Chavez's well runs dry

  • Article by: THE ECONOMIST
  • Updated: November 9, 2009 - 7:38 PM

Political opponents and experts blame water and electricity shortages on communist leadership. Losing power: In Venezuela, communism is a cold shower

The economy is in recession but sales of at least two items are booming in Venezuela: water-storage tanks and portable generators. A country that has claimed the world's biggest oil reserves and is home to its fourth-mightiest river, the Orinoco, has recently been forced to ration both water and electricity.

Hugo Chavez, the leftist president, blames the profligacy of consumers and a drought caused by El Niño weather.

National blackouts

Certainly, lower rainfall has cut the flow to the country's main hydroelectric dam (which provides three-fifths of its electricity) by 10 percent. But the opposition, and several independent experts, say the underlying cause is the government's failure to plan, maintain and invest in the necessary infrastructure.

Only a quarter of the funds budgeted for power generation have in fact been spent on it, says Víctor Poleo, who was deputy minister for electricity early in Chavez's decade in power. In 2007 the president compounded the problem by nationalizing what remained of the private power industry. Since then there have been half-a-dozen national blackouts. Meanwhile, demand for electricity has grown by an annual average of 4.5 percent.

Power plants cannot be used to take up the slack. They have been neglected. Four out of five turbines at the biggest of them, Planta Centro on the Caribbean coast, are out of action.

Even José Vicente Rangel, an ultra-loyal chavista and the former vice president, was moved to ask: "What's going on? Why haven't urgent and drastic measures been taken?"

The perception that the government has bungled is contributing to a fall in Chavez's popularity rating, now put at 46 percent by Datanalisis, a pollster.

Chavez has called on Venezuelans to take quicker showers. "Some people sing in the bath for half an hour," he told a recent cabinet meeting, broadcast live. "What kind of communism is that? Three minutes is more than enough!"

It is true that Venezuelans are not thrifty by nature. But the government has hitherto done nothing to encourage them to conserve water or energy. Utility rates have been frozen for most of Chavez's time in office. The president faces crucial parliamentary elections next year and needs to woo voters. But after 10 years of neglect, there is no quick fix for crumbling infrastructure.

"There is no PR trick that will make the crisis go away," said Poleo.

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