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Venezuela's leader blames right-wing saboteurs for power outage

The blackout leaves Caracas and 17 states without power for hours. President Nicolas Maduro calls it an 'electricity coup'; a consultant suspects human error.

September 04, 2013|By Mery Mogollon and Chris Kraul
  • The blackout forced businesses in Caracas, Venezuela's capital, to close Tuesday. The power was restored by midday Wednesday to the capital and 12 of 17 states affected.
The blackout forced businesses in Caracas, Venezuela's capital,… (Juan Barreto / AFP/Getty…)

CARACAS, Venezuela — With parts of Venezuela still dark after a mysterious blackout that left the capital and 17 states without electricity, President Nicolas Maduro laid the blame on opposition sabotage as his government scrambled to respond to the power failure.

The power shutdown began midday Tuesday after an apparent failure in high voltage transmission lines in Aragua and Guarico states, which led to total outage in several of the country's most populous areas.

Power was restored by early Wednesday to most of metropolitan Caracas, the capital, and a dozen states, according to the government. But by midday, officials in five other states said they were still without power.

In a Twitter message Tuesday night, Maduro said the failure was due to an "electricity coup" engineered by the "extreme right." Claiming he had authorized several new power projects to address shortages, Maduro maintained that his opponents were conspiring to "destabilize" the country.

Maduro did not offer details on how such sabotage might have been accomplished. He also blamed unnamed opposition figures for an outage in February, and last month declared a state of emergency, sending police and soldiers to occupy power installations.

Jose Aguilar, a Chicago-based international power systems consultant, said Wednesday that he suspects that the failure resulted from human error combined with the fact that the country's largest power plant, Planta Centro, was operating at only 82% capacity in the hours before the crash.

"The knowledge that the national grid had been unstable for 48 hours leading up to the collapse invites the suspicion that there was some imprudent action taken by the government operators," Aguilar said. He called on the government to conduct a thorough investigation to correct the problems and refrain from "frivolous" political accusations.

Aguilar and other critics say independent analyses of the grid's problems are difficult to carry out because the government has kept power-use data secret since 2010.

Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez said members of the Sebin domestic intelligence service had been "deployed across the nation to protect the population." Energy Minister Jesse Chacon said Tuesday that an investigation has been launched.

Venezuela's power system is plagued by problems caused by a lack of investment and maintenance, critics have charged. But Maduro has countered that the outages are a result of a "low intensity campaign" that is leading up to a "final assault on the revolutionary base."

Maduro took power in January as his leftist mentor, President Hugo Chavez, was suffering from cancer and near death. Maduro won election in April to fill out Chavez's term, but has never displayed his predecessor's charisma or enjoyed as much certainty that he can hold together the disparate groups that make up the ruling coalition.

Special correspondents Mogollon reported from Caracas and Kraul from Bogota, Colombia.

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