Venezuela starts rolling blackouts of up to four hours a day amid protests

As if daily life in Venezuela wasn't hard enough, people across the crisis-wracked South American country will now have to add electricity to the long list of things they'll have to do without.

President Nicolás Maduro's government on Monday began rationing power in 18 of 24 states. The rolling blackouts of up to four hours a day are a last-minute attempt to save energy until water levels stabilize at the Guri Dam, which provides the bulk of the country's electricity.

Even in Caracas, which is being spared the rolling power cuts, outages have become a frequent fact of life as energy supplies have dwindled. Over the weekend residents in a poor neighborhood of El Calvario, on the city's outskirts, blocked a major throughway with motorcycles and trash to protest what they said had been 29 hours without service.

"With all the shortages we face, and prices through the roof, now we have to go without electricity," said Karelis Aristiguieta, a janitor at a local university.

"Everything is ruined," she said, recounting how all the scarce perishable items in her fridge had spoiled, including hard-to-find milk for her two-year-old granddaughter.

Maduro's socialist administration blames the crisis on a drought caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon and acts of sabotage by its opponents.

But experts say more investment in power plants could've prevented the tragedy. They also point to generous state subsidies that keep utility prices low — residential electricity bills are typically less than US$1 a month — for encouraging almost never-questioned habits like keeping TV sets on all night.

The daily power cuts are just the latest in a long list of energy-saving measures announced in recent weeks. Maduro has also given public workers Fridays off, declared new national holidays, and said he will shift the country's time zone to help to ease the crisis. He's also suggested that women stop blow drying their hair and that everyone leave off ironing their clothes.

The country has seen a bit of rain in recent days, but not enough to signal the end of the dry season.

"We're performing miracles to maintain the quality of life, but I ask for miracles that you compatriots perform at home," Maduro said in a televised address last week.

Although the government says that its so-called Electric Load Management Plan will only last for 40 days, areas that will be subjected to the blackouts are bracing for more hardship.

Tais Aponto, an opposition community organizer in Santa Teresa del Tuy, about 40 miles  southeast of Caracas, says her biggest fear is a spike in crime in a country already battered by some of the world's highest levels of violence.

"I'm worried about the cuts at night because crime, which is already strong here, could increase," she said.

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