Venezuela blackout: what caused it and what happens next?

Sam Jones


What’s happening with the power in Venezuela?

The oil-rich but crisis-afflicted South American country suffered a massive blackout last Thursday, affecting at least 18 of its 23 states. The power cut has left food rotting in refrigerators, hospitals struggling to keep vital equipment operating, and the transport system in chaos.

According to opposition leaders, the blackout has left 26 people dead – six of them babies. By Tuesday, the information minister, Jorge Rodríguez, said power had been restored to the “vast majority” of the country, but parts of the capital and other cities remained without power on Wednesday morning. The Caracas metro system was still out of action.

What caused the blackout?

Related: Venezuela: Guaidó under investigation for 'sabotage' of power grid

It depends who you ask. The Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro, accuses the US of engaging in a “demonic” plot to force him from power by crippling the country’s electricity system with an imperialist “electromagnetic attack”.

Maduro says the Pentagon and the US Southern Command have masterminded a “cyber-attack against the electrical, telecommunication and internet systems”.

His government has also asked the country’s supreme court to open an investigation into the opposition leader Juan Guaidó for alleged involvement in the “sabotage” of the national power grid.

However, details of the sabotage alleged by the government are sketchy.

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Analysts and engineers give a more prosaic explanation: that the power cut is the result of years of underinvestment in a network that has been mismanaged, neglected and put in the hands of soldiers rather than qualified technicians. As in other institutions, senior positions at Corpoelec, the state-owned energy company, have been stacked with government loyalists, while many skilled engineers have joined the 3 million Venezuelans who have left the country.

Where does Venezuela’s electricity come from?

Before the discovery of the world’s largest oil reserves, Venezuela established a national grid built on hydroelectric and thermoelectric power. Today, the Guri dam hydroelectric plant in eastern Venezuela supplies about 80% of the country’s electricity.

Experts believe that failure to properly manage the electricity grid may have caused a fire that destroyed one of the huge lines that transport power from the Guri dam to Caracas.

According to Rodrigo Linares, a mechanical engineer and writer for the Caracas Chronicles website, the fault occurred on one of the main power lines between the San Gerónimo B and Malena substations. When that 765-kilovolt line went down, two others suffered an overload and also failed.

“That basically interrupted the electricity highway and stopped energy reaching consumers,” says Linares.

Is this the first time the country has suffered supply problems?

New construction on thermoelectric power plants and other hydroelectric plants has been stalled for years, and localised power cuts are a daily occurrence around Venezuela.

There have also been problems with the supply from the Guri dam in the past.

In 2010, Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, declared an “electricity emergency” after a drought caused by the El Niño weather phenomenon left waters at the dam dangerously low.

Six years later, Venezuela’s worst drought in four decades again affected the Guri dam, which then provided about 70% of the country’s electricity.

In May last year, a union leader representing workers in the state power corporation, was arrested by Venezuela’s intelligence service, Sebin, after warning that poor maintenance and systemic problems meant that a blackout was likely to happen.

Could the US have carried out a cyber-attack in an effort to topple Maduro’s regime?

The Maduro administration is adamant that it could – and has. The country’s vice-president, Delcy Rodríguez, claims to have discerned the “putrid hands” of the anti-Maduro Republican senator Marco Rubio in the affair.

President Nicolás Maduro speaks during a meeting on the energy crisis with members of the government in Caracas on Tuesday.

President Nicolás Maduro speaks during a meeting on the energy crisis with members of the government in Caracas on Tuesday. Photograph: Handout/Reuters

Rubio has dismissed the suggestions with a sarcastic tweet: “My apologies to people of Venezuela. I must have pressed the wrong thing on the ‘electronic attack’ app I downloaded from Apple. My bad.”

The US has a long and brutal history of covert operations in Latin America, prompting those sympathetic to Maduro to point out that a blackout interrupted a broadcast by the Chilean president Salvador Allende not long before his socialist government was overthrown in 1973. A year later, the director of the CIA told Congress that the administration of Richard Nixon had authorised more than $8m to fund activities designed to destabilise Allende’s government.

Is US sabotage really the the most likely explanation?

Many of those most familiar with the Venezuelan national grid think not.

Miguel Lara, former chief of the state-run agency responsible for the electricity system, said that one of Latin America’s best-managed and most productive electrical networks had, in recent years, been underfunded and overexploited.

Lara said that the advice of qualified engineers had been ignored, causing many to leave. Without them, he added, the network had fallen into a dangerous state of disrepair.

“The network lines and transformers weren’t looked after and got overgrown with vegetation and that vegetation started to cause failures. It’s poor maintenance and negligence.”

Lara flatly rejected suggestions of cyber sabotage, as did engineers who told the Associated Press that the computers that monitor the Guri plant’s operating systems are not connected to the internet.

“The control and supervision systems are interconnected and are from the 1990s and have never been updated,” said Lara. “They’re obsolete technology.”

Related: 'We call it survival': Venezuelans improvise solutions as blackout continues

He also said the area around the Guri dam was too well guarded to allow intruders to gain access. “There’s no way anyone gets in there,” he said. “There’s a whole chain of command that regulates who’s allowed in to carry out works.”

His thoughts echoed those of Chávez’s former oil minister, Rafael Ramírez, who went into exile after splitting with Maduro in 2017.

“Guri has collapsed because of a lack of maintenance, just like the thermoelectric plants and the transmission and distribution lines,” he tweeted.

What happens next?

Even if the power is coming back on, Venezuela’s electricity network will have been further weakened by the blackout.

Linares describes the current state of energy infrastructure in the country as “wretched; most of the qualified people have left the country”.

Lara agrees. “The electricity supply for Venezuelans will be worse than it was before,” he said. “And it wasn’t good before. There’s no doubt this was all foreseeable. That’s why people have left – they saw there was no will to fix it. It’ll only be more difficult from here on in.”