U.S. to withdraw and withhold funds from Afghanistan, blames corruption

WASHINGTON/KABUL (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday the United States would withdraw about $100 million earmarked for an energy infrastructure project in Afghanistan and withhold a further $60 million in planned assistance, blaming corruption and a lack of transparency in the country.

Pompeo said in a statement the United States would complete the infrastructure project but would do so using an “‘off-budget’ mechanism”, faulting Afghanistan for an “inability to transparently manage U.S. government resources”.

“Due to identified Afghan government corruption and financial mismanagement, the U.S. Government is returning approximately $100 million to the U.S. Treasury that was intended for a large energy infrastructure project,” he added.

The decision comes a day after the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, John Bass, in a tweet called out the country’s National Procurement Authority (NPA) for not approving the purchase of fuel for thermal electricity.

Residents of Kabul have accused the NPA of ignoring people’s need for energy, as large parts of the city have been without power for more than seven hours every day this month.

Electricity outages have also inflicted losses for manufacturing companies and emergency health services.

“Hearing reports the National Procurement Authority won’t authorize fuel purchases for the power plant providing the only electricity in Kabul – even while the U.S. & Resolute Support help Afghan security forces enable repairs to power transmission lines. Could this be true?” Bass said in a tweet on Wednesday.

The power crisis intensified further this week after insurgents attack pylons in northern provinces. About a third of the country has been hit by blackouts.

(Reporting by Makini Brice in Washington DC, Rupam Jain in Kabul; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Alex Richardson)

Once oil wealthy, Venezuela’s largest state struggles to keep the lights on

Elizabeth Altuve climbs the stairs at the occupied building where she lives in Maracaibo, Venezuela July 26, 2018. Picture taken July 26, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bell

By Mayela Armas

MARACAIBO, Venezuela (Reuters) – Across Maracaibo, the capital of Venezuela’s largest state, residents unplug refrigerators to guard against power surges. Many only buy the food they will consume the same day. Others regularly sleep outside.

Judith Palmar holds her mother Sibilina Caro hand after feeding her at their home in Maracaibo, Venezuela July 25, 2018. Picture taken July 25, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Judith Palmar holds her mother Sibilina Caro hand after feeding her at their home in Maracaibo, Venezuela July 25, 2018. Picture taken July 25, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

The rolling power blackouts in the state of Zulia pile more misery on Venezuelans living under the fifth year of an economic crisis that has sparked malnutrition, hyperinflation and mass emigration. OPEC member Venezuela’s once-thriving socialist economy has collapsed since the 2014 fall of oil prices.

“I never thought I would have to go through this,” said bakery worker Cindy Morales, 36, her eyes welling with tears. “I don’t have food, I don’t have power, I don’t have money.”

Zulia, the historic heart of Venezuela’s energy industry that was for decades known for opulent oil wealth, has been plunged into darkness for several hours a day since March, sometimes leaving its 3.7 million residents with no electricity for up to 24 hours.

In the past, Zulians considered themselves living in a “Venezuelan Texas”, rich from oil and with an identity proudly distinct from the rest of the country. Oil workers could often be seen driving new cars and flew by private jet to the Dutch Caribbean territory of Curacao to gamble their earnings in casinos.

Once famous for its all-night parties, now Maracaibo is often a sea of darkness at night due to blackouts.

The six state-owned power stations throughout Zulia have plenty of oil to generate electricity but a lack of maintenance and spare parts causes frequent breakdowns, leaving the plants running at 20 percent capacity, said Angel Navas, the president of the national Federation of Electrical Workers.

Energy Minister Luis Motta said this month that power cuts of up to eight hours a day would be the norm in Zulia while authorities developed a “stabilization” plan. He did not provide additional details and the Information Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

The Zulia state government did not respond to a request to comment.

People block a street in protest during a blackout in Maracaibo, Venezuela July 26, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

People block a street in protest during a blackout in Maracaibo, Venezuela July 26, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Although Caracas has fared far better than Maracaibo, a major outage hit the capital city on Tuesday morning for around two hours due to a fault at a substation. The energy minister said “heavy rains” had been reported near the substation.

Venezuelans were forced to walk or cram into buses as much of the subway was shut. Long lines formed in front of banks and stores in the hopes power would flick back on. The fault also affected some phone lines and the main Maiquetia airport just outside the capital.

“This is terrible. I feel helpless because I want to go to work but I am in this queue instead,” said domestic worker Nassari Parra, 50, as she waited in a line of 20 people in front of a closed bank.

MARACAIBO “GHOST TOWN”

Retiree Judith Palmar, 56, took advantage of having power to cook one afternoon last week in Maracaibo.

When the lights do go out, Palmar wheels her paralyzed mother outside because the house becomes intolerably hot. One power cut damaged an air conditioning unit, which Palmar cannot afford to replace on her pension of about $1.50 a month due to inflation, estimated by the opposition-run Congress in June at 46,000 percent a year.

Outages are taking a toll on businesses in Zulia.

Zulia used to produce 70 percent of Venezuela’s milk and meat but without power to milk cows and keep meat from spoiling, the state’s production has fallen nearly in half, according to Venezuela’s National Federation of Ranchers.

Zulia’s proportion of Venezuela’s total oil production has also slipped over the past 10 years from 38 percent to 25 percent, figures from state oil company PDVSA show.

Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second largest city, seems like a “ghost town,” said Fergus Walshe, head of a local business organization. He said businesses had shortened their operating hours due to the lack of power.

“Before, business activity here was booming,” he said.

Small businesses are also affected. In an industrial park in Maracaibo’s outskirts, 80 percent of the 1,000 companies based there are affected by the power cuts, according to another business association in Zulia.

Sales at Americo Fernandez’ spare parts store are down 50 percent because card readers, which are crucial because even the cheapest goods require unwieldy piles of banknotes, cannot be used during power cuts.

“I have had to improvise to stay afloat. I connect the car battery to the store so that the card readers can work,” Fernandez said during a power outage at his home, surrounded by candles.

(Reporting by Mayela Armas in Maracaibo, additional reporting by Andreina Aponte and Shaylim Castro in Caracas; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Alistair Bell)

Venezuela begins power rationing as drought causes severe outages

Lisney Albornoz (2nd R) and her family use a candle to illuminate the table while they dine, during a blackout in San Cristobal, Venezuela March 14, 2018. Picture taken March 14, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

By Anggy Polanco and Isaac Urrutia

SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela (Reuters) – Venezuela imposed electricity rationing this week in six western states, as the crisis-hit country’s creaky power grid suffered from a drought that has reduced water levels in key reservoirs needed to run hydroelectric power generators.

The four-hour formal outages began on Thursday. But many residents scoffed at the announcement, wryly noting that they have been suffering far more extended blackouts during the last week.

“We have spent 14 hours without electricity today. And yesterday electricity came and went: for six hours we had no power,” said Ligthia Marrero, 50, in the western state of San Cristobal, noting that her fridge had been damaged by the frequent interruptions.

Crumbling infrastructure and lack of investments have hit Venezuela’s power supply for years. Now, the situation has been exacerbated by dwindling rains.

In the worst-hit western cities, business has all but ground to a halt at a time when the OPEC nation of 30 million is already suffering hyperinflation and a profound recession. Many Venezuelans are unable to eat properly on salaries of just a couple of dollars per month at the black market rate, sparking malnutrition, emigration and frequent sights of Venezuelans digging through trash or begging in front of supermarkets.

Maybelin Mendoza, a cashier at a bakery in Tachira state, said business has been further hit because points of sale stop working during blackouts – just as Venezuelans are chronically short of cash due to hyperinflation.

In the most dramatic cases, the opposition governor of Tachira state said three people, including a four-month-old, died this week because they failed to receive assistance during a power outage.

“Because of electrical failures, the machines weren’t able to revive the people and they died,” said Laidy Gomez.

Reuters was unable to confirm the report.

Authorities have acknowledged that interruptions will continue for at least two weeks, but they have not said whether they will spread to other states.

A worker tries to start the generator of the Padre Justo hospital during a blackout in Rubio, Venezuela March 14, 2018. Picture taken March 14, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

A worker tries to start the generator of the Padre Justo hospital during a blackout in Rubio, Venezuela March 14, 2018. Picture taken March 14, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

“Of a possible 1,100 megawatts, we are only generating 150 right now,” Energy Minister Luis Motta told reporters referring to the Fabricio Ojeda dam, in the western Andean state of Merida.

Capital city Caracas and other major cities have not been hit by rationing yet. Two years ago, rationing there lasted five months when a drought hit the Guri dam, the country’s largest hydroelectric dam.

But because of the economic crisis, Venezuela has reduced electricity consumption to about 14,000 megawatts at peak hours, according to engineer and former electricity executive Miguel Lara. Two years ago, state-run Corpoelec put the figure at 16,000 megawatts.

(Writing by Andreina Aponte and Girish Gupta; Editing by Corina Pons, Alexandra Ulmer and David Gregorio)