Venezuela was almost entirely without power on Friday night amid a blackout that the Maduro government blamed on sabotage and which wrought chaos across much of the country.
Communications went down, water pumps failed and transport ground to a halt as Venezuela was plunged into darkness at around 5pm local time (9pm UK) on Thursday night. The power cut was believed to have hit up to 23 of the country’s 24 states, though with mobile networks and internet largely out of action, the situation in some areas was unclear.
In Caracas and elsewhere, workers were forced to walk miles to get home as the lights went out in the oil-rich South American nation. There were reports of life support machines and other essential medical equipment failing at hospitals without back-up generators. In the capital, municipal officials said they had attended emergency calls from residents reliant on oxygen machines.
School and labour activities were suspended, businesses were shuttered and many Venezuelans were virtually stranded in their homes. There was no word as to when the power cut might end, with fears that it could last for days - a daunting prospect for Venezuelans already struggling to survive amid punishing shortages of food, medicine and cash.
Amid a deepening international crisis over his leadership, Nicolas Maduro blamed the blackout on an “electric war” waged by the enemies of his Socialist government, claiming “sabotage” at the Guri hydroelectric dam.
“The electric war announced and directed by US imperialism against our people will be defeated. Nothing and no one will be able to defeat the people of Bolívar y Chávez,” he said, calling for “maximum unity of patriots!"
But for most Venezuelans, the government’s claims did not ring true, with many noting that Guri was state-operated and under tight security. Instead they pinned the blackout on years of infrastructural decay, a lack of investment and poor maintenance under the Maduro government.
Juan Guaidó, the National Assembly leader who has been recognised as interim president by more than 50 countries, said the blackout demonstrated the “inefficiency of the usurper”, referring to Mr Maduro. The recovery of the electricity sector and the country would come with “the end of the usurpation,” he added.
Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, said: “The power outage and the devastation hurting ordinary Venezuelans is not because of the USA. It’s not because of Colombia. It’s not Ecuador or Brazil, Europe or anywhere else. Power shortages and starvation are the result of the Maduro regime’s incompetence.”
“Maduro’s policies bring nothing but darkness,” he wrote on Twitter. “No food. No medicine. Now, no power. Next, no Maduro.”
In Caracas, long lines snaked around the few open shops and petrol stations as residents began to panic buy food and fuel. With cash in short supply, no electricity to process card payments and groceries running low, it was a fractious and gruelling task.
In one store in the affluent Altamira area of the city, arguments broke out over bread as shoppers queued for up to two hours to purchase whatever food they could find.
Elena, a middle aged resident who did not wish to give her last name, told The Telegraph that previous power outages had never been like this.
The severity, and the almost complete failure of phone networks, was frightening everyone, she said, speculating that more was afoot than a technical issue.
“No one knows what is going on,” she said. “Something is happening, whether it’s on one (political) side or the other”.
A doctor working at the Hospital Vargas in the West of the city, who did not wish to be identified, said the blackout was making already difficult conditions even worse. She said intensive care and the emergencies department were relying on petrol-fuelled generators, but that would not last forever. The rest of the facility was already in darkness.
In the hospital’s neighborhood of Cotiza, frustrated people were coming out of their homes into the streets, she said, while police were standing by, some in riot gear. She feared the situation could quickly descend into unrest, saying the atmosphere was one of “tension” and drawing parallels to the infamous Caracazo fuel riots of 1989 in which hundreds of people died.
Javier, a 44-year-old lawyer who preferred not to give his last name, said he and his wife were worried for their 3 children. “We can hang on for a day, or maybe two, but what’s going to happen on the third day?”
He put the blame squarely on the Maduro government, and the “lack of investment throughout the last 20 years” as money was instead siphoned off by a “corrupt regime”.
“They took the money for themselves”, he told the Telegraph, adding: “That is why all this is happening.”
After more than 24 hours, much of the country still remained under blackout on Friday night, though electricity began to be restored to some areas of Caracas in the afternoon.
In the centre of the capital, there was a heavy police and military presence, with the road to Miraflores, the presidential palace, closed and guarded.
Outside the Hospital Vargas, Agustin, 34, who preferred not to give his last name, was leaning against a wall, sick and visibly jaundiced. He had arrived at 5pm on Thursday for treatment to find the hospital already almost entirely without power. Agustin had travelled from the town of Higuerote, more than an hour and a half away, after his local facility said he needed tests and likely an operation that they could not provide. But without electricity, all the hospital could do was give him a sedative, he told The Telegraph. “I can’t even go home because the transport isn’t running as there isn’t enough fuel.”
There were reports from around the country of hospitals’ generators failing, and patients being ventilated by hand.
Speaking in the neighbourhood of Los Palos Grandes, Mr Guaidó said nine deaths had so far been reported due to the power cut. This “crisis, this tragedy” was the fault of the “corrupt” Maduro regime, he added.