Amid unrest, looting and electricity rationing, Venezuela president becomes recall target

Amid looting and unrest in several Venezuelan cities over electricity rationing and scarcities of food, medicine and even coffins, Venezuela’s opposition on Wednesday launched a recall drive to remove President Nicolas Maduro from office.

For months, citizens have stood for hours in line to make basic purchases, but a worsening electricity crisis is sapping many Venezuelans of what little patience they had left. To save power, government offices are open only two half-days a week, and most areas outside Caracas, the capital, will go without electricity for four hours a day through May. Friday classes at schools across the country have been canceled until further notice.

Anti-riot police and vehicles were deployed in several cities, including Maracaibo and San Francisco in the western state of Zulia where about 70 stores were looted Tuesday night, according to Gov. Francisco Arias Cardenas. He said more than 100 arrests were made.

“Last night’s actions were destabilizing and were motivated by difficult conditions including electricity [rationing], but they don’t help in finding solutions,” Arias told reporters Wednesday.

Long lines were reported at several locations in Caracas and other cities where citizens are signing petitions to launch a referendum to oust Maduro from the presidency he has held since 2013. His opponents must gather 196,000 signatures, or 1% of registered voters, for the lengthy recall process to proceed.

Recent polls put Maduro’s approval rating at 15%, with a majority blaming him for the economic crisis that could see total output of goods and services decline 11% this year from 2015. The Delphos polling firm found that 70% of those questioned are in favor of Maduro’s removal from power.

Maduro has served notice he will fight the recall move. “They think they will enter on a red carpet … but their time will never come,” Maduro said in a broadcast speech Tuesday. “Enjoy your 15 minutes of fame because the revolution still has a way to go.” 

Maduro was elected for a six-year term in April 2013, one month after the death of longtime leader Hugo Chavez. Since taking control of the National Assembly in January, opposition legislators passed a law to shorten Maduro’s term to four years, but the law was struck down by the Supreme Court.

The court has many Maduro allies; he added 12 members to the panel in December, bringing its total to 44 justices.

Meanwhile, protests and looting were reported in several cities over the electricity rationing the government announced this week to deal with low water levels at the Guri hydroelectric complex in southern Venezuela, which supplies 70% of the nation’s electric power.

Maduro has blamed El Niño weather patterns for causing water levels at the Guri dam to fall to just above the “collapse” line. If the level falls below the line, water won’t reach the turbines that generate electricity.

But critics blame corruption and Maduro’s mismanagement for the crisis, noting billions has been invested in the electric power industry in recent years to no apparent effect.

“Only 25% of thermoelectric power plants are working,” said Enzo Betancourt, president of the Venezuelan College of Engineers, a leading professional organization. “If 100% percent of them were operational, there would be no need for electricity rationing.”

The unrest is made more acute by the exasperation many Venezuelans feel over shortages of foodstuffs and household goods. Even coffins are at a premium, said Maria Isabel Dorta, owner of a funeral home in Valencia in western Venezuela.

“The scarcity has caused their cost to go through the roof, which is persuading people to cremate their family members for economic reasons,” Dorta said.

Among the most critical scarcities are medicines. Retiree Argimiro Batista said in Maracaibo on Tuesday that pills he needs to control his high blood pressure are unavailable at any price.

“I went looking on main streets today and all the pharmacies were closed either for the electricity rationing or because of the protests,” Batista said. He said the absence of electricity from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. means he hasn’t been able to cook dinner this week.

Other Venezuelans were alarmed at the announcement this week by the country’s biggest brewer, Polar, that it will gradually stop making beer starting Friday because of the inability to secure adequate supplies of barley, a crucial component. Some are worried about their beer supply. Others, like Polar employee Francisco Guerra of Caracas, fear for their livelihoods.

“I am very sad. Starting Friday I will be in my house waiting for them to reopen. If they don’t, I don’t know what will happen. Where am I going to find another job if all these factories are shutting?” Guerra said.

Meanwhile, economists say the loss of electricity will further damage an economy already on the verge of collapse. Alejandro Grisanti, an economist with the Ecoanalitica consulting firm in Caracas, said that inflation last month reached 500% and that economic output in 2016 will shrink by 11%.

“Since Maduro was elected three years ago, Venezuela’s economy has shrunk in dollar terms by 50%,” Grisanti said. “I’ve never seen this kind of implosion without there being a civil war or war outside the country to cause it.”

Special correspondents Mogollon and Kraul reported from Caracas and Bogota, Colombia, respectively.

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