In a desperate attempt to save electricity, drought-stricken Venezuela has introduced a new concept to the workplace calendar: the five-day weekend.
President Nicolás Maduro has decided to furlough the country's public employees — who account for a third of the labor force — for the bulk of the week, so they can sit through rolling blackouts at home rather than in the office.
“The public sector will work Monday and Tuesday, while we go through these critical and extreme weeks," he said on his weekly presidential broadcast.
This assumes that Venezuela's rainy season will comply with that timetable and rescue the country's crippled hydroelectric plants.
Primary schools also will close on Fridays. Blackouts lasting at least four hours have been imposed across much of the country, leaving shopping malls in the dark and scarce food supplies at restaurants and markets at risk of spoiling.
Within a few hours of his announcement on Tuesday night, Maduro got a troubling glimpse of what happens when his emergency rationing measures go on a little too long.
During an outage in the state of Zulia that lasted more than 12 hours, angry residents torched a bus, looted stores and attacked the headquarters of the government power company Corpoelec, according to Venezuela's El Nacional. It wasn't immediately clear why the blackout went on for so long.
Venezuela has a lot of problems right now, and a good number of them are quite clearly the government’s fault.
The big reason that oil-rich Venezuela can’t keep the lights on is a story of good intentions and extremely poor follow-through.
A half-century ago, the country was viewed as something of a beta lab for the leading theories of economic development. The enlightened thinkers of the day looked at Venezuela’s huge petroleum deposits and vast potential for hydroelectric power and decided that it would be a lot smarter to export one and live off the other.
Planners from Harvard and MIT came to Venezuela in the late 1950s to help the government build a model industrial city, Ciudad Guayana, that was envisioned as a kind of tropical Pittsburgh. Export-dependent Venezuela would leverage its oil wealth to diversify its economy and transform into a South American manufacturing power.
At the center of this dream was the massive Guri Dam, built in part with World Bank loans, that backed up the mighty Caroni River deep into the jungle. By the time the final stage was completed in 1986, it was the world’s largest hydroelectric station. Transmission lines carried its dirt-cheap juice hundreds of miles to the capital, Caracas, and Venezuela’s other major cities.
The Guri quickly became the electricity equivalent of the penny-per-gallon gasoline long sold at government filling stations: a God-given right, like air, sunlight, and 91-octane in the tank of a '78 Chevy Malibu.
With a generating capacity of more than 10 megawatts, the Guri has five times the output of the Hoover Dam, and it still ranks fourth in the world.
The reservoir has dropped to a record low this week, at just five feet above the “catastrophe point” at which the turbines will stop turning and risk breaking down.
All of Venezuela is freaking out about this, and not least Maduro. Two-thirds of Venezuelans want him out of office this year, according to a survey by the country's leading pollster.
The power cuts are not helping. Maduro officials update the public regularly with weather reports on their Twitter accounts. The slightest amount of precipitation around the Guri can elicit effusive praise to God Almighty.
"Comrades, today it rained long and hard over the Guri," Electricity Minister Luis Motta Dominguez tweeted after a rare downpour earlier this month. "Glory to God. We will overcome!"
But the rain isn’t falling fast enough, or falling much at all, this year, one of the worst El Niño droughts on record.
Maduro and his supporters have tried to spin the crisis into a sign of socialist success, arguing that demand for electricity has skyrocketed because so many poor Venezuelans became appliance-owning consumers after the late Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999. But with the country’s factories essentially paralyzed by the economic crisis that preceded the energy one, there should be plenty of slack in the system.
Instead, Maduro has ordered four-hour power cuts across much of the country this month, with the exception of Caracas, where electricity often goes out anyway. He has decreed every Friday a holiday and done away with one of the quirkier changes of Chávez, his political mentor, who put Venezuela on its own time zone, a half-hour ahead of Washington.
For good measure, Maduro has also asked women to stop using hair dryers. “I think a woman looks better when she runs her fingers through her hair and lets it dry naturally,” he said.
And still the Guri's levels do not rise. If significant precipitation does not fall within a few weeks, much of Venezuela will be at risk of a near-total blackout.
This is a foreseen catastrophe. Chávez, too, went through a similar crisis during the last El Niño cycle, in 2009-2010.
“Rainfall is not the main culprit,” said Venezuelan economist Francisco Monaldi at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. Years of mismanagement, under-investment and a failure to learn from the past have taken their toll.
The socialist government says it has invested billions of dollars to shore up the electrical grid by adding a network of smaller, less centralized turbines that can burn Venezuela’s heavy crude. But according to a report in Venezuela’s El Universal, 60 percent of the stations are offline or operating below capacity because of lack of maintenance.
Then there’s the problem of mismanagement and poor planning at the Guri Dam itself. Recent photos show cattle wandering across desiccated plains where the vast reservoir has receded.
With the Guri crippled, so too are the steel and aluminum mills of Ciudad Guayana, and the lights already went out on its industrial vision years ago.