How the Blackout Changed Our Lives

It’s been a year since Venezuela entered a new unacceptable “normality” that gives you no other option but to adapt. These recounts are about trauma, lessons and decisions.

Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto.

Violeta Rojo, Caracas 

“For me, the blackout was an experience so crucial that it made me drop my atheism: I started praying again. I was in El Hatillo and when I went back to Caracas, I could see the city turned into a large black stain, like it had disappeared. I used to tell my daughter that talking to her that day is an unquestionable proof of love: I spent three hours dialing her number until a friend of hers told me ‘we’re fine and we’re together.’ I said I was OK too, the call failed and we couldn’t talk again for four days. Now my life is different: I’m constantly turning off unnecessary lights, I store frozen water in the freezer and my flashlights are always charged. I found that reading with candle lights is horrible and quite unsafe with cats. But most of all, I panic every time the power blinks, for I know that wasn’t a one-time experience, it’ll happen again.” 

Kiro González-Semidey, Caracas

“Five days with no power or water. I had to buy a small generator just to sleep better at night. The water issue, which got worse every day, is the thing affecting me the most nowadays: although I have a water tank, 15 days may go by without getting a drop. You make plans to live as best as possible, but I can’t adapt to living this way.”

Jaime Bello León, Caracas

“The first night without power in my life, at 58, I made it through with lots of candles on and a bottle of wine, pretending it was a 19th century game. Then a journo friend called to tell me that this blackout could go on for a good while. I blew out the candles and opened the fridge, went up to the rooftop and I couldn’t see a thing. My neighbors were yelling, hollering, ‘Maduro, motherfucker!’ but other than that, it was an odd silence. I woke up the next day, and the blackout was still there. All of our gizmos and appliances were unplugged because we feared the power spikes. Not 14 hours had gone by and we had new words. Because of our tanks, we had water, but I started rationing itI pruned the plants and we stopped flushing the toilets. We took ‘French’ baths (the way my grandma called those baths with very little water).

A year later, I still carry the same fear, I still wonder if I should flush or not, and I can’t forget the many patients who died at hospitals.

“The second night was quite different; my neighbors got out on the street corner and burned tires, trash, junk. An legitimate and dangerous demonstration. And you’d hear machine gun fire in the distance. Trucks full of soldiers with all sorts of weapons drove by. I didn’t get any sleep that night. It was a three-day blackout in my neighborhood. I read this or that page from some book, yet I couldn’t concentrate, I walked through a deserted, sad town, where people fought over trash and I cried of anger, of frustration, holding (stupid me!) the hope for this tragic event to finally free us from a barbaric dictatorship that ruined a nation atop enormous oil reserves.

“A year later, I still carry the same fear, I still wonder if I should flush or not, and I can’t forget the many patients who died at hospitals with generators that never worked. Another con, a deadly con in a dictatorship that, like all, prays to the god of death.”

Susana Manzo, Caracas 

“Living here, we’ve learned to take things easy and we knew how to prepare for what affected us the most, running out of water. We ate bread with cheese for six days, we played board games and that’s it. Power came back relatively fast for us. One of the greatests concerns was getting cut off, getting no news from our family, from my mom who’s outside of Caracas. We live on the edge since then, each time you get in an elevator you think you might get trapped or something horrible might happen. But we’ve got no other choice but to adapt.”

Francisco Gatel, La Guaira

“Four days without electricity meant more fatigue, one more thing to be worried about, one more load besides the fluctuation of the dollar, the water rationing, the price of food, the CLAP box, gas, crime. I had to learn how to manipulate fuel and diesel, and make stoves and keep them in sight. Life got slower and more uncomfortable. I’m a freelance language teacher on the internet, so without power, I’m out of a job. Out of a job, I can’t eat. To me, each minute in the dark is money lost.”

José González Vargas, Maracay

“In many ways, the blackout was the last straw for me. I thought I could avoid the crisis by working from my hometown as an online freelancer and have friends online. I was wrong and the blackout made me realize how precarious my life in Venezuela was. It pushed me to be more serious about applying to programs abroad and eventually led me to relocate to Spain.”

Gregoria Díaz, Maracay

I was afraid of losing all my refrigerated food, and at that precise day I was out of cooking gas and water, so I resorted to the ancient customs of my mother and grandmother.

“In the so-called cradle of the revolution, power outages are common, so when on March 7th the lights went out, I didn’t think it was a national blackout that could last several days. The area where I live has a well which sources 3,000 families with water, as long as we have power. I was afraid of losing all my refrigerated food, and at that precise day I was out of cooking gas and water, so I resorted to the ancient customs of my mother and grandmother. With help from my son, I improvised a stove in the patio. While he tried to kindle the fire, I went out to buy drinking water and ice. Two days later, my son had a strong allergic reaction to the smoke made by that stove, so we had to move it to an empty yard fortunately available by my house. One night, we decided to sleep under the moonlight, in the yard; we could only do it for an hour. The next day, my body was swollen with insect bites. Nobody knew anything about my mother, who lives by herself in a remote village in Falcón State. I’m a journalist and my work depends on connectivity; in the beginning, I used my car to charge my phone and computer. I had to write my pieces on the phone, which I hate doing. I had access to some privileges, like wifi at a hotel managed by a friend of mine, but they turned me away even when I offered money. Some journalists shared our cars to report the anarchy, the abuse and the tricks some people did to profit from the disaster. But the collective solidarity and the good neighbors were more. Since then, however, I have slept less.”

Elizabeth Díaz, Valencia

“We had stored meat because of the shortages. When the blackout came, we either shared that meat with our friends and neighbors, or we salted it in the sun, like our grandparents. Thank God we always have a blazing sun. That’s how many of us were saved. You had to cover it with a mosquito screen of sorts, it got all dried up.

Everything got delayed compared to the daily rush that we have around here, but we made our creativity shine: USB batteries, rechargeable light bulbs, family games for entertainment, tricks to preserve water for at least a week…

It wasn’t about resisting as it was about learning, shedding a new skin. My daughters remember those days as vacations because they were playing all the time with their cousins. Ever since, we got solar panels in the house, we bought a generator and we always have big soda bottles full of frozen water, to keep the fridge cold if power dies out. We have batteries, emergency lights, extra cell phone batteries, a gas stove and even wood for cooking.”

Rosa Volpicella, Valencia

“I’m thankful for what we learned: we got to know our neighbors better, by sharing with them not only food and water, but stories; we connected long hoses and got water out the tanks with no power; taught the kids on the block traditional games they ignored; to live with less and buy less compulsively.” 

Carolina Álvarez, Valencia

“The hardest part was to remain calm before the children and the elders, because we were having seismic activity for weeks. It was difficult to ignore the feeling of ‘I don’t want to leave the country, but it’s pushing me out.’ That blackout was a breaking point in our way of buying things: we started to see dollars, which has only increased since then.” 

María Angélica González, Valencia

“It was an enriching experience in all senses, because we explained to our children that we were able to keep a civilized behavior during those days by being more empathetic, more human, but also that they have to remember that this isn’t normal, that we all have to struggle for a better life.” 

Gustavo Hernández Acevedo, Barquisimeto

“Power cuts were already normal for me long before the national blackout. I’ve even shared my experience. But that didn’t prepare me for what happened those days, or the ordeal that my city has suffered since. What used to be scheduled blackouts, once or twice a week, became almost daily affairs. The daily routine and nightly rest are conditioned. Electrical power plants are the only sound you can hear in the dark nights. And there’s always the anguish that another nationwide blackout might occur, which comes every time a brownout occurs. And that comes very frequently.”

Juan Carlos Gabaldón, Mérida

The March 7th blackout last year was the moment I realized the last bits of normalcy had been crushed by the crisis.

“The March 7th blackout last year was the moment I realized the last bits of normalcy had been crushed by the crisis. No matter how hard you try, you can’t prepare to deal with the overall collapse of infrastructure in a country. You can get a gas power generator (like many Venezuelan families have), you can get external batteries, even books to read when blackouts come, but there’s nothing you can do to prevent the country from stopping after a five-day power outage. Because no matter how hard you try, you can’t prepare to be absolutely neglected by a state that doesn’t care about its citizens at all. A year ago, I was trying to stitch up a patient with my phone’s flashlight, now I’m writing these lines from London, where I don’t have to worry about outages anymore. But everytime I call home, my parents remind me that the electric crisis, perfectly pictured in that massive blackout, is there to stay.”

Liliana Rivas, Mérida

“A year after the blackout, I still get nervous when I see the light bulb blinking and my cellphone is not fully charged. In this state, power goes out for two or three hours, but it can be even six hours, and this is ‘normalized.’ We can’t get used to this, something inside you says that power will go out for days, and that means panic and an unspeakable emptiness. During those days, a very close aunt passed away, and being unable to reach my family and seeing my grandma crying by the candlelight left a wound that cannot heal. I’ll always have with me that unease of living in the dark, that fear of going through that again.” 

Anamaría Aguirre Chourio, Mérida

“Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote that many people arrived at the Gulags feeling relief because they were being released of the anguishing uncertainty of when will be my turn, which was worse than any other torture. This is what we feel in the Western states those gracious days when power lasts more than 16 continuous hours. The blackout of March 7, 2019, has been remembered in Mérida every single day since that date, with at least two hours of darkness per day. The candles are lit, the shadows surround us and we are expecting: we came to a birthday party but there’s no cake, no music, no song: only the background symphony of the power plants. In the streets, all conversations lead to the same topic, how hard this is, but now we aren’t expecting a savior anymore, we just share tricks and techniques to have something closer to life”.

Roselis González Rosas, Margarita

“The electric service has been faulty for years in Margarita island, so when the March blackout went down, I almost didn’t have anything that could break down anymoreI have two busted fridges and two busted TV sets in my past because of this. Yet with this blackout, we discovered a new type of uncertainty, which was absolute. We couldn’t understand what was going on, and we were left utterly hopeless. When there were shortages, you could at least stand in line and complain with the others, catharsis. In this blackout, there was no form of self-defense.” 

Aidnes Sanchez, Ciudad Guayana

“I remember the news online while ensconced in my room, the AC turned on max: A nationwide blackout. In Puerto Ordaz, southern Venezuela, we were gloriously provided with electricity, thanks to the Macagua Dam (while most of the country relies on the Guri Dam), so power would go off from time to time, and return in a rhythm that you could adapt to. Except now hours passed, the blackout reached us, and I saw my brother and his best friend sorely complaining on our porch; their jobs at Venezuela’s aluminium producer, Venalum, were gone because the smelting cells went off. The internet company I worked for at the time collapsed because, out of 80 employees, less than 5% were connected. 

This is when local stores switched to something I had only seen in Caracas before: cash dollars flowing freely.

Because we got power back comparatively quick, the city was suddenly full of soldiers: Government officials (and their families) went to a luxury hotel, allegedly working on the issue, and this is when local stores switched to something I had only seen in Caracas before: cash dollars flowing freely. Shelves emptied with folks looking haggard in barely concealed distress. The eerie calm Puerto Ordaz had during, and after the blackout, was the final straw for me; I had dreamed of living in a city that felt somewhat normal, so I moved to Caracas shortly after. Whenever I visit my hometown, I see the damage still there, like an ugly scar that’s taking longer than normal to heal because, a year later, I still get extremely anxious when my phone’s battery goes under 70%. And not even the lullaby of distant power plants can avoid the nightmares of another backout, at any time.”

Ramsés Siverio, Ciudad Guayana

“It was the closest thing to being in jail. I was in charge of a small business and the surprise took us out of the store to a forced cloister at home: keeping the fridge closed to save the food from spoiling, unplugging the appliances, saving water and batteries. In Guayana, we had to endure extreme heat, especially in houses with small windows and no AC, like the one I was living in at the time. With some natural light and a bunch of ebooks, I passed the time laying on the floor, before the hours of darkness when it was the same to have your eyes open than not, like being dead.”

Nayrobis Rodríguez, Cumaná

“Since March 2019, we started buying food in small quantities out of fear of another prolonged blackout. We also began to appreciate the company and solidarity of close neighbors and our capacity to help each other during adversity. Dealing with two kids during the blackout wasn’t easy, having them locked up at home and away from school or entertainment. A year later, my son still regrets everything he missed that year.”

Braulio Polanco, Maracaibo

“My job has changed quite a bit, because I live in Maracaibo and blackouts never went away around here. I live in constant anxiety of losing my work progress, saving documents each time I do the slightest change. I’ve lost work that required lots of effort. It’s absurd, but I keep working at a soccer field because I get better internet there than in my apartment. It’s like being a war correspondent distressed about not reporting what we live, and because I live in an area that gets power, I feel guilty because my grandma or my three-year-old niece live in places where there are daily power cuts. I’m also claustrophobic and I endured a blackout in an elevator, so now I take six flights of stairs every day, I use the elevator only when it’s absolutely necessary.”