Facing problems from blackouts to subway shutdown, Venezuelan leaders cry sabotage before vote

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — A power cut halts subway service in Venezuela's capital. It's sabotage, officials say. An explosion rocks a state-run iron plant. Sabotage again, they explain. Power outages sweep the country and President Hugo Chavez calls on state workers to guard electricity plants against sabotage.

With key congressional elections only days away, Venezuela's leftist government is increasingly blaming attacks by shadowy opponents for problems in public services — even though they presented no evidence and have made no arrests.

Chavez's critics mock the claims, saying the government is inventing bogeymen to hide its own inefficiency ahead of elections on Sunday that could challenge the president's control of the legislature.

Charges of sabotage have become increasingly common among officials in recent weeks as the electric utility and other state-run companies struggle with problems ranging from temporary shutdowns to explosions.

"We are on red alert due to the sabotage," Edinson Alvarado, secretary general of the Caracas subway's labor union, told state radio Monday, several days after a power failure prompted authorities to suspend service for almost an entire day.

Mining Minister Jose Khan said investigations suggest an explosion Monday at Sidor — Venezuela's state-run steel mill — was probably caused by sabotage. The blast destroyed some power generators.

In a separate incident two weeks ago, Khan said "unidentified agents" cut power cables feeding the plant's production line, forcing a temporary shutdown.

"It's people who know what they are doing," Khan said, adding that he suspects it is part of "a campaign to demoralize and discredit companies" under government control.

Energy Minister Ali Rodriguez has also said officials suspect saboteurs are behind electricity blackouts in several states. He has said employees of state power companies could be involved, but his ministry has not presented any evidence.

Chavez has also mentioned sabotage as a possible cause of recent blackouts. He urged state workers to guard electrical plants, saying attacks could be timed to hurt his allies in Sunday's National Assembly elections.

The president's allies currently have an unbeatable majority in the National Assembly after most opposition parties boycotted legislative elections in 2005. But the opposition is campaigning hard this time, and many people expect a tight race. Pro-Chavez candidates, however, appear to have an edge, especially in the poor, rural states where the president remains very popular.

Chavez has repeatedly made unfounded accusations against his opponents, rarely presenting anything that could be considered concrete evidence. He has denounced roughly a dozen purported assassination conspiracies, although nobody has been arrested in recent years for allegedly plotting to kill him or unseat him through undemocratic means.

Opposition leaders contend Chavez is trying to conceal his administration's inefficiency.

Most Venezuelans haven't shown much interest in Chavez's allegations or play them down.

"They are like (magician) David Copperfield because what they do is attempt to make people see something where there's nothing," said Ivan Olivares, an opposition candidate in the elections.

"What's happening (with power blackouts) is that there's a lack of maintenance" and insufficient investment to satisfy growing demand, Olivares said in a telephone interview.

While government foes ridicule the president's allegations, many die-hard Chavistas take their leader's charges as genuine.

Rodriguez announced a contingency plan this week to prevent more power outages, posting soldiers to guard power plants and equipping many polling stations with diesel generators in case of emergencies.

"The objective is not only avoiding acts of sabotage, but also preventing any failure that could occur within the electricity system," he said.

Officials also suggested sabotage by Chavez's opponents might have been responsible for an explosion Monday at Ferrominera del Orinoco, which killed one worker and severely burned two others.

Pro-Chavez lawmaker Eddy Gomez said he is convinced government adversaries are using acts of sabotage to try to stir public anxiety before the elections.

Gomez said unidentified saboteurs cut some power cables near the town of Palo Negro in his home state of Aragua several months ago, but authorities did not capture them. The congressman said he doesn't have any proof that Chavez foes were involved, said he suspects anti-Chavez electrical workers.

He said an investigation into that case is still pending.