Tales of Heat and Death: Blackout Season Re-Inaugurated in Western States

Blackout season is back to stay. To some Venezuelans, the collapse of the national electric grid means heat and even more stress in their homes. For others, like patients in hospitals, it’s a death sentence.

Photo: KienYKe

It’s 11:30 p.m. in El Vigía, the second biggest city in Mérida State, where I’m staying as part of my two-month long Community Medicine internship. The temperature outside is 30°C, but inside my cousin’s house (that just received 12 hours of scorching, tropical sun) it feels way over that. There was a blackout three hours ago, the third that day, and no one really knew when power would finally return. I can feel every drop of sweat forming around my body as I lay in bed staring at the roof, rethinking my life choices. The heat rises to much more than my mountain-raised body can sustain, and I have to lay on the granite floor, the only cold surface around.

This is the latest chapter of a nine year-old (so far) electric crisis. Right now, western states are the most affected. After two weeks of random blackouts lasting from two to 16 hours (and several violent riots), an 8-hour long daily rationing program was established in Táchira, Mérida, Trujillo, Barinas, Portuguesa and Apure. The blackouts now show a more regular pattern, but still happen at random hours, the consequence of the 82% deficit in the region’s power generation capacity caused by years of underinvestment and corruption — not the weather.

The situation in El Vigía, 70 km west to my hometown of Mérida, is even more dramatic. Being just a few minutes away from Lake Maracaibo’s Southern Shore and just 8° north of the equator, daytime temperature is usually near 40°C, making air conditioner a top-level priority for survival.

During daytime, blackouts mean hell. It’s not only that houses get too hot to stay inside, leaving is also a bad idea. If you don’t own a car, you’ll have to walk (public transport is as broken here as everywhere else), and if you sort that out, going to a mall or doing errands is impossible; in a country where cash is harder to find than a functional opposition, a power cut means a complete halt to most economic activity. There’s simply no way to physically pay for anything, even if you can afford it, forcing many small and medium-scale stores to close their doors as soon as power is gone.

Gasoline power generators can make things easier, but you need gas. Not a problem in the country with the cheapest fuel ever, right?

In Táchira, three patients died last week due to respiratory failure after the equipments needed to reanimate them didn’t start.

Well, El Vigía has been under a terribly impractical and ultimately useless fuel rationing system since 2011, a measure also applied to the whole Táchira State. This rationing, meant to prevent gasoline smuggling to the Colombian border (two hours away by car), limits the number of liters a car can receive every week, and completely prohibits filling plastic bottles or cans. Refueling your power plant is a complex third world quest in which you must make a kilometric line for hours in your car, get the few liters a National Guard authorises the seller to dispatch you, go back home, take a hose and siphon those few liters into the generator. With the current electric crisis, this must be repeated daily, and most generators are too small to power the several air conditioners needed to make houses bearable again (a small desk fan will have to do). Mind you, by common accord all the noisy generators must be turned off so neighbours can sleep after 11:00 p.m.

This sucks, of course, but it’s nothing compared to what patients in public hospitals must face when lights go out. I experienced it myself in the small ambulatory clinic I’m doing my internship at. Located in La Palmita, the clinic was built in 1996, when a power crisis sounded like a joke and generators were not deemed necessary. So when power goes out, everything turns off, including the nebulizer I was using to treat the asthma crisis of a seven year-old kid I attended last week.

In bigger hospitals, where patients’ lives actually depend on machines, things are dire. In Táchira, three patients died last week: a four-month-old baby and a 76-year-old man in Rubio, and a 25-year-old woman in El Piñal, all of them due to respiratory failure after the equipments needed to reanimate them didn’t start. They join the six mechanically-ventilated newborn babies who died last month in San Félix, Bolívar State, after their hospital’s power generator failed to start during a blackout.

That night in El Vigía, after two hours laying on the floor like an oversized iguana, I was forced back to bed by a terrible back ache and sleep only came after 4:30 a.m., when some CORPOELEC torturer decided we had suffered enough for the night. I was lucky: I survived the night with nothing but bags under my eyes and a horrible pain on my neck.

Way cheaper than the price some had to pay.