In Venezuela, An Electricity Crisis Adds To Country's Woes : Parallels The country has oil, natural gas and rivers for hydroelectric power. Yet it's suffering crippling electricity cuts, adding to its economic woes.
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In Venezuela, An Electricity Crisis Adds To Country's Woes

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In Venezuela, An Electricity Crisis Adds To Country's Woes

In Venezuela, An Electricity Crisis Adds To Country's Woes

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In Venezuela, on top of food shortages and triple-digit inflation, people now have to put up with power outages. The blackouts are forcing Venezuelan factories to cut back even as the government wants them to ramp up production to help the economy. John Otis reports.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: This is the Caracas Paper Company, founded in 1953. Its printing presses and cutting machines used to churn out 13,000 tons of notebooks, manila folders and envelopes every year. Now it produces less than half that amount. That's due to a paper shortage as well as frequent power outages. The blackouts can last up to three hours, says production manager Antonio Lamarca.

ANTONIO LAMARCA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "The machinery shuts down. There's no water, so the bathrooms don't work. We have to send the workers home," he says. Some factories have adapted by installing diesel generators.

JOSE SOTELO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: But paper plant consultant Jose Sotelo says that a generator big enough to keep all of these machines running would break the company's budget. Venezuela might seem like an odd place for an energy crisis. It's home to the world's largest oil reserves, as well as huge natural gas deposits and massive rivers for hydroelectric dams.

But the El Nino weather effect has drastically reduced water levels at the main hydroelectric complex. Venezuela's socialist government, which controls the electric system, also blames unnamed enemies for allegedly attacking the country's thermoelectric plants.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LUIS MOTTA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In an interview on state TV about saboteurs Luis Motta - the minister of electricity - declared, we have to understand this is a war. That explanation doesn't wash with independent analysts. They blame government mismanagement and populist policies. Households pay just pennies a month for electricity.

CARLOS ALVAREZ: For me, if I want to do my monthly budget, I don't even care about electricity payment. It's nothing.

OTIS: That's Caracas economist Carlos Alvarez. He says these rock-bottom rates starve the state electric company of money needed to upgrade the system. Now, with Venezuela's economy in a free fall amid collapsing oil prices, Alvarez says the cash-strapped government has more pressing concerns.

ALVAREZ: I would say for now priority is food, medicines. People is dying because they don't have the medicine that they need. People is doing lines to get some food.

OTIS: However, constant power outages are making daily life even more miserable. For example, with no electricity, neighborhood water pumps stop working.

ELIZABETH CASTRO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Elizabeth Castro is a nurse who lives on the outskirts of Caracas. To wash dishes and flush toilets, she stores water in buckets inside her apartment. But standing water provides a breeding ground for mosquitoes that spread malaria and Zika, a disease that's sickened Castro and several family members.

CASTRO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "What's happening to us is really alarming," Castro says. But trying to escape from it all by, for example, taking in a movie is also complicated.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: At this multiplex in a Caracas mall, I buy a ticket for the last showing of the movie "Spotlight." It starts at 5:45 in the afternoon. Why so early? It turns out that due to electricity rationing, the shopping center will close at 7 p.m. For NPR News, I'm John Otis, Caracas, Venezuela.

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