* Sanctions against Caracas companies planned for Monday
* Chavez says opposition personalizing power crisis
(Adds opinion poll)
By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS, March 21 Venezuela announced on Sunday
24-hour power cutoffs for dozens of companies that have failed
to reduce usage in the first punitive measures of a nationwide
drive to save energy amid an electricity crisis.
Restaurants, liquor stores, hotels, gyms, car dealerships
and a yacht club were on the list of 80 firms in the capital
Caracas due to have their power cut on Monday for failing to
bring consumption down 20 percent, the state utility said.
The local unit of Japanese firm Sony Corp (6758.T) will
also be among those sanctioned.
President Hugo Chavez's government has introduced
rationing, and demanded power cuts across the South American
OPEC member, to cope with an electricity shortage that is
jeopardizing Venezuela's ability to pull out of a recession.
Drought has hit the hydroelectric sector that produces more
than 70 percent of Venezuela's electricity. Rains are due in
weeks, with some showers already starting in recent days, and
the government says fears of a "collapse" are unfounded.
The opposition, preparing for a September legislative
election being cast as a referendum on Chavez and a
curtain-raiser for the 2012 presidential vote, says he is to
blame for incompetent management of the power sector.
Polls show Chavez's traditionally high popularity,
especially among the poor, is suffering from the power crisis.
The latest survey, by Alfredo Keller and Associates, which
is perceived by many to favor the opposition, gave Chavez a 43
percent approval rating, saying it was his lowest since 2003.
Only 26 percent thought the government was taking the right
measures in the electricity campaign, according to the poll,
made public on Sunday by private TV network Globovision.
"This (opposition) campaign has, of course, one single aim:
declare Hugo Chavez guilty of everything, even the drought,"
the leftist leader wrote in a regular Sunday column he pens.
"Indeed, I would love to have the powers I'm accused of by
the opposition to defeat this situation which not only hurts
Venezuela but the whole world as a result of the destructive
voracity of the capitalist system."
Chavez said Venezuela's planned addition of nearly 6
gigawatts of thermoelectric energy this year, taking national
capacity to around 30 gigawatts, would help solve the crisis.
In a carrot-and-stick approach to businesses, state power
firm Electricidad de Caracas also published a list of 81
companies that had surpassed the 20 percent reduction target.
If the companies to be sanctioned on Monday do not improve
their energy-saving performance in the future, they face a
three-day cutoff then possible indefinite power suspension.
Most attention in the energy crisis has centered on the
Guri reservoir, which normally supplies more than half of
Venezuela's electricity but has been drying up at the rate of
about 6 inches (15 cm) a day in recent months.
Media have been showing pictures daily of lowering waters,
and counting down to a danger-level of about 240 yards (metres)
-- from 252 now -- when output would drop drastically.
But Environment Minister Alejandro Hitcher said imminent
rains, energy-saving measures, and extra thermo-electric
capacity would prevent the disaster some were predicting.
"Guri is not going to collapse," he said. "To the
disappointment of those generating this campaign, ignoring the
environmental disaster we are suffering and subjecting the
population to a sort of state of terror."