MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Next let's consider a country where the economy has collapsed, add to that a political crisis over who's the legitimate president, then throw in a massive power outage. Add it all together, and you get the picture of Venezuela today. Much of that country is without electricity for a fifth day. Outages have paralyzed oil exports and made life for Venezuelans even harder. NPR's Philip Reeves filed this report from the capital, Caracas.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Saida Zambrano is at the wheel of her car. She's in a huge line waiting to buy gas. It's taking all morning. This is the fifth gas station she's visited, she says. The first four either ran dry or lost their pumps because of power cuts.
SAIDA ZAMBRANO: (Speaking Spanish).
REEVES: "I've never seen anything like this," says Zambrano. Venezuela's president, Nicolas Maduro, says he knows why this is happening. The U.S. is sabotaging the electricity grid in an attempt to topple him from power, he says. Zambrano takes a different view.
ZAMBRANO: (Speaking Spanish).
REEVES: "This is because of Maduro and his bunch," she says tearfully. "They're useless. All the good people have left the country. It's chaos here," she says. Zambrano thinks it's time for Maduro to make way for opposition leader Juan Guaido, who's recognized by the U.S. and dozens of others as the legitimate head of state. Public anger is building in this already deeply unstable country. Sporadic looting has begun in Caracas. Communications are badly disrupted. Drive around the city and you soon see evidence of that. We're
actually on a three-lane highway. One lane of the street is entirely occupied by parked cars with people in them who are trying to hook up with the Internet.
These are not people waiting for gasoline. These are people who have come here because the mobile network is believed to work here.
(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE DOORS CLOSING)
REEVES: We've come to west Caracas. This part of town was a government stronghold. There are big pictures on the walls of Maduro's mentor, Hugo Chavez. A crowd stands in a line on the sidewalk with buckets and barrels. They're here to get water from a truck. The Maduro government's not so popular now.
FRANCESCO GONZALES: (Speaking Spanish).
REEVES: "It's obviously responsible for this, no one else," says Francesco Gonzales, who's 24. He lives at home with his girlfriend and parents. Outages are making life very difficult.
GONZALES: Seeing our where when you look at where they know where our harden up where.
REEVES: "We can't wash. We can't go to work. We can't do anything," he says. Blackouts began across Venezuela on Thursday. The cause isn't clear. An official from a power workers union says that a brushfire knocked out transmission lines linked to the country's giant hydroelectric plant at Guri Dam.
Electricity's restored in some areas. In parts of Caracas, it came back and then cut out again. An explosion in a substation today made matters worse. Fixing the supply is difficult. Tens of thousands of engineers in Venezuela's electricity sector have left the country because of the economic chaos.
For hospitals and clinics, these outages are a nightmare. Some have generators, often in bad repair, some do not. We don't yet know the toll on patients already suffering acute medicine shortages. One estimate by a doctors group yesterday said 21 died nationwide because of the blackouts.
OLIVIA: (Speaking Spanish).
REEVES: This woman is on the support staff at the hospital in Caracas. She only gives her first name, Olivia, because of fear of reprisals. When the generator kicks in, she locks herself in her room. It's dangerous, explains Olivia. The corridors go dark. As Venezuela gets ever more volatile, there's a risk of being robbed at gunpoint even inside a hospital. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Caracas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.