THE SCENE by the polluted Guaire river that flows through central Caracas was dystopian. Residents from the nearby San Agustín slum had heard that a drainage pipe was leaking into the stream. They scrambled down its concrete banks with plastic containers to catch the water before it mixed with the sewage.
On March 11th Caracas’s 2m people had been without water for four days. That was an effect of the longest power cut ever to hit Venezuela, which affected all 23 states. At least 40 people died, many in the decrepit hospitals. They included several premature babies, whom nurses had tried to save by hand-pumping ventilators for hours on end. Power eventually returned to Caracas, but as The Economist went to press the blackout continued in parts of the country.
Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s dictator, blamed it on sabotage by “imperialists” seeking to topple his government. In a televised address on March 12th he claimed that the “demonic” government of the United States had used electromagnetic waves from mobile devices to disable the power system. The chief prosecutor has called for the supreme court to investigate whether Juan Guaidó, recognised by most Western and Latin American democracies as Venezuela’s interim president, had a hand in sabotaging the power grid.
The United States is leading an international campaign to remove Mr Maduro, who has demolished democracy and wrecked the economy. It wants Mr Guaidó to succeed him. (Mr Maduro’s re-election last year was rigged. The constitution says that, in the absence of a legitimate president, the job goes to the leader of the national assembly, ie, Mr Guaidó, pending an election.)
But there is no evidence that the United States turned out Venezuela’s lights. Incompetence and corruption probably caused the blackout. It is thought to have started with a bush fire close to a transmission line from the Guri hydroelectric plant, which supplies 80% of Venezuela’s electricity. That shut down the line, overloading the other two that deliver power from the plant, causing it to crash, too. The complex process of restarting the system was botched, probably by inexperienced workers. Almost half the skilled employees of the state-run electricity monopoly Corpolec, whose salaries are worth just a few dollars a month, have emigrated, said Alí Briceño, executive secretary of Venezuela’s electrical industry union.
Brilliant Venezuelan hackers and the armed forces repelled the supposed saboteurs, Mr Maduro said. He promised that running water and power would soon return, but advised people nonetheless to buy torches and water tanks.
That is good advice. Venezuela’s economy, which has shrunk by 50% since Mr Maduro succeeded Chávez in 2013, will now shrink faster. The United States, which had been the main cash buyer of oil, Venezuela’s biggest export, imposed sanctions on PDVSA, the state oil company, in January. “Very significant” measures are planned for financial institutions that support the regime, says Elliott Abrams, the United States’ special envoy for Venezuela. The government of India, an alternative customer for Venezuela’s oil, has, under American pressure, said it will ask importers to buy less. The power cut deepens these woes. It shut down the main port for oil tankers, bringing exports to a halt.
Mr Guaidó and his American backers hope that economic chaos will force a change of regime. But the army continues to support Mr Maduro, as do Russia and China. The government has replaced some of its lost oil income with sales of gold, some of it fresh-mined.
Few people turned out for a protest called by Mr Guaidó on March 12th. Despair is sapping the will to resist. As she waded through the Guaire river in search of clean water, Gladys Cisneros said she feels like a victim of a political game she does not understand. “They are not harming Maduro,” she lamented. “They are not harming Guaidó. But they are hurting me.”