Chaos spreads in Venezuela after days without power

2019-03-12 18:10

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelans on Monday converged on a polluted river in Caracas to fill water bottles and held scattered protests in several cities as growing chaos took hold in a country whose people have had little power, water and communications for days.

A 3-year-old girl with a brain tumor languished in a Caracas hospital, awaiting treatment after doctors started surgery but then suspended the operation when nationwide power outages first hit on Thursday, said the girl's fearful mother, who only gave her first name, Yalimar.

"The doctors told me that there are no miracles," said Yalimar, who hopes her daughter can be transferred Tuesday to one of the few hospitals in Venezuela that would be able to finish the complex procedure.

The girl's story highlighted an unfolding horror in Venezuela, where years of hardship got abruptly worse after the power grid collapsed. On Monday, schools and businesses were closed, long lines of cars waited at the few gasoline stations with electricity and hospitals cared for many patients without power. Generators have alleviated conditions for some of the critically ill.

There were also acts of kindness: People whose food would rot in fridges without power donated it to a restaurant, which cooked it for distribution to charitable foundations and hospitals.

The blackouts have also hit Venezuela's oil industry. The country hasn't shipped $358 million in oil since the power failures started, and "the whole system is grinding to a halt," said Russ Dallen, a Miami-based partner at the brokerage firm Caracas Capital Markets.

Two large tankers are sitting empty at the Jose offshore oil-loading dock, and at least 19 other ships are waiting their turns there, Dallen said.

Engineers have restored power in some parts of Venezuela, but it often goes out again. There have been a few protests in Caracas and reports of similar anti-government anger elsewhere. Opposition leader Juan Guaido tweeted about reports of looting in some cities, but details were difficult to confirm.

Security forces in the city of Maracaibo dispersed "criminals" trying to take advantage of the power cuts, Mayor Willy Casanova told local media.

However, numerous videos posted on social media that purported to be from Maracaibo showed crowds roaming the streets and people running from looted, damaged buildings with no police in sight.

In Caracas, some people reported more sightings of "colectivos," a term for armed groups allegedly operating on behalf of the state to intimidate opponents. While President Nicolas Maduro and other government officials said they were working hard to restore power and provide basic necessities, the mood in Caracas was desperate.

Marian Morales, a nurse working for a Catholic youth group, and several colleagues handed out diapers and food from their car, parked near a hospital. Police and men in civilian clothing ordered them to leave, saying they didn't have permission.

Morales said the needy are cautious about approaching to collect the handouts because of the presence of security forces.

The opposition-controlled National Assembly debated the power cuts and declared that the situation was an emergency, a largely symbolic move aimed at pressuring Maduro.

Early Monday, an explosion rocked a power station in the Baruta area of Caracas. Residents gathered to look at the charred, smoldering equipment.

Guaido said three of four electricity transformers servicing the area were knocked out and that state engineers were unable to fix them. He has blamed the blackouts on alleged government corruption and mismanagement.

Winston Cabas, the head of Venezuela's electrical engineers union, which opposes the government, disputed government allegations that the dam was sabotaged. He blamed a lack of maintenance as well as the departure of skilled workers from the troubled country over the years.

"The system is vulnerable, fragile and unstable," he said.

Maduro had accused Guaido and the United States of staging a "cyberattack" on the hydroelectric station at the Guri Dam, the cornerstone of Venezuela's electrical grid. The U.S. dismisses the allegation.

"We're desperate," said Luis Sanabria, a Caracas resident who joined dozens of other people collecting water at a city spring.

Spain's airline pilots union asked for Spanish airline Air Europa to stop flying to Venezuela after one of its crews was attacked at gunpoint in Caracas. The Sepla union said two pilots and eight more crew members of a flight from Madrid were assaulted on Saturday while going from the airport to their hotel in the Venezuelan capital. None of the crew members was injured.

Air Europa responded by ordering the crews of flights to Venezuela to not spend the night in the country, according to the union.

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, imposed sanctions on a Moscow-based bank jointly owned by Russian and Venezuelan state-owned companies, for allegedly trying to circumvent U.S. sanctions on the South American country. The U.S. said it is targeting Evrofinance Mosnarbank for supporting Petroleos de Venezuela S.A., an entity previously targeted by sanctions in January.

Evrofinance said it is carrying out its activities normally despite the announcement and pledged to "meet its obligations to the clients and partners in full."

The U.S. and more than 50 governments recognize Guaido as interim president and say Maduro wasn't legitimately re-elected last year because opposition candidates weren't permitted to run. Maduro says he is the target of a U.S. coup plot.

Also Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticized Cuba and Russia for continuing to support Maduro and described Cuba as the "true imperialist power" in Venezuela. Cuba has made the same accusation against the U.S., alleging that it is after Venezuela's oil.

___

Associated Press Writer Christopher Torchia in Caracas contributed to this report.

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