Venezuela watchers have been talking about the “collapse” of the country for a long time. They were mainly using the word metaphorically, applying it to statistical oddities such as fast declines in oil production, big spikes in infant mortality and skyrocketing prices. But since Thursday, Venezuela’s collapse has taken a turn to the literal, as an all-encompassing nationwide blackout has brought the country close to a standstill. Without power, the country has seen a hard stop to all the basics of 21st-century life.
In a country already trudging through a serious humanitarian crisis, the collapse of the electric grid is a final catastrophe. Venezuelans were already chronically hungry, with large numbers reporting they lost weight because they could not afford enough food. With food in such short supply, a power cut isn’t just an inconvenience: Not being able to refrigerate food becomes life-threatening.
The stories coming out of hospitals up and down the country have been harrowing. Only some had working back-up generators, and virtually none were designed to carry a whole hospital over many days. A video of a nurse using a hand pump to try to keep an infant alive has been circulating on social media. Thousands of kidney dialysis patients, unable to receive treatment, may face a slow and agonizing death.
The economy has simply stopped operating. Due to hyperinflation, the country is chronically low on paper money: The Venezuelan central bank just can’t keep up with the demand for bills of larger and larger denominations. As a result, the vast bulk of payments are made electronically — point-of-sale transactions using debit cards and Venmo-like bank transfers have been the only practical way to pay for things for years. With the power system out, you literally can’t access money. The only economic activity that can likely take place now is transactions in foreign currency: U.S. dollars, mostly, but also euros, Colombian pesos or whatever else is around. Most Venezuelans do not have access to foreign money.
And then there’s the hard stop to communications, with the vast bulk of fixed phone, cellular and Internet connections now down. People in Caracas have taken to driving around hoping to see a signal bar. When, exceptionally, they do get a signal, large numbers of cars congregate as people desperately send SMS and WhatsApp messages to relatives abroad.
For most people, it’s like the outside world has stopped existing. The government has significantly cracked down on independent media, and the Maduro government has blamed U.S. sabotage for the power crisis.
To the millions of Venezuelans who have left the country fleeing its myriad dysfunctions, the past few days have been especially hair-raising. For many, it has simply been impossible to contact their loved ones back home at all. To make matters worse, in many families, it was the young people at the peak of their working lives who fled the country, reasoning they’d be best placed to get jobs and send money back home. This means that those left behind were disproportionately vulnerable: the old, the sick and children. The blackout leaves them doubly exposed: The fittest people in their families aren’t around to help them, and, with no power, those in Venezuela can’t receive money sent to them, either.
To be clear, the sabotage accusations against the United States lack any semblance of credibility: Venezuela’s power grid has been in gradual decline for over a decade. Rolling blackouts have been common in Venezuela’s smaller cities for years, as an overstretched grid struggled to cope with demand. Six- and eight-hour blackouts insinuated themselves into the fabric of everyday life. But at least power would usually come back after a few hours. Usually.
This blackout is different. We still have no official information of what exactly happened, but some reports suggest a forest fire may have shut down one of the main high-voltage lines in the country, setting off a chain reaction that brought down the entire network. The result was a blackout that wasn’t localized and didn’t roll. Instead, practically the whole country was out of power for days. Over the weekend, some parts of Caracas saw service restored, but only for a few hours at a time.
Why? Because over the past 12 years, the government has run the grid into the ground. After nationalizing the utility companies, the government simply stopped investing in routine maintenance of power stations or transmission lines, setting off a slow deterioration that has made the grid unstable for years. Venezuelan engineers have been warning for years that unless the system received urgent maintenance, something like this would happen.
Now it has. And it has made talk of Venezuela’s collapse literal in ways that seemed unimaginable just days ago.