MARACAIBO – Norma quickly deals with a request for an interview. She wants to go shut herself back in her room and feel the cool of the air conditioning during the eight hours a day the electric power is switched on in Maracaibo, the richest and most populated Venezuelan city after Caracas.
This Salvadoran immigrant makes it through 16 hours a day without electricity and with the blazing tropical heat at around 40 C (104 F), while doing whatever it takes to obtain food and keep it from rotting during the power outages that for weeks have kept everyone’s refrigerator, freezer and air conditioner turned off for most of the time in this oil-producing country.
Nonetheless, she’s aware of her luck.
“In this district we fortunately have water every five days. We’re lucky... other districts go a month (without water),” EFE was told by the 70-year-old woman, who in March went more than 300 hours without electricity and had to throw in the garbage several kinds of food that putrefied while the power was off and the house was in darkness.
Norma is, in effect, very fortunate if compared with most of Maracaibo’s 5 million inhabitants, and even more if compared with Alberto Lopez, a 50-year-old worker who spoke with EFE while bathing in a ravine, since the plumbing in his house, he said, has been dry for longer than he can remember.
The blackouts “have heated up my freezer and my refrigerator completely, so I don’t have anything right now, I’m ruined,” he said with the same anger as when he talked about living in front of the state power company, and even so can only keep his light bulbs lit for two hours a day.
Also exhausted in the gloom, office worker Chidi Nuñez waited with one of her children to find some sort of transport to take her home at night, when the darkness is complete and the violence in the streets grows.
“I’ve been more than 24 hours without electricity. Sometimes it turns on, but after two or three hours it’s off again,” said the woman, 40, who spoke of having no water in her house since last December, since with no electricity, water pumps don’t work.
For that reason, she chooses to buy water from people who fill up containers with 300 liters (80 gallons) of water for around $8, double the monthly minimum wage that Venezuelans earn amid the national hyperinflation.
“I don’t buy meat,” she said without giving importance to her diet, and refrained from criticizing the fact that her children have to be “outside the house all day” to escape the high indoor temperatures, and that they only take classes “twice a week because they can’t stand the heat in the classroom.”
“We all live outside the house now, on the sidewalk, in a hammock,” she said.
Her testimony only emphasized another consequence of the electricity cuts: many people sleep on the roofs and open areas of their homes to escape the early morning heat when the wind is strongest on this tropical coastline.
With its hundreds of thousands of air conditioners out of action, Maracaibo has lost the sarcastic nickname of “Venezuela’s coldest city,” as in the last decade when the power cuts were so merciless that it could no longer hold the title of the city that consumed more electricity than anywhere else in Latin America.
After these years of degradation, the total number of businesses that have closed their doors in the Zulia capital are counted in the hundreds of thousands.
The rest of Venezuela, with the exception of Caracas and which under government orders goes 18 hours a week without electricity, looks with regret but with a certain relief at what Zulia is going through, always under the blazing sun.
Within this federal state, super rich in oil and bordering on Colombia, people line up for hours every day at service stations to fill the tanks of their vehicles, while others spend the same amount of time waiting for the water wagons that provide them with enough to wash themselves or to make dinner.
“A little cold water” is, as the storekeeper Esperanza Veliz told EFE, a luxury much sought after by inhabitants of the so-called “beloved land of the sun.”