The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In Venezuela, a daily struggle for the basic necessities of life

Customers wait in line at an ATM outside a Banco de Venezuela branch in Caracas, Venezuela, on March 23. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

Carlos Hernández Blanco is an economist and a contributor for Caracas Chronicles.

We had gone six days without running water. It was 4 o’clock in the afternoon, sweltering hot, and my skin was sticky. I desperately needed a bath; we all did.

We walked from our third-floor apartment to the parking lot in front of our building — a sprawling, utilitarian, turquoise, three-story concrete block built 40 years ago — to refill our buckets from the only place with access to water, the faucet on the sidewalk they use to wash the cars. My whole family (dad, mom, brother and I) went together. We ran into another family filling buckets, too, so we had to wait in line to fill ours. There’s a line for everything these days.

We are almost used to this by now. We have learned to keep buckets of yellowish tap water around the house at all times: that’s just common sense. By day six of the shortage, though, no one in the building had water, and we were getting desperate: the whole apartment was starting to smell like a public restroom. We needed to flush that toilet!

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. My dad works in an office, the head of his department. My brother and I are both college graduates. We are technically middle-class. We thought we’d have our own apartments by now: office jobs, suits. Instead, we spend all our time scrambling for the very basics.

Just as I was finishing a second trip lugging a heavy bucket up three flights of stairs, water service returned. Ugh. Just another day in Venezuela.

Where I live, water is the most unreliable service, but the Internet and the electricity are not far behind. Water, power, Internet: our impossible triangle. You’ll rarely get all three at once.

The Internet, in my experience, only goes out when you really need it. My brother has been anxiously waiting for a rare chance to sign up for an appointment to get a passport, the golden ticket out of this mess. He was at work when the government website at which the requests have to be filed suddenly came back online — a once-in-a-blue-moon opportunity. He couldn’t access the site, since he was in a car, so he called me breathless to see if I could sign him up for an appointment. He knew he wouldn’t have another chance for weeks. On the rare occasions when the website is available, it’s instantly overwhelmed by traffic. It pays to be quick.

But our Internet was down, so I couldn’t do anything. Later, I found out our service provider was down throughout Ciudad Guayana, our city of close to 1 million.

Then there’s electricity. Blackouts take the Internet down with them, along with any hope for a productive day. Given enough time, they take the water out, too. Our water pumps are not solar-powered.

Other parts of the country have it far worse; but the blackouts where I live usually last about an hour, and occur weeks apart. They’re a handy excuse for a break to hang out with neighbors and bad-mouth the government.

The thing is, I’m actually fairly privileged. Some places in Venezuela face power outages that last as long as 13 days, and there are communities where none of the basic services work. None! We are still getting supplied with natural gas so we don’t have to endure the lines for propane canisters, which can take the whole day unless you arrive at 4 a.m.

We know why this is happening. All the utilities were taken over by the government during Hugo Chávez’s big nationalization drive between 2005 and 2009.

Socialists think charging for a service is wrong. So guess what? The public utilities are always broken. You can get away with no investment and no maintenance for a while — but after a decade, it catches up with you.

Take CANTV, our Internet provider. It used to belong to Verizon and worked reasonably okay, but in 2007, Chávez decided to expropriate it to strike a blow against international capitalism and to bring the Internet to the masses (or some such). Our Internet service now costs almost nothing (I’ll give them that), but it’s also among the slowest in the world, and completely unreliable. In some communities, people steal Internet cables to strip and sell them as scrap metal. Since CANTV simply can’t afford to replace them, those people are left without Internet access.

Or take Corpoelec, the single national power utility. Chávez took over all the regional power companies and, in 2007, merged them into a single state-owned behemoth. Nowadays, Corpoelec is run by military men who plainly don’t know what they’re doing.

The always have excuses whenever there’s a nationwide blackout. They blame the droughts, the rains, even someone with a stick. Once, notoriously, they blamed an iguana for gnawing at some power cables. But most often they blame it on the United States, the old standby here in our country. The nonsensical excuses make for some fine memes, but the truth is simpler: no maintenance, plus no investment, plus corruption equals awful service.

And HidroBolívar? Yes, our water company! You guessed it — also a dependent of the government and run by military men.

That’s why the water is yellow. When there’s water.