lets it dry naturally. It's just an idea I have”.
Last week it was announced that electricity would be switched off for four hours a day in Venezuela’s ten most populous states to deal with the power shortage. These cuts follow a timetable to ensure that power is restored to all premises by 8pm but Sinead says that the timetable is not always adhered to.
“It came back an hour and a half later than scheduled on Thursday,” says Sinead. “Generators are getting damaged because of the cuts and there is low pressure electricity so you can’t use anything”.
Day to day living is also proving difficult.
“You have to decide when to cook. When to shower. When to Skype. When to make bank transfers. Your business has to close while the power is gone”, says Sinead. “We’re lucky because we have a gas cooker so we can cook with matches, but we have to have a giant bottle of water on standby all the time.”
Earlier this year, Venezuela's capital Caracas was named the world’s most violent city, according to a study released by the Mexico City-based Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice. This result was based on the number of murders per 100,000 inhabitants during 2015. These latest crises have added new dangers for Sinead.
“At the residence I live in, we have 24 hour security outside with electric fences and a big iron gate. Now with the electricity cuts at night, we are all on edge hoping nobody breaks in.”
“My social life is confined to friends houses and one bar that is in a mall with lots of security, but now because of the power cuts we can't even go there.”
“We have a self imposed curfew too. Once it gets dark, you're better off staying at home. Coming from a place like Ireland, it's a big shock to the system. I don't even want my family to visit me.”
Businesses have also been suffering from the constant power outages.
“Restaurants are throwing out so much wasted food because of power cuts, while others are closing because they can't find ingredients. In our business, we're managing to work, but barely. We lost almost four full days this week. There's not a business that isn't affected.”
With cash is hard to come by, money has also become a daily struggle.
“The biggest note we have is 100 bolivars. A new pair of jeans - cheap ones - cost 14,000. Can you imagine walking with a wad of cash that big? Most fruit vendors, markets and shops take debit cards but what happens when the electricity goes?”
President Maduro and his government say the drought is caused by the El Niño weather phenomenon, and the problem should be alleviated once it begins raining again. However, Sinead argues that’s not the only reason.
“Why isn't it affecting any other country like this? Bolivia? Colombia?” she asks. “There hasn't been the right maintenance of our infrastructure. The blame is 100% with the government.”
At the beginning of this month, President Maduro gave the majority of Venezuela’s state employees the day off on Fridays during April and May in another attempt to reduce energy consumption. Earlier this week, that was extended to include Wednesdays and Thursdays, meaning Venezuelan public sector workers now have a two-day work week, except for those carrying out essential tasks.
Sinead is highly critical of this latest plan: “It's a joke - think of the maths. 50 people in a building in various offices using roughly five air conditioning units, close to 50 computers, fridges, toilets phones etc. Send those 50 people home and that's 50 houses using electricity. It doesn't make sense.”
“Also in the first week of May the public sector is only working on Tuesday because the President thought it was unfair that the workers holiday fell on a Sunday."
Electricity is not the only thing in short supply, however. While there have been many changes in the country since Sinead's first visit in 2014, the large queues to buy food and groceries have become the most noticeable.
Nowadays in Venezuela many basic goods are in short supply. People queue for hours a day in the 30 degree heat to provide for their families. A new profession has cropped up as a result. “Bachaqueros” stand in line all day to buy goods which are limited per person, and then resell them to those who do not have the time to wait.
Sinead tries to be prepared by buying in bulk: “If something doesn't have a short expiry date, we buy as much of it as possible. I have over 100 bottles of passata and chopped tomatoes in my house, because you might see one product today and then you never see it again”.
“The days that rice, flour or nappies arrive at the nearby supermarket, even passing the queue is dangerous.”
Recently queues have been forming for a very different reason.
In 1999, during the term of the previous President Hugo Chavez, a recall mechanism was introduced into Venezuelan law. Under its provisions, an elected official can be subjected to a recall referendum if a petition gathers signatures from at least 20% of the corresponding electorate. It can only be enacted once half of the term of office of the official has elapsed, but the timing of this latest crisis is particularly inconvenient for President Maduro, who began his six-year term in April 2013.
A signature drive was launched on Wednesday, and the first petition needs 200,000 names in order to kick-start the referendum process. The Venezuelan opposition reportedly gathered more signatures in the first day than are required. The next step involves gathering support from 20% of voters in order to trigger the referendum.
With such uncertainty, people often ask Sinead why she doesn’t pack it all in and move back home.
“Myself and my boyfriend bought a house here and we don't have a mortgage. When could I do that in Ireland? Even opening a business in Ireland is hard, I can't imagine what the taxes are like!”
Life is not all bad in Venezuela though. Sinead says she “truly” loves the country: “It's beautiful. I love the food, as fatty as it is. I love the weather too - never less than 29°C, but with a lovely breeze.”
“I love the music and I love the people - especially now. The people of Venezuela are fighting for their freedom, for their country and I've never seen anything quite like it before.”
To learn more about Sinead's experiences of living in Venezuela, you can read her blog here