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Outside Caracas, Chavismo's unfulfilled promises

Friday - 4/12/2013, 3:55am  ET

In this April 8, 2013 photo, an image of Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez is posted on an iron fence next to a government construction project of would be homes in Valencia, Venezuela. Outside Venezuela's capital, power outages, food shortages and unfinished projects abound; important factors heading into Sunday's election to replace socialist Chavez, who died last month after a long battle with cancer. An estimated 2 million of Venezuela's country's nearly 30 million people lack permanent homes, and one of Chavez's anti-poverty "missions" builds them. But it's been slow going. The government says it has built 370,500 homes and apartments over the past two years, and more than 3 million people applied for them. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

FRANK BAJAK
Associated Press

VALENCIA, Venezuela (AP) -- It's just after nightfall and the power is out again in untold hundreds of thousands -- probably millions -- of Venezuelan homes. If the government knows how many, it's not saying. It hasn't issued reports on problems in the public power grid since 2010.

In Venezuela's third-largest city, Pedro Martinez dons a shirt for visitors drawn by the flicker of candles inside his one-story, cement-block house in a middle-class district. The Caribbean heat is sticky thick inside. A mesh hammock hangs by the front door.

"This happens nearly every day," Martinez says of the blackout, holding a candle close so a reporter can take notes. It's the day's second outage. The first struck just after noon.

It's been like this for five years, pretty much everywhere but Caracas, the capital. Worsening power outages, crumbling infrastructure and other unfulfilled promises witnessed this week in a trip through the country's industrial heartland could be an important factor in Sunday's election to replace socialist President Hugo Chavez, who died last month after a long battle with cancer.

His political heir, Nicolas Maduro, is favored to win, largely on the strength of Chavez's generous anti-poverty programs, which the late president emphasized over public works with one big exception: housing.

But polls show that support may be eroding and the outages are a testament to the neglect many Venezuelans consider inexcusable in this major oil-producing state. Violent crime, double-digit inflation, official corruption and persistent food shortages are other factors.

Some of the rolling, intermittent blackouts are still scheduled. But most are no longer announced. They generally last three to four hours a day on average, said Miguel Lara, who ran the power grid until Chavez forced him out in 2004 for being "a political risk."

Jose Aguilar, a U.S.-based consultant with extensive and more recent experience in Venezuela's electrical industry, says it is suffering "a downward spiral of deterioration." Insufficient transmission lines are running so hot that 20,000 distribution transformers burned out last year, he said. "They run them cherry red."

Electrical substations are in a precarious state, Aguilar and Lara said. If one goes offline, others fail. Employees don't even have fuses, said Lara. "They have to cobble together their own to keep things running."

"There's no money to buy parts for something that breaks," said Giovanni Rinaldi, a 15-year employee at a hydroelectric plant in the eastern city of Ciudad Guayana, which he said is plagued by four or five power outages a week despite being in the region that generates more than 70 percent of Venezuela's electricity.

He was fired this week, he said, after posting photos on Twitter of a state utility company vehicle that was to put distribute Maduro campaign posters and other material around town.

"We had put our own money into keeping those vehicles running because the company didn't," Rinaldi, a 40-year-old father of two, said by phone. "It's not right."

The government hasn't adequately spent to expand and strengthen the power grid, critics say.

They also blame problems on Cuban, Iranian and Uruguayan technicians brought in to run by Chavez to run the system. Accidents are up tenfold, and there are places in remote states that suffer outages for as long as three to five days, says Lara.

Maduro, who was sworn in as interim president the day of Chavez's funeral, said Thursday that the state power utility would be completely restructured, and blamed a recent surge in outages on sabotage by sympathizers of his challenger Sunday, opposition leader Henrique Capriles.

He also said during the speech in Caracas that closed his campaign that the government had arrested more than 30 saboteurs but gave no other details.

The day after the election, Maduro said, he would declare the electric sector "a state security service" and militarize it. That could criminalize speaking publicly about its defects.

Rinaldi, a computer technician, was accused of sabotage in his termination notice, which he vehemently denies.

The government crackdown hasn't stopped blackouts -- or complaints.

During a campaign stop in the Amazon city of Puerto Ayacucho on Saturday, crowds shouted "Lights! Lights! Lights" at Maduro. Newspapers reported that prompted state TV to nearly mute its crowd-monitoring microphone.

Attempts to seek comment from the state-run electric utility, Corpoelec, were unsuccessful. No one picked up the main phone. Corpoelec's president is Argenis Chavez, a brother of the late president.

In Valencia, Martinez and his wife, Aura, regularly turn off their TV and air conditioner in anticipation of nightly blackouts. A power spike damaged the air conditioner about month ago.

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