CARACAS (Reuters) - School children studied in gloomy classrooms and shopkeepers strained their eyes to count cash as electricity rationing began in Venezuela on Wednesday, presenting a challenge to President Hugo Chavez’s popularity.
A long drought caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon has caused a sharp fall in water levels at the hydroelectric dams that provide the bulk of Venezuela’s electricity.
But coming hot on the heels of a sharp devaluation of the bolivar currency that hurts savers, the staggered four hour blackouts every 48 hours have angered Venezuelans used to plentiful energy in one of the world’s top oil exporters.
“Long live Chavez,” some yelled in the capital Caracas, with evident irony. “Welcome to Cuba!” others shouted in reference to the communist island known for outages and which is a close ally and inspiration for the socialist Chavez.
Residents worried about a crime wave on darkened streets of the city, already known as one of the world’s most violent, with dozens of homicides every week.
“Last night they turned out the lights from midnight until 4 a.m., we couldn’t sleep at ease because of fear thieves would come in,” said Marisol Briceno, 41, who lives with her daughter in the sprawling poor neighborhood of Petare.
“They rob and kill when there is light, imagine how it will be now,” she said.
Government critics say poor management of the electricity sector since it was nationalized in 2007 and lack of investment has made the impact of the drought far worse for Venezuela.
“There is one person to blame here, and he is the president of the republic,” said Enrique Mendoza, an opposition leader.
Chavez and his supporters say shortages are because of climate change and bad planning by past governments.
The blackouts are supposed to follow a schedule, hitting each neighborhood every two days until at least May, but on the first day authorities seemed to follow little pattern.
Officials said some schools and small health clinics will be affected, but that large education centers, hospitals, media outlets, trains will not suffer the cuts.
Street lights in some zones may go off but Javier Alvarado, who runs the Caracas Electricity corporation, said not in poor neighborhoods where crime is highest.
The cuts, which trapped some people in elevators, have also forced the baseball league to reschedule games, disrupting an activity only matched as a national pastime by shopping.
That too is hit, with most malls being ordered to open later in the morning. Government workers are among the few to benefit from the rationing, with public offices opening only between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. for the next few months.
The outages are the toughest measure taken by Chavez to avoid what he says could be a total collapse of the electricity network if water levels at the dams fall another 20 meters (65 feet).
Water supplies are also rationed in the country known for its jungles. Chavez asked people to keep showers to 3 minutes.
Next week, meteorological officials will fire chemicals at clouds in an attempt to “seed” rain over the country’s dams, a scheme that Chavez launched in November with Cuban help.
The government says the OPEC nation’s power deficit is about 12 percent, or 1,669 megawatts. Sporadic and widespread blackouts began over a year ago, mostly in regional cities and rural areas where locals frequently block highways in protest.
“President Hugo Chavez’s popularity is likely to be hit severely as a result of the combined impact of power shortages and devaluation-fueled inflation on the population at large,” Patrick Esteruelas of analysts Eurasia Group said in a report.
Editing by Marguerita Choy