CARACAS, Venezuela — Opposition lawmakers and aid groups warned Sunday that an unprecedented nationwide blackout in Venezuela was causing a rising number of deaths, as citizens struggled for a fourth day to find food and water and hospitals were paralyzed.
“What Venezuelans are living today looks like a science fiction movie,” said Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader who is spearheading a U.S.-backed campaign to oust President Nicolás Maduro.
At a news conference Sunday, Guaidó said that at least 17 deaths had occurred at hospitals as a result of the outages. Fifteen of them were in the eastern city of Maturin, he said. Meanwhile, a medical aid group, Codevida, said it had reports of 15 people who had died of kidney failure linked to the lack of power.
It was not possible to independently confirm the reports. Venezuela’s health minister, Carlos Alvarado, said on state TV that reports of deaths linked to the power outages were “false.” The government has blamed the blackout on sabotage by the U.S. government.
Guaidó said the power outage resulted from poor maintenance — specifically, the failure to trim vegetation near major power lines, which caught fire. Although electricity was restored to some areas on Sunday, it was often fickle, failing hours later.
The lack of power has left hospitals depending on generators — if they have them — and has also shut the Caracas metro and virtually halted public transportation. That means many medical personnel can’t get to their jobs.
On Sunday afternoon, a 24-year-old woman sat in a chair weeping outside the hospital at the Central University of Venezuela. “My baby just died,” she said softly. “There was no pediatric surgeon.”
The woman, Alexandra Amundaray, a parking-lot attendant, said her 5-month-old son, Emanuel, had been suffering from dehydration in recent days. On Sunday morning, when he awoke, he was pale and cold, she said. She managed to get one of the few functioning ambulances in the city to rush him to the hospital, where he was treated at the emergency room for a blocked intestine, she said. “They went looking for a pediatric surgeon,” she said. “And then he died.”
The director of the hospital, Earle Siso, said in an interview that no patients had died because of the power outage; a generator was providing electricity for emergency cases. He denied a shortage of medical personnel. “Our biggest problem is the international blockade that’s been in effect since the era of President Obama,” he said.
But, shortly before talking to a reporter, he was surrounded by doctors and nurses complaining loudly that their colleagues hadn’t reported for work.
A woman waiting outside the emergency room for a doctor to see her 6-month-old daughter, who was suffering from a bacterial infection, said she had been told that only one doctor was working Sunday in the pediatric ward. The woman spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying she feared government retaliation.
Most of the hospital’s corridors were dark. Elias Urbaez, a cardiology resident, said that Sunday was his day off but that he had decided not to return home, even though he hadn’t been home in two days. He relies on public transportation and worried that he wouldn’t be able to get back for his shift Monday.
The doctor had been washing in a basin of water, he said, “but then the water ran out.”
The massive blackout comes amid an intensifying political clash. Guaidó, the National Assembly president, maintains that Maduro’s reelection last year was illegitimate because of fraud and that under the constitution he is the interim president. Guaidó has been recognized by more than 50 countries.
Guaidó and U.S. officials have accused Maduro’s government of blocking delivery of international humanitarian aid to help a population facing soaring inflation and shortages. They have seized on images of trucks set aflame during an opposition effort last month to send convoys of aid over the border. On Sunday, however, the New York Times reported that an investigation of video footage suggests that an anti-government protester accidentally set off the blaze.
Maduro has dismissed Guaidó as a pawn in a U.S.-orchestrated effort to unseat him. The president tweeted on Sunday that the electrical system “has been the subject of multiple cybernetic attacks that forced its collapse and have hurt the efforts to re-connect it nationally. Nonetheless, we are making great efforts so that, in the next few hours, we will restore power in a stable, definitive form.”
But few Venezuelans seemed optimistic that the government would succeed in reviving the electrical grid soon. Around the country, long lines formed outside bakeries, supermarkets and gas stations that had power.
Oscar Hernandez, 40, was buying candles Sunday at a supermarket in Eastern Caracas. “I’m preparing for Armageddon,” said the engineer, whose family had used up all their supply during the blackout.
Victoria Daboin, 27, went to the butcher last week and bought nine chickens, 16 chicken breasts and beef — a major shopping trip in a country suffering from a severe economic crisis. But on Sunday, after 72 hours without electricity, she had to empty her refrigerator, as the meat risked spoilage.
“I’m desperate,” said Daboin, a municipal worker.
Alicia Medina, 63, said she had been looking for ice all day to try to preserve the food she has at home. “I went to 10 places and nothing” she said, outside a grocery store in Eastern Caracas.
Meanwhile cellphone service remained spotty in much of the country. On Sunday, about 20 cars had parked on the side of a major Caracas highway. Why? “I know I look like a crazy lady,” said Carolina Pardo, a 45-year-old trainer at a gym. “But this is the only place I can get a signal in the entire city.”
Andreina Aponte contributed to this report.