Venezuela’s Deadly Blackout Highlights the Need for a Negotiated Resolution of the Crisis
Last weekend Venezuela experienced the worst blackout in its history. Monday, March 11, marked the fourth day of the blackout, which affected nearly all of Venezuela. Power was intermittently restored on Sunday and Monday in parts of Caracas and elsewhere. But areas of western Venezuela had received no electricity since Thursday, with The New York Times on Monday publishing an article titled “No End in Sight to Venezuela’s Blackout, Experts Warn.”
This unprecedented situation provides a terrifying image of Venezuela’s present and future: a nation plunged in darkness, crumbling infrastructure, anxious and desperate citizens, a political class that lacks the resources and will to resolve the situation, and increasingly open opposition calls for foreign or domestic military intervention to “solve” the crisis. In addition to the everyday annoyances, anxieties, and worse suffered by millions of people, the most alarming aspect of the blackout is the lack of power in hospitals and food-storage areas. To be blunt: People are dying, and more will die the longer the blackout continues. The same can be said, on a larger scale, about Venezuela’s current crisis. This reality underlines the urgency of understanding the roots of the crisis and figuring out a way to resolve it.
To many, the cause of the blackout, and of Venezuela’s broader crisis, is obvious. Hours into the blackout, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted, “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.” He followed with two more tweets: “Maduro’s policies bring nothing but darkness” and “No food. No medicine. Now, no power. Next, no Maduro.”
Maduro, in turn, blamed the United States for the blackout, tweeting (in Spanish), “The electric war announced and directed by US imperialism against our people will be defeated. Nothing and no one can defeat the people of Bolívar and Chávez. All-out unity of patriots!”
These tweets sum up the competing narratives about the causes of the blackout, and of Venezuela’s broader crisis. To most critics inside and outside the country, both are due to Maduro’s incompetence and venality. The obvious solution is thus to get rid of Maduro. To defenders of Maduro, the primary—and for some the sole—cause of the blackout and broader crisis is the “economic-cum-electric war” waged against Venezuela by the United States and the domestic opposition, now led by Juan Guaidó, who declared himself Venezuela’s interim president on January 23. The solution, in this view, is to defeat imperialism.
However comforting these narratives are, neither does justice to Venezuela’s reality. The blackout and the broader crisis are not entirely the fault of Maduro, nor of the United States and the domestic opposition. The urgency of the situation demands recognition of shared responsibility for the crisis. This, in turn, points to the need for a negotiated, political resolution.
Take the blackout. Only the most myopic analysis could ignore the government’s clear responsibility for the perilous state of Venezuela’s electric grid. The most damning proof of this is the fact that the government has funneled over $9 billion to construction of the Tocoma Dam. This project, which was announced in 2002 and began construction in 2008, was supposed to alleviate pressure on the Guri Dam, which supplies up to 80 percent of Venezuela’s electricity. (Problems at the Guri Dam—an “attack,” according to the government—are behind the current blackout.) The Tocoma Dam has yet to produce any electricity. An expert with years of field experience recently commented that he doubts the dam is more than 20 percent complete. This contradicts the claim by the scandal-ridden Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht—which was contracted by the Venezuelan government to assist with construction and has allegedly received over $4 billion to do so—that the project was 98 percent complete. This fiasco points to the intertwined problems of government mismanagement and corruption, problems not limited to the electric grid but pervasive throughout the Venezuelan state.
For US officials, most of the mainstream media, and opposition leaders in Venezuela, this is the end of the story. Yet things are not so simple. Over the past 10 years blackouts have become a regular occurrence. The current blackout is significantly worse, however, in both its breadth and duration. A key reason is the lack of diesel and gasoline, which are needed to fuel backup generators. As The New York Times notes, “Not one of more than a dozen diesel- and natural gas-powered backup plants built by the government in the last decade came online to compensate for the Guri outage.” Buried at the end of this story, the Times says that US “sanctions have affected Venezuela’s ability to import and produce the fuel required by the thermal power plants that could have backed up the Guri plant once it failed.”
In other words, US actions are a key reason this blackout has been so prolonged and devastating. To be blunt: Washington is directly responsible for increasing Venezuelans’ suffering. Mark Weisbrot argues that “the death toll from the [US] sanctions…is likely in the thousands or tens of thousands so far.” As Weisbrot notes, US sanctions have been wreaking havoc on Venezuela for years, with the damage set to increase dramatically in the wake of the extremely debilitating sanctions imposed on Venezuela’s oil sector in late January.
The most appalling aspect of US policy toward Venezuela is that the officials directing it, including Florida Senator Marco Rubio, appear to be fully aware of the suffering they are causing. CBS Miami recently reported that Rubio “predicted the Maduro regime will be crippled by increased sanctions. ‘Over the next few weeks, Venezuela is going to enter a period of suffering, no nation in our hemisphere has ever confronted in modern history,’ he said.”
All this makes it difficult to entirely dismiss claims that the blackout could have been an act of sabotage. A recent story in Forbes—hardly a bastion of pro-Chavista thinking—makes this argument: “While the reality is that Venezuela’s blackout was most likely due to chronic underfunding of its electrical infrastructure and deferred maintenance, the idea of a foreign nation state manipulating an adversary’s power grid to force a governmental transition is very real.”
Available evidence suggests that the blackout was not caused by sabotage, but by the electric grid being pushed to the brink by years of increased use and a lack of investment and maintenance. Yet it is impossible to ignore the fact that US officials, and some within the Venezuelan opposition, appear to relish the idea of increasing the suffering of ordinary Venezuelans as a way to generate more popular pressure against Maduro. It is not implausible to think that some US officials and opposition leaders would entertain ideas about sabotaging public infrastructure to achieve this end. Indeed, sectors of the far-right opposition, which Guaidó has close connections to (most clearly through his mentor, Leopoldo López), have engaged in precisely such actions in the past.
Getting to the bottom of the blackout is important; journalists based in Venezuela should investigate the possible causes. Whatever they find will not, however, put to rest the narratives recounted above. Whatever the truth, millions of Venezuelans will blame Maduro for the blackout no matter what. (To be sure, his administration deserves very significant blame. Even if the immediate cause was sabotage, the underlying factors that have made the blackout a national emergency—mismanagement, corruption, and underinvestment—are largely the government’s fault.) A smaller but not insignificant percentage of Venezuelans are likely to believe just as firmly the “electric war” narrative.
This underscores the messiness of Venezuela’s crisis. As I have discussed at length here, it is impossible to solely blame the government or the United States and the far-right sectors of the opposition. There is shared, which is not to say equal, responsibility for the collapse of Venezuela’s economy, the outmigration of 3 million people (and counting) in recent years, the hyperinflation that has rendered the Venezuelan currency, the bolívar, all but worthless, and the violence that has claimed hundreds of lives in recent years. By mismanaging currency policy, failing to make significant progress diversifying the economy, tolerating massive corruption, and engaging in repressive and authoritarian actions—including against the left and popular sectors—the government bears primary responsibility for the country’s dire situation. Yet blaming the government for everything ignores how violence by the far-right opposition, with funding and encouragement from the United States, as well as past and present US sanctions, have also contributed to Venezuelans’ suffering.
In addition to acknowledging the shared responsibility for the crisis—among the government, radical sectors of the opposition, and the United States—it is also important to recognize the continued polarization of Venezuelan society. Polls indicate a solid majority of Venezuelans want Maduro to go, but most want this to happen through negotiations, not foreign intervention. Guaidó’s popularity appears to have risen recently, with a late February poll by leading Venezuelan pollster Datanalisis indicating that his popularity is at 61 percent and that he would trounce Maduro in a presidential election by a 77-23 margin. Yet there is continued support for Chavismo among an estimated 15 percent of the population. As Venezuelan sociologist Edgardo Lander notes, some of Maduro’s popular-sector support “is highly militant. There are different armed groupings within this core.”
Maduro also continues to enjoy seemingly solid support among the upper echelons of Venezuela’s military. This has frustrated US officials. An Argentine newspaper reports that US Vice President Mike Pence sharply criticized Guaidó in a recent in-person meeting in Colombia because Guaidó had told Pence half of Venezuela’s military would desert Maduro upon seeing Guaidó’s rising international support. Yet this did not occur.
Failure to recognize the messiness of Venezuela’s crisis has led to dangerous forms of magical thinking. One example of this is the “humanitarian aid” stunt pulled by the United States on February 23. The plan was to forcibly breach Venezuela’s border with the ostensible goal of delivering much-needed food and medicine. The real goal was to embarrass Maduro. Washington hoped to show that in refusing this “aid,” Maduro is a monster who does not care for his people. Never mind the blatant hypocrisy of the US offer to deliver $20 million in aid while depriving Venezuela of billions in revenue through sanctions (to say nothing of the hypocrisy of Trump’s attempt to forcibly breach another country’s border while declaring a national emergency to protect the integrity of the US border). Washington also hoped to stimulate mass defections of Venezuelan military personnel. The stunt was a failure in all respects: Virtually no aid made it to Venezuela, and there were relatively few military defections. To top it all, the UN and Red Cross refused to participate in what they correctly perceived to be a political rather than humanitarian action. (None of this is to deny the magnitude of Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis, nor the Maduro administration’s repeated and irresponsible refusal to acknowledge its severity.)
The most dangerous form of magical thinking comes from the increasingly open calls for US military intervention in Venezuela. Guaidó made such a call during the blackout, explicitly stating, “We’ll activate Article 187 when the time comes.” This refers to Article 187 of Venezuela’s Constitution, through which the National Assembly can authorize military action abroad or allow foreign military missions to enter Venezuela. US officials continue to insist that “all options are on the table,” although behind-the-scenes evidence suggests Washington has no immediate plans to engage in military action in Venezuela.
The terrible suffering that Venezuelans have experienced during the blackout provides a glimpse of the horrors that war would bring: massive damage to public infrastructure, thousands of deaths, and lasting social and psychological wounds. In a piece titled “Thinking About the Unthinkable: U.S. Military Intervention in Venezuela,” Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America estimated that if this were to happen, “Civilian casualties would probably be in the low thousands. Damage to infrastructure would total in the billions, possibly tens of billions, of dollars.” Maduro’s continued support within the military, and among a not-insignificant sector of the popular classes, some of whom are armed, indicates that a US-led or US-backed war in Venezuela could easily degenerate into a prolonged civil war.
Calls for military intervention must be rejected. One must recognize, however, the untenability of the status quo. The combination of Maduro’s repressive and inept rule and debilitating US sanctions has brought Venezuela to the edge of catastrophe. The longer the situation continues, the worse things will get. Particularly alarming are the government’s recent crackdown on journalists, reports of looting in Maracaibo Monday night, and images of desperate Caracas residents collecting sewage water. Beyond rejecting US militarism, it is also crucial to condemn the US sanctions regime, which a small but important sector of the Democratic Party, led by California Representative Ro Khanna, has now done.
Progressives must also lay out a plausible path for resolving Venezuela’s crisis. This means thinking about what a peaceful transition might look like. It is hard to imagine how such a transition could occur without new presidential elections. Free and fair elections could not, however, occur without three important changes: a complete revamping of Venezuela’s National Electoral Council, which has lost all credibility in recent years; an end to US sanctions and the threat of war, which function as a gun to the head of the Venezuelan people, just as the Contra War did for Nicaraguans in 1990; and an end to the demonization of Chavismo, something that is occurring with increasing frequency (as seen in calls on social media for the banning of Chavista and all leftist/socialist parties).
The only real hope for Venezuela’s future is the path of negotiations between the government and the opposition. There are several proposals for making this happen, including the International Contact Group and an earlier proposal put forward by Mexico and Uruguay. Neither is perfect. Yet both have the merit of excluding the United States as a lead actor and providing an alternative to US military intervention.
Sidelining Washington could also open up two underappreciated sources of pressure for change. The first is the possibility of an increasingly broad, multi-class domestic movement for change within Venezuela. This possibility will be blocked as long as Maduro can point to the threat of US belligerence. Removing this threat could provide space for the growth of a much broader opposition movement, one in which the voices of the popular classes could have much more weight. Sidelining Washington could also open up the possibility for increased behind-the-scenes diplomatic pressure on Maduro from other countries, such as Russia and China, which have an important degree of influence within the Maduro administration.
There is no magic bullet to fix Venezuela’s woes. The task ahead is to avoid the nightmarish scenarios of US intervention (including the continuation of the murderous sanctions regime) and an untenable status quo by opening up space within the country for peaceful, broad-based, Venezuelan-led change.