April 1, 2019 / 2:24 PM / 21 days ago

Venezuela's Maduro replaces electricity minister amid blackouts

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro replaced his electricity minister on Monday in a move to address a series of blackouts plaguing the country, while opposition leader Juan Guaido called on supporters to continue taking to the streets.

A view of the city during a blackout in Maracaibo, Venezuela March 31, 2019. Picture taken March 31, 2019. REUTERS/Isaac Urrutia

In an address on state television, Maduro said he named Igor Gavidia, a 65-year-old electrical engineer who was previously president of state power generator Electrificacion del Caroni, to replace Electricity Minister Luis Motta.

The change came as Maduro reiterated plans for a 30-day “load administration” plan, which he first mentioned last week and which Venezuelans widely assume will be a way to ration electricity.

“Some changes are needed to strengthen, take responsibility for, and develop the new phase of this plan,” Maduro said.

Oil-rich Venezuela was rocked by a debilitating blackout on March 7, which dragged on for nearly a week in some parts of the country. Power has been intermittent since another blackout on March 25, and growing water shortages have aggravated the sense of crisis in a country where food and medicine are already scarce with an economy racked by hyperinflation.

Demonstrators took to the streets throughout Caracas on Sunday and Monday, with small groups of people blocking roads to demand water. On Sunday night, police fired gunshots after some residents in Caracas set up burning barricades, according to Reuters witnesses.

Guaido, the leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly who in January invoked the country’s constitution to assume an interim presidency in a challenge to Maduro’s legitimacy, said it was “very clear that this regime has no solution to the crisis.”

“Every time the power goes out, or we do not have water, or we do not have gas, guess what we are going to do?” he said at an earlier rally at the country’s Catholic University. “We are going to protest, we are going to make demands, we are going to take to the streets of Venezuela, because it is our right.”

Guaido has been recognized by most Western and South American countries as the OPEC nation’s rightful leader on the grounds that Maduro’s May 2018 re-election was illegitimate.

Power outages over the weekend prompted Venezuela’s main oil terminal, Jose, to halt operations including crude exports, the lifeblood of the country’s economy. It was the third time in a month that the port, which only restarted applications last Friday following last Monday’s blackout, had stopped operations due to lack of electricity.

GUAIDO AND IMMUNITY

Blackouts and water shortages have long been common in Venezuela, especially in the interior. But the outages in March were more frequent, more widespread and longer-lasting than previous incidents, particularly in the capital. They have prompted the government to shorten the workday and cancel classes, though Maduro said school would resume on Wednesday.

Maduro, a socialist who calls Guaido a puppet of the United States, has blamed the blackouts on “attacks” by the U.S. government and the domestic opposition on the country’s main hydroelectric facility. He has said Guaido should “face justice,” but has not openly called for his arrest.

The pro-government Supreme Court on Monday reiterated a previous measure blocking Guaido from leaving the country, a measure which he openly violated in February.

It added that the Constituent Assembly, an all-powerful legislature controlled by the Socialist Party, should discuss the issue of whether or not to strip Guaido of parliamentary immunity - a move that could pave the way for his being jailed.

But state institutions loyal to the Socialist Party appear reluctant to act against Guaido, given his strong public backing and international pressure not to detain him.

Slideshow (3 Images)

The chief prosecutor’s office has opened an investigation of Guaido, but has not ordered his arrest or officially charged him with anything.

Maduro has not given details on his electricity load administration plan, which Venezuelans on social media interpreted as a program of power rationing.

Maduro’s critics reject his contention that the blackouts have been caused by attacks. Local electrical engineers consulted by Reuters said the years of underinvestment and lack of maintenance of the country’s electrical infrastructure have contributed to the outages.

Additional reporting by Brian Ellsworth, Angus Berwick and Luc Cohen; Editing by Lisa Shumaker, Bill Berkrotand Leslie Adler

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