Five years after the national blackout Venezuela is still #SinLuz

Five years after the national blackout Venezuela is still #SinLuz

Published on 26 Feb 2024

With the presidential elections looming, the #LupaElectoral team analyzed utility failures nationwide. Power outages are the most worrisome.

Five years after the national blackout Venezuela is still #SinLuz

With the presidential elections looming, the #LupaElectoral team analyzed utility failures nationwide. Power outages are the most worrisome.

On March 7, 2019, Venezuela went dark. A major blackout left practically the entire national territory without electricity supply for between five and seven continuous days, an event that was repeated on March 25 and 29, 2019, as well as on April 9 of the same year. Despite the declarations of an alleged “sabotage” and Nicolás Maduro’s denunciation of the orchestration of the failure from the United States, the deficiencies of the national electric service remain and intensify five years later.

In social media, in the last four years the hashtag #SinLuz has been one of the most positioned on Twitter (now X) as a protest in Venezuela according to data from ProBox; accumulating more than 400 thousand messages with complaints and reports of failures in the electric service; as well as trends about the lack of fuel, internet failures and water shortages.

2023 was the year in which blackouts or power outages surpassed citizen complaints and demands for drinking water. The Venezuelan Public Services Observatory (OVSP) documented 1,060 events or incidences on the operation of household services between September and November of last year. These incidents include the suspension, failure, interruption, protests, replacement and complaints about the performance of six services: electricity, water, domestic gas, fixed telephony, Internet and urban cleaning.

Statistics collected during 90 days by a team in charge of searching and verifying data by monitoring the media, trends in social media and citizen complaints, show that there were more than 11 events or incidents per day in the country. Electricity supply was the service with the highest number of events with 46% of the records, followed by drinking water with 27%.

The data corresponds to 12 cities with the largest population in the country, but also considers peri-urban or peripheral sectors (population on the outskirts of cities that are not considered rural): Caracas, Maracaibo, Valencia, Barquisimeto, Barinas, San Cristobal, Merida, Barcelona, Ciudad Bolivar, Punto Fijo, Porlamar and San Fernando.

State asks for “understanding” while citizens suffer the consequences

The Ministry of Electric Energy asks for understanding to the people of Zulia who started 2024 with blackouts. With the “Borrón y Cuenta Nueva” plan, I pay religiously, but they still cut the electricity. This is an ordeal, and with 39 degrees it is very close to hell”, says 68-year-old Carmen Uzcátegui to the #LupaElectoral team, who spends up to six continuous hours without electricity. The situation was a constant in 2023 and worsened in January 2024.

Carmen lives in Cabimas, the most populated oil municipality in the state of Zulia, and together with her neighbors she goes out in front of her house or sits on the sidewalk in the hope that the night wind will cool them down. At 12 o’clock at night it is dark and the light returns at dawn. Carmen works as a seamstress and requires good lighting to sew, she lives in anxiety, accompanied by a rechargeable light bulb she bought to avoid falling in the dark.

“Last year, 2023, it was also the same. It’s not just the light, it’s that everything collapses. Because there were blackouts that damaged my sewing machine, but there is also no water and I have to buy pipes every week to be able to clean and cook. Venezuelans have no peace because if the electricity doesn’t go out, there is always something else: water, gasoline, garbage, high costs”, she adds.

The OVSP gathers this data and processes it in quarterly reports that offer what is perhaps the most comprehensive picture of the functioning of these public services in Venezuela. In addition, the observatory prepares studies of citizen perception in matters of household services on a sample of 7,687 surveys, the largest applied on these issues in the country, as explained by the general coordinator of the organization, Rafael Rodríguez, to #LupaElectoral.

Some of the results of the report published last December reveal that, with the exceptions of November 3, 4 and 11, events or incidents related to the provision of electricity service were documented for 88 days (almost daily from September 1 to November 30). In addition, there was a simultaneous increase in multiple failures or “blackouts” in different cities. On September 7 alone, the interruption of electric service affected at least 14 states.

2023 was a year plagued by failures, interruptions or outages in electricity service. The increase in complaints, reports of blackouts and outages had already been on the rise since January. From the beginning of last year until September, the increase in power outage complaints was almost continuous quarter by quarter, and the data collected in that period reached 53.2% of the total for that period. This was followed by complaints about drinking water with 26%, internet with 9.2%, urban cleaning with 7.7% and domestic gas with 3.6%.

“During September, the electrical system presented fluctuations and failures reported by the [media] on a smaller or larger scale, but it was a constant,” says the latest 2023 OVSP bulletin. In addition, in October, multiple power failures were documented in several states at the same time during the 1st, 3rd, 25th and 26th.

The breakdowns or failures in the electricity system also caused the collapse and interruptions in the Internet service, which did not work continuously in several entities, according to another non-governmental organization, VeSinFiltro, which documents blockages, censorship and restrictions on Internet access in the country.

A report published last November by HUM Venezuela, another NGO dedicated to the monitoring and follow-up of the Complex Humanitarian Emergency (EHC) in the country, highlights that the increase in electricity failures and deficits in essential services affected 68.2% of the population.

Julio Rodríguez, a bodeguero who lives in Mauroa, Falcón state, also suffers from power outages. In his town, electricity is frequently cut off and he must rely on the goodwill of his buyers to keep his grocery store open at the entrance of his house.

Rodríguez has two rechargeable lamps and a power plant for his refrigerator. He sells ice, soft drinks, ice cream and cheese. “When it has been more than three hours, I have to turn it on because it can damage the merchandise, but it is also an expense to buy gasoline”. In addition, he must trust the people who buy from him and who promise to pay via bank transfer, because the point of sale and the Internet connection also fail.

#SinLuz: the most constant trend in Venezuela on social media

Utility failures are a constant in the national territory and social media have provided citizens with a space to denounce the constant failures. According to data from ProBox, between January 1, 2020 and January 31, 2024, at least 216 trends on Twitter (now X) have been positioned on services in Venezuela, accumulating more than one million messages.

The hashtag #SinLuz has led the conversation about utilities in Venezuela in the last four years, trending at least 74 times and totaling more than 435 thousand tweets in this period. In fact, #SinLuz was the most used socio-political hashtag in 2021 and maintained this position until the first half of 2022. However, electricity is not the only thing in short supply in Venezuela. Trends about power failures are accompanied by trends about the lack of fuel, internet failures and water shortages.

Despite the fact that the ruling party’s digital machinery has been in charge of trying to overshadow the online citizen protest, driving daily trends with the use of its “twitter troops” to divert attention or to impose narratives that completely ignore the demands of Venezuelans, citizens are leading the digital protest for public and basic services in Venezuela, positioning 207 of the 216 trends and generating more than 95% of the messages in this regard.

This behavior has been constantly repeated over time: citizens promote their complaints and the government positions usually propagandistic trends, which accumulate more messages. An example of this was documented by ProBox in March 2023, when the trend #SinLuz was positioned in the country due to failures in several states, while the government promoted several tags commemorating the death of Hugo Chávez. As well as in September of the same year, when Maduro was in China talking about sending the first Venezuelan to the moon, while the country had power failures in several states.

Water also does not arrive

One of the data that illustrates the crisis in the supply of drinking water is perhaps the percentage of the population that has already incorporated as a habit or practice the storage of this resource in their homes: 93% of those surveyed by the OVSP stated that they collect, store or buy water for consumption, food preparation and cleaning.

Dugleinys Méndez lives in Lagunillas, on the East Coast of the Lake, Zulia state, where the oil industry developed. In her house she has bottles, pipes and other containers with water that she buys or collects when it rains, because she spends up to 150 days without service. Méndez wishes that water for his daily activities was always available in the pipeline, but the reality is different.

Bathing with half a bucket, collecting distilled water from the air conditioner, appreciating the heavy rain that floods the patio and that she tries to redirect with a plastic channel to the tank, are some of the “tricks” she learned in the last months. “In this house nothing is wasted; every last drop is yielded”, sentences the housewife to #LupaElectoral. The water service is gradually more limited and sometimes she must wait months for it to return because it is increasingly intermittent.

“Only 22% of those consulted stated that they have continuous access to drinking water”, states the OVSP, which also details: 27.6% stated that they resort to tanker trucks to get water when they do not receive it through pipes; 23.8% stated that they have to buy bottles, 13.4% said that they bring or move it from other places and 13.2% decided to wait for the restitution of the service.

In addition, 86% of people must resort to alternative sources due to deficiencies in the regular piped supply. 69.1% face severe restrictions in access to drinking water, with 45.5% not receiving piped water for weeks or months and 23.6% not connected to the system. At least 5% of the population has no access to or does not receive water.

The Cedice Libertad survey shows another fact: 54% of the citizens surveyed, in a sample of 2,300 participants, distrust the quality of the water that arrives through the pipes and feel that if they consume it without prior treatment, it may cause them illnesses. Households spend up to $30 a month on water expenses and purchases. The most affected states, according to this organization, are Nueva Esparta, Miranda and Apure.

Public perception of electricity and water supply plummeting

In December 2023, the report on the population’s perception of household services was published: 76.7% of those surveyed by the OVSP in 12 cities had a negative perception of the quality of electricity service. The figure is 33 points higher than the previous measurement, carried out in March, when the negative perception of this service stood at 43.2%.

The worsening of the citizenry’s assessment of these services (electricity, drinking water, domestic gas, telecommunications and urban sanitation) was accentuated: 54.7% said they suffered power failures on a daily basis during November; 72% indicated that they had blackouts lasting between two and six hours, and 74% of users said that these had damaged or caused damage to their electrical equipment and appliances.

An investigation by the Public Expenditure Observatory (OGP) of the civil association Cedice Libertad (an organization that promotes liberalism, individual liberties and the limited State) determined that 8 out of 10 Venezuelans consider that the electric service is unstable. The study was coordinated by researcher Raúl Córdoba and used data collected in July by 12 monitors distributed throughout the country. Likewise, it used a smaller sample than the one used by the OVSP, of 2,300 citizen surveys, and the simultaneous review of information in 25 media and 3 social media.

For Luis Rodriguez, the cheerful area where he used to live has become a ghost street, because there is no noise and the nights go on forever for everyone. He lives in the municipality of Cabimas, his son has undergone surgery and must remain in bed. The temperature caused bedsores on his skin and he has not been able to move him much because of the care he needs.

The little ones suffer a lot, babies, children and adolescents. Some of them stopped going to school because they fell asleep during classes and could not fulfill their activities. Insects and despair is the only thing that remains in their daily life, which goes by without them visualizing a prompt solution. In Zulia, to add some data on how affected this particular state is, no local or regional authority has offered support or listened to their request for electricity or water.

Electricity service is followed by drinking water supply, which was negatively valued by 64.9% of the users surveyed during the last quarter of 2023. This figure is 4 percentage points higher than the 60.4% recorded in a previous survey conducted in March. Of the 64.9% who rate this service negatively, 51.7% say that the service is inconsistent, while 18.4% state that they do not receive piped water.

“In our polls and surveys there is one question we always include at the end, and that is ‘what is the service that most affects citizens’ quality of life?’ Historically, in the eight years of monitoring it has always been drinking water. That is to say, citizens consider that without this supply their living conditions worsen or the precariousness is much greater,” says Rafael Rodriguez, of the OVSP.

“Of the five services we monitored,” Rodriguez continues, “the water service had always been the worst evaluated. This was a constant until this last measurement [September-November]. This is the first time that the electric service occupies the first place as the worst rated by citizens, behind drinking water”.

“Here we don’t talk about politics or anything; it’s a matter of quality of life and nobody has approached to listen to what we are living. We are in crisis and nobody does anything for us”, says Carolina Méndez, inhabitant of El Soler sector, in Maracaibo to #LupaElectoral.

TikTok also talks about the service failures in Venezuela.

ProBox conducted a keyword search on the social network TikTok linked to basic services failures in Venezuela and some of the most used trends in X to talk about it. This yielded four main tags with the highest amount of content on the subject: #SinLuz, #VzlaSinAgua, #SinGasolina and #ServiciosBasicos.

An analysis of the top 6 videos under each tag, according to the TikTok search engine, was conducted for a total of 24 videos studied that accumulated 5,804,749 plays, 199,193 “likes”, 3,692 comments and were shared at least 21,908 times.

In contrast to the popularity of #SinLuz on Twitter, videos with the hashtag #VzlaSinAgua had a greater number of reproductions on TikTok (2,386,802), followed by #SinGasolina (2,336,700). Although there are videos with explicit protests against service failures, many of the main contents with this theme in this network are satire, precisely because of the failure of these services.

The invisibility of the problem increases during election periods

Although the electoral campaigns of the different processes that have been held in Venezuela over the years do not escape from the promises of improvements in public services, the reality is that not only the failures increase and worsen, but in spaces where citizens have made room to claim their rights such as social media, they are much more overshadowed by the electoral conversation; having to compete not only against the ruling party, but also against all the actors involved in the elections that use the space to make propaganda or talk about the process.

ProBox made a comparison of what this disparity looks like on Twitter (now X), between January 2020 and January 2024, when electoral trends and messages are crossed with officialist narratives and those linked to services promoted mainly by citizens. The ruling party far outperforms both conversations, but electoral trends and messages also overshadow civil society complaints about service failures.

There are 61.90% more electoral tendencies than of services positioned in Venezuela in the last four years, as well as 94.09% more tendencies of the ruling party. Although the State and electoral narratives tend to coincide in some moments, the citizen conversation reporting and denouncing the failures of public and basic services is extremely overshadowed by both narratives.

Beyond limitations: NGOs, independent media and citizens continue to report on failures

The lack of official data on the operation of public utilities has been accentuated in the last 14 years. Since November 2010, the National Electricity System Management Center has stopped disseminating information on the state of the service, and the State does not publish detailed or extensive information on the conditions of the drinking water distribution infrastructure in the hands of public companies either.

The nationalization of the electricity and telecommunications sectors materialized 16 years ago, during the government of Hugo Chávez. Disinvestment, corruption schemes, lack of investment, abandonment and technological backwardness have advanced three lustrums later, together with the deterioration of Venezuelans’ living conditions.

In March 2019, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and its Special Rapporteurship on Economic, Social, Cultural and Environmental Rights (Redesca) expressed “deep concern about the lack of electricity service and drinking water in Venezuela.

The work of civil society organizations contributes to portray and make visible citizen problems, adding to the plurality of public debate, the search for solutions and the determination of responsibilities.

Despite the fact that government officials and spokespersons are proposing the illegalization of NGOs through a bill that in practice would subject them to state control and censorship, the work and data provided by NGOs also make it possible to make diagnoses, define indicators and measure the performance of services.

In a year in which presidential elections are due to be held in Venezuela, citizen problems and constant service failures are in the sights of the #LupaElectoral, waiting to be addressed by sustainable public programs and policies that guarantee rights and improve the quality of life of Venezuelans.

For more information on these issues you can search for the hashtag #LupaElectoral in social media or follow the official accounts of ProBox, RunRunes, El Pitazo, TalCual, Redes Ayuda, Medianálisis and EsPaja.

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