Blackout hits most Venezuelan states, Caracas

CARACAS Thu Apr 7, 2011 7:49pm EDT

1 of 3. People use their mobile phones outside a store during a blackout in Caracas April 7, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Jorge Silva

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CARACAS (Reuters) - Blackouts hit most of Venezuela on Thursday, affecting an oil refinery and the Caracas metro in a growing headache for President Hugo Chavez months after electricity rationing dented his popularity.

The 146,000 barrel-per-day El Palito refinery had to be restarted after the failure and the capital's metro transit system ground to a halt at the beginning of the evening rush hour, forcing thousands of commuters onto the streets.

Electricity Minister Ali Rodriguez said power was restored quickly in most of the 17 states and the capital but warned many regions would be cut off again for brief periods during the evening to ration energy as the system stabilized.

"It will be necessary to ration in all the states of the country tonight between 7 and 10 p.m.," Rodriguez said on state television, explaining the cuts would be staggered.

Throughout 2010, many Venezuelans were subjected to strict electricity and water rationing during a drought attributed to the El Nino weather phenomenon. Combined with an economic slump, the utilities crisis damaged Chavez's popularity.

At the time, Chavez canceled a plan to ration power in Caracas after a chaotic first day of cuts left poor, crime-ridden districts in the dark and workers stuck in elevators.

Rodriguez did not specify if the new programed cuts would affect Caracas, one of the world's most lawless cities. He blamed the problems on forest fires that caused the failure of an 800-kilowatt cable and affected 6,000 megawatts of capacity.

Other than the El Palito, refineries were operating normally in the OPEC member, national oil company PDVSA told Reuters.

Rainfall and heavy investment in new oil-fired power stations helped overcome last year's crisis. But experts warned that the national grid was still running close to capacity.

Just last week, a number of states were plunged into darkness by blackouts that also caused problems on the metro, which carries some 2 million people a day.

The socialist president who was first elected in 1998 and draws his support largely from working-class Venezuelans is preparing a re-election bid in December 2012.

(Additional reporting by Marianna Parraga, Eyanir Chinea, Diego Ore and Mario Naranjo; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Peter Cooney)

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