Zulia’s Electrical Apartheid

With electrical rationing as the new norm since March of 2019, the society in Zulia has become more unequal: there’s a big gap between those subjected to outages and those who can defend themselves.

AME8625. CARACAS (VENEZUELA), 09/04/2019.- Vista general de un apagón este martes en Caracas (Venezuela). EFE/ Miguel Gutiérrez
Photo: EFE, retrieved.

For Sara, the day begins at 6:00 in the morning and ends at 7:00 in the evening. The other eleven hours are hell. 

Where she lives, a town called San Francisco in the western state of Zulia, the Corporación Eléctrica Nacional (CORPOELEC) rations electricity without a fixed schedule. Ever since the general blackout on March 7th, 2019, the power outages have spiked in the region. In areas where electricity is rationed for at least twelve hours a day, people have spent 4,248 hours in the dark. That’s about 177 days.

At least three times since 2019, governor Omar Prieto and Willy Casanova, mayor of Maracaibo, have said that the rationing would be cut down. But the population continues to suffer the consequences of corruption, the use of non-professional and qualified personnel, and indolence. And if they protest, the answer is repression, like in Ciudad Ojeda on August 1st, 2019: agents of the Policía Municipal de Lagunillas and the National Guard arrested five people because they were demanding electricity. They were let go, but four were charged with obstructing public roads and resisting the authority, so they are on probation.

Even the capacity to feed themselves becomes a problem for many families because they only use electric stoves.

Sara’s life, as well as for tens of thousands of Zulians, is reduced to the minimum. Without power, the possibilities for reading, being informed, sleep, entertainment, internet and work, fall apart. Even the capacity to feed themselves becomes a problem for many families because they only use electric stoves. They’re forced to use wood or go to sleep hungry. In some areas, rationing has been cut down to half, but the consequences still take their toll. “Children cry because of the heat. It’s hard to tell them that we don’t have cold water. We don’t know if it’s rationing or a blackout. Every time the power returns, we shout.”

The human right to hygiene is also violated when the water pumps can’t be turned on. “We see how water is wasted through the many leaks on the streets while we don’t have power for our own water pumps. We feel impotent because sometimes we can’t even bathe the children,” says José Sánchez, a resident of northern Maracaibo.

The deprivation of electrical service imposed by the Venezuelan state influences all areas of daily life; sometimes it’s easier to communicate with relatives, partners or friends who are abroad than with those in Venezuela. Daily tasks like sending e-mails, wire transfers, or calling family members abroad can take hours, sometimes you must go to another place where the phone signal is stronger and have internet access. This reality makes you walk for kilometers or even use your car, which exposes you to crime. For women, it also makes them more vulnerable to all sorts of abuse.

There’s a small group of privileged folks in Zulia, who have power generators and their income is in dollars, so they can afford the electricity the state is unable to provide.

The disaster affects your daily dynamics, depending on the time of the outage, the whole day changes.

Power rationing and outages, the fuel scarcity and the non-compliance of the time schedules for the gas stations (until midnight) sentence those without dollars or pesos to long lines at the gas stations, for periods that go from three hours to three days, depending on the situation, area and municipality.

Those without easy access to fuel have to skip class or aren’t able to generate income for their family, they use small amounts of water and food, and because of the minimum hygiene conditions, they’re also exposed to pollution (for spending the night next to gas stations).

Manuel Vivas, a sociologist graduated from the Zulia University (LUZ), points out that “inequality is expanding and it has new expressions: people who live in areas with fewer power outages, that can afford power generators for their homes, and people who don’t… Truth is that, after March of 2019, Venezuela and especially Zulia, have found a way to cope with the meaning of not having electricity in the XXI century. You have inequalities typical of other time periods.”

The disaster affects your daily dynamics, depending on the time of the outage, the whole day changes. When there’s electricity, time “flies” so the pressure and stress take their toll. “Each minute is worth gold because what we used to do during the day we now have to do in just a couple of hours,” claims Inés López, a pensioner who tries to make dinner in a hurry before the daily punishment.

Although solidarity is frequent, wrongful desires blossom against peers.

The rationing isn’t uniform and its distribution is a complete mystery. While in some areas it goes on for six to twelve hours, areas nearby stay fine unless there’s a complete blackout. Although solidarity is frequent, wrongful desires blossom against peers. “I won’t deny that I sometimes wish that they have their electricity taken away too,” a young engineer says, “it ain’t fair that we don’t have it and some do.”

“Some areas are priority for the authorities,” Vivas adds. “I think there are clear interests in the middle, but the fact is that everything is handled in an irresponsible way and the citizens are reacting to the frustration for something that is their right to have. This conflict between neighbors is also another way of social control. In the dark, people get angry at their neighbors when in fact none of them are responsible for what happens.”

The families that more often suffer the effects of rationing and blackouts are more likely to have conflict within their homes. Many have left the state. Although a lot of neighbors go outside for a chat while power is gone, the exhaustion and frustration affect many citizens who prefer to stay in. Everything piles up, everything is delayed. This crisis has changed Zulia.

“At night, it’s almost impossible to sleep,” Vivas says. “We open the windows and get the mosquitoes and gnats. We’re drenched in sweat and the sheets stick to each other.” 

Raúl Puche, a psychologist and director of the Fundación Rehabilitarte, points out that in the middle of the rationing and blackouts, anxiety rules. “It has significantly influenced the spirit and mood of the people, especially at night. Not having a good night’s sleep can significantly affect your physical and mental welfare. Most people don’t have the means to cope with this in an effective way; others create a kind of resilience. More than having ill wishes against their neighbors, what people really want is for the rationing to stop, or at least have it equalized. That we all have access to electricity. That’s part of the frustration, the toll it takes and the pain of having to survive long periods of time in the dark.”