Struggling with blackouts, Venezuela says it has plan to prevent outages during election

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The government said Monday it is taking steps designed to prevent blackouts that have been hitting several regions across Venezuela, so there won't be interruptions during congressional elections this weekend.

Energy Minister Ali Rodriguez said the plan "involves the presence of workers and military personnel" at all major power plants.

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

In addition, polling stations will be equipped with diesel power generators in case of emergencies, Rodriguez said.

Several regions, including Venezuela's capital, have been hit by power outages in recent weeks.

Government officials blame the blackouts on sabotage, accusing President Hugo Chavez's opponents of trying to damage the power grid as a way to hurt the popularity of the socialist leader and his allies ahead of the vote Sunday.

Opposition leaders reject the allegations, saying the power failures are due to problems in the system.

Aixa Lopez, director of the Committee for People Affected by Power Outages, an opposition-allied group that tracks blackouts and proposes solutions, said the problem is government inefficiency and lack of investment.

"The real cause of the blackouts is that the government has not made the necessary investment and maintenance," Lopez said.

Throughout the first half of 2010, Venezuela experienced recurring power outages across the country as a lack of rainfall caused water shortages and starved the hydroelectric dams that produce about three-fourths of the South American country's electricity.

Chavez has said the water level at the Guri dam, the country's largest, returned to normal levels after the rainy season began in June.

"At the beginning, government authorities told us that the problem was caused by lack of rain, but Guri is full now and the only excuse they can come up with is purported sabotage," Lopez said during a telephone interview.

Blackouts have been occurring in the capital as well as six of Venezuela's 23 states, including Nueva Esparta, Falcon, Anzoategui, Merida and Tachira, Lopez said.

Lopez said she doubted the government is capable of guaranteeing an uninterrupted electricity supply across the entire country during the elections, and she warned that any power outages Sept. 26 could lead to protests and violent conflict between political rivals.

Repeating previous accusations by Chavez's government, the energy minister told the state-run AVN news agency that recent blackouts were "the result of sabotage." Rodriguez added that employees of state power companies could be involved.