The Rise and Fall of Venezuela’s Hydro System

The collapse of the country’s power network, which worsens the already catastrophic conditions the population is forced to endure, is the outcome of the interruption of a long development program that started half a century ago

Photos by author. 

Venezuela stumbles in the dark. The collapse of the National Electric System (SEN) is an unprecedented step backwards for the country and, along with a stagnant productive apparatus, hyperinflation and the crisis of basic services, it pushed the country to a state of anarchy, provoking repression against those demanding minimum living standards.

But Venezuela wasn’t always like this.

Once upon a time, Venezuela was booming, forging iron, steel and aluminum for the world. In the second half of the 20th century, it became the fourth largest economy in Latin America, setting an example of social security for the entire continent. The Caracas-Miami route and a subway with the slogan “Caracas doesn’t stop” signaled a promising future.

All of this was possible through oil revenues and an essential element of modernity: electricity, specifically the one produced in Guayana, in the south of the country, with three hydroelectric complexes and another under construction. That’s why Venezuela’s energy twilight is also that of a power generation emporium that propelled the development and quality of life of a modern nation.

Clean, cheap energy

The Caroni river, the second largest in Venezuela, is used for four hydroelectric complexes: Simón Bolívar, Francisco de Miranda and the “sisters” Antonio José de Sucre I, II and III, all of them renamed by Hugo Chávez in his attempt to rewrite history, all of them planned before chavismo, and only one started under the comandante.

In 1946, the civilian-military government of the time explored the region’s potential and decided to exploit the Caroni river for energy generation. The Venezuelan Development Corporation carried out the studies and, in 1956, the construction of the Macagua dam began. In 1961, the dam was ready and operational, with an installed capacity of 384 MW.

Tocoma, Guayana´s only station started during Chávez’s government, has been a sort of Frankenstein’s monster combining mediocrity and corruption.

But there was a bigger plan in motion: a steel industry, a city and a hydroelectric complex of unparalleled proportions.

In 1963, the construction of the Raúl Leoni Hydroelectric Complex (now called Simón Bolívar) began: an engineering wonder at the time of its opening, on November 8th, 1986, the largest dam in the world with an installed capacity of 10,235 MW, able to provide electricity to any state in the country through the national interconnected system.

This station, the most important of the group, is the result of over 20 years of work, but particularly, of the administrative continuity of six governments. However, that wasn’t the summit of our electric development from Guayana.

The Macaguas and Caruachi

Rafael Caldera’s second government (1994-1999) was a period of electric power, because in 1997 he inaugurated the Macagua II and III stations in Ciudad Guayana, designed to merge with the surrounding natural parks, making communion between natural and engineering wonders.

Together, the three Macaguas have a generation capacity of 3,152 MW, enough to supply energy to the city, its basic industries, the rest of Bolivar and even export electricity to Brazil.

But the end of Guayana’s electricity development was around the corner. Hugo Chávez’s administration only managed to successfully complete one of the planned works started during Caldera’s second term, the Caruachi Hydroelectric Station, renamed Francisco de Miranda, built between 1996 and 2006, with a generation capacity of 2,160 MW. Tocoma, the only station started during Chávez’s government, has been a sort of Frankenstein’s monster combining mediocrity and corruption.

A monster called Tocoma

Near the Caroni river, some 18 kilometers downstream from the Simón Bolívar complex, stands a ruinous swarm of concrete, steel beams and rusted rebars. That should’ve been the Manuel Carlos Piar Hydroelectric Station, previously called Tocoma, an indigenous name, planned as a “sister” for the Francisco de Miranda station, with a generation capacity of 2,700 MW. With this, the set of all complexes in Guayana would surpass the 17,000 MW, covering 70% of the country’s demand.

But the construction was filled with calamities.

On April 28th, 2002, Chávez promised the station for 2012. In 2005, public bidding began and was eventually won by Odebrecht, starting works in 2007. The state-run CORPOELEC then reformulated calculations and estimated it would all be finished by 2014.

Despite constant delays and poor execution (lack of geometryproblems with concrete and leaks), Chávez promised in January 2012 that Tocoma would be inaugurated in September, a month before his last presidential election, and although the Electric Energy Ministry’s accountability report in 2012 later stated that the project was 80% complete, the first turbine had been installed just that year.

Today, when the SEN has collapsed, the Tocoma project suffers a 7-year delay for delivery, and its cost tripled since the original approved budget, from $3 billion originally to $9,4 billion by 2017. Meanwhile, Brazilian construction company Odebrecht, responsible for the civil work and encumbered with corruption cases across the continent, never finished building it.

This reality, along with a lack of investment, the multi-level corruption in CORPOELEC, and the shay contracts granted to ghost companies like Derwick Associates (which embezzled over $1,2 billion in public funds) pushed Venezuela from its place as a continental electric generation giant to primitive darkness right in the 21st century, a present that’s much more bitter when you remember the promise of Venezuela becoming a “power nation” that Venezuelans heard for 20 years, and ended in literal and metaphorical dusk.

Ramsés Ulises Siverio

Journalist, professor and editor based in Guayana. Finalist of the Gabriel García Márquez Award of the FNPI (2016), together with the Correo del Caroní team, for the coverage of the "Masacre de Tumeremo" case.