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Gas prices' astronomical rise, the latest item in Venezuela's list of daily struggles

CARACAS, VENEZUELA - MARCH 04:  A worker passes a mural of Hugo Chavez at the military barracks where the former Venezuelan president is entombed on March 4, 2014 in Caracas, Venezuela. Workers made last minute preparations for Wednesday's ceremony marking the first anniversary of Chavez' death on March 5, 2013. The anniversary has been marred by three weeks protests against the government of Chavez' chosen successor Nicolas Maduro. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

CARACAS, VENEZUELA - MARCH 04: A worker passes a mural of Hugo Chavez at the military barracks where the former Venezuelan president is entombed on March 4, 2014 in Caracas, Venezuela. Workers made last minute preparations for Wednesday's ceremony marking the first anniversary of Chavez' death on March 5, 2013. The anniversary has been marred by three weeks protests against the government of Chavez' chosen successor Nicolas Maduro. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)  (2014 Getty Images)

The economic reforms announced earlier this week in Venezuela, which include a sixtyfold rise of gas prices, are the latest addition to a grim reality that people here have learned to endure — and they touch on the most intimate aspects of everyday life.

The new normal created by Chavismo starts in the morning, when getting running water in the shower is a daily gamble, and continues throughout the day as Venezuelans go about their day trying to find food to put on the table and plan their activities around the electricity cuts schedule set in place by the government.

At night they have to deal with the fear of getting robbed or worse — Caracas, the capital, was recently named the most violent city of the world by the Mexican NGO Citizen Council for Public Security and Penal Justice, and the entire country suffers at the hands of lawlessness.

In 2016 Venezuela, due to poor government planning, problems turn quickly into crises. The latest example is the El Niño weather pattern, since lack of rain has a direct impact on the generation of electricity done mostly hydroelectrically.

Since mid-January, most neighborhoods in Caracas and nearby towns are getting water only five days a week, sometimes less. In Los Teques, just 40 minutes away from Caracas, and in 30 other urban sectors water supply is interrupted as much as six days a week.

According to a survey by Venebarometro released last week, 89 percent of Venezuelans have seen the electricity cut at leats once in their homes, while 70 percent of respondents said they have suffered from water rationing. Twenty percent of people surveyed indicated they get running water only once a week. 

Hygiene problems are starting to appear. Local newspaper El Universal recently reported that schools have noticed an increase of head lice, worsened by the lack of special shampoos due to the ongoing shortages.

In terms of electricity, users considered big consumers such as hotels and malls have been ordered to use a generator four hours a day.

Most malls lose power between 3 and 7 p.m., and since many don’t have appropriate generators the cuts are seriously limiting people’s options for leisure — malls have become the meeting place of choice for its guarded security, and many movie theaters and restaurants are located in these huge structures.

According to the government, the intense drought caused by El Niño has reduced the levels of 18 of the 108 reservoirs in the country, limiting the water supply in 6 of the 23 states.

It is also jeopardizing power production at Guri’s Hydro plant, located in the southern state of Bolivar, which supplies around 70 percent of all the country’s electricity.

Experts and opposition lawmakers say the problems can be traced back to 2009, two years after late president Hugo Chavez nationalized and centralized all electricity production and distribution in Venezuela.

“We went through similar situations in 2009 and 2010 and the government didn’t do anything after that,” said Juan Carlos Sanchez, ecologist and member of the UN’s intergovernmental panel on climate change.   

“They declared a state of emergency and bought many thermoelectric plants that don’t need water but were never activated,” he he told FNL.

According to a report put together by Victor Poleo, engineer and specialist in electricity, in the last 10 years the government spent $35 billion in contingency plans — mostly thermoelectric plants. 

“Reducing the electricity supply to malls and hotels is not going to change anything,” said opposition lawmaker Jony Rahal. “We need to pass a bill to decentralize public services, including water and electricity. The supply must be in the hands of governors and mayors to improve management, as is the case in countries like Chile, Colombia and Ecuador.”

In fact, the last two electricity ministers of the country, Jesse Chacón and Luis Motta, were generals with little knowledge of the matter. They also headed the national electric state company.

“We need to have true professionals heading those companies," said Sanchez. "In the past we didn’t have these problems because they were handled by experts.” 

Franz von Bergen is a freelancer reporter living in Caracas.

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