Chavez Suspends Rolling Blackouts in Caracas

By: Ian James, Fabiola Sanchez, & Christopher Toothaker- AP Writers
By: Ian James, Fabiola Sanchez, & Christopher Toothaker- AP Writers

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) - President Hugo Chavez suspended
rolling blackouts in Venezuela's capital a day after they began and
sacked his electricity minister, saying government officials
imposed a rationing plan riddled with mistakes.

Chavez's announcement late Wednesday was a significant shift in
his attempts to avoid a widespread power collapse in the coming
months through rolling blackouts of up to four hours a day
throughout the country. Other rationing measures are to remain in
place, including outages in other areas.

"I have ordered the electrical outages to be suspended, only in
Caracas," Chavez said on state television. "Because this
government has to be capable of recognizing mistakes made and
fixing them in time."

The rolling blackouts have been unpopular in a city already
plagued by violent crime, traffic and trash-strewn streets, and
opposition leaders accused Chavez on Thursday of backtracking to
try to head off damage to his political support.

But the president cited tactical errors instead, saying power
was cut in the wrong sectors of the city in some cases.

"I think in one area they repeated the outage a few hours
later," he said. He added that some stoplights also went dark.

"Enough. I said if that's what is going on, there was an error
there," Chavez said.

Chavez said he asked Electricity Minister Angel Rodriguez to
resign and that "he has taken it like a soldier."

Chavez said he ordered the blackouts "interrupted
indefinitely" in Caracas and told the city's state electric
utility not to schedule any more until the process is reviewed. It
was unclear when or if the government may attempt to restart the
measures.

The government says energy rationing is necessary to prevent a
widespread collapse if the water levels behind Guri Dam - which
supplies most of Venezuela's electricity - fall to critical lows in
the coming months due to a severe drought. Officials also
acknowledge that some gas- and oil-fueled thermoelectric plants are
producing below capacity while undergoing repairs.

Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, a Chavez opponent, said the
government was forced to call off rationing in the metropolitan
area of about 6 million people because it was highly unpopular. He
urged Venezuelans to join a protest this weekend against faulty
public services, water and electricity rationing and a currency
devaluation expected to drive up already-soaring inflation.

"We have to defend the citizens of all of Venezuela's states,"
Ledezma told the television channel Globovision.

Noel Alvarez, president of the country's largest business
chamber, said the government is far from resolving the energy
crisis and still must "present clear and concrete solutions."

Chavez announced he was calling off the blackouts in Caracas
just hours after he urging Venezuelans to accept the cutbacks and
likened them to a national energy diet. He called a late-night talk
show to announce the change shortly before some parts of Caracas
were to begin four-hour outages at midnight.

The government also has reduced the hours of electrical supply
for stores in shopping malls and required businesses and large
residential complexes to cut usage by 20 percent or face fines.
Chavez reduced the workday of many public employees, setting new
hours from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.

The state electrical corporation said Thursday it is cutting the
amount of power it exports to the Brazilian city of Boa Vista by 70
percent to 20 megawatts.

Critics blame Chavez's government for the shortage, saying it
has failed to complete enough power upgrades to keep up with
increasing demand.

Chavez denies that, saying the drought is the primary culprit
and that his government is acting to extend the Guri Dam's capacity
to feed the electrical grid. Rains are expected to return at the
end of the traditional dry season in May.

Energy analyst Victor Poleo said the government's rationing
measures are not enough to make up for the expected gap between
supply and demand.

"Rationing in the city of Caracas is useless considering the
size of the deficit," said Victor Poleo, an oil economics
professor at Venezuela's Central University and a former official
in Chavez's Energy Ministry.

He said gas- and oil-fired plants would be able to cover only
about 20 percent of domestic demand if the Guri Dam's hydroelectric
plants are idled.


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