Venezuela congress declares ‘state of alarm’ over blackout

People collect water released through a sewage drain that feeds into the Guaire River, which carries most of the city's wastewater, in Caracas, Venezuela March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Shaylim Valderrama and Anggy Polanco

CARACAS/SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela (Reuters) – Venezuela’s opposition-run congress on Monday declared a “state of alarm” over a five-day power blackout that has crippled the OPEC member country’s oil exports and left millions of citizens scrambling to find food and water.

Much of Venezuela remained without power on Monday, although electricity had largely returned to the capital of Caracas following an outage that began on Thursday and which President Nicolas Maduro has called an act of U.S.-backed sabotage.

The outage has added to discontent in a country already suffering from hyperinflation and a political crisis after opposition leader Juan Guaido assumed the interim presidency in January after declaring Maduro’s 2018 re-election a fraud.

Venezuelan citizens living in Bogota protest against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro and the continuing power outage in Venezuela, in Bogota, Colombia, March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Julio Martinez

Venezuelan citizens living in Bogota protest against Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro and the continuing power outage in Venezuela, in Bogota, Colombia, March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Julio Martinez

“Nothing is normal in Venezuela, and we will not allow this tragedy to be considered normal, which is why we need this decree of a state of alarm,” said Guaido, who heads the legislature, during the session on Monday.

The constitution allows the president to declare states of alarm amid catastrophes that “seriously compromise the security of the nation,” but does not explicitly say what practical impact such a declaration would have.

Guaido has been recognized as Venezuela’s legitimate leader by the United States and most Western countries, but Maduro retains control of the armed forces and state institutions, and the backing of Russia and China, among others.

Oil industry sources said that exports from the primary port of Jose had been halted for lack of power, cutting off Venezuela’s primary source of revenue.

During the legislative session, Guaido called for a halt in shipments of oil to Maduro’s political ally Cuba, which has received discounted crude from Venezuela for nearly two decades. The deals have drawn scrutiny from the opposition and its allies abroad as Venezuela’s economic crisis worsened.

“We ask for the international community’s cooperation to make this measure effective so that the oil the Venezuelan people urgently need to attend to this national emergency is not given away,” Guaido said.

U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton backed the measure, writing on Twitter that, “insurance companies and flag carriers that facilitate these give-away shipments to Cuba are now on notice.” He did not specify any measures the U.S. government may take.

Earlier on Monday, the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on a Russian bank over its dealings with Venezuela’s state-owned oil company PDVSA and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticized Russia’s Rosneft for buying PDVSA oil.

People collect water released through a sewage drain that feeds into the Guaire River, which carries most of the city's wastewater, in Caracas, Venezuela March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

People collect water released through a sewage drain that feeds into the Guaire River, which carries most of the city’s wastewater, in Caracas, Venezuela March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

RESTORATION ‘COMPLEX’

The blackout has left food rotting in refrigerators, hospitals have struggled to keep equipment operating, and people have clustered on the streets of Caracas to pick up patchy telephone signals to reach relatives abroad.

On Monday, Venezuelans seeking water formed lines to fill containers from a sewage pipe.

“This is driving me crazy,” said Naile Gonzalez in Chacaito, a commercial neighborhood of Caracas. “The government doesn’t want to accept that this is their fault because they haven’t carried out any maintenance in years.”

Venezuela’s electrical grid has suffered from years of underinvestment. Restrictions on imports have affected the provision of spare parts, while many skilled technical personnel have fled the country amid an exodus of more than 3 million Venezuelans in recent years.

Winston Cabas, the president of an electrical engineers’ professional association, told reporters that several of the country’s thermoelectric plants were operating at just 20 percent of capacity, in part due to lack of fuel. He said the government was rationing electricity.

The process of restoring service was “complex” and could take between five and six days, he said.

“We once had the best electricity system in the world – the most vigorous, the most robust, the most powerful – and those who now administer the system have destroyed it,” he said.

A source at PDVSA also said the government had decided to ration electricity, in part to supply power to the Jose oil export terminal.

The Information Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Experts consulted by Reuters believe the nationwide blackout originated in transmission lines that transport energy from the Guri hydroelectric plant to the Venezuelan south.

The lack of electricity has aggravated a crisis in Venezuelan hospitals, already lacking investment and maintenance in addition to a shortage of medicines.

School and work activities are set to be suspended on Tuesday, the third working day in a row.

(Reporting by Shaylim Valderrama, Vivian Sequera, Anggy Polanco, and Deisy Buitrago; additional reporting by Sarah Marsh in Havana; writing by Daniel Flynn, Brian Ellsworth and Luc Cohen; editing by Grant McCool and Rosalba O’Brien)

Haiti awaits results of re-run vote, shattered by hurricane

Electoral workers are seen during vote counting at a polling station as Haiti holds a long-delayed presidential election after a devastating hurricane and more than a year of political instability, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti,

By Joseph Guyler Delva

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) – Haiti waited overnight for the results of a re-run presidential election held on Sunday in the impoverished Caribbean country, which has been in political limbo for over a year and is still reeling from a devastating hurricane.

Early reports suggested that Jovenel Moise, backed by Haiti’s last president Michel Martelly, had taken a lead in early voting tallies. However, the party of another former president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, said its nominee, Maryse Narcisse, was headed for victory.

Electoral authorities said they do not expect to have preliminary results until Monday.

The vote was first held in October 2015, but then annulled over complaints of fraud in the first round after Moise, the candidate of Martelly’s Bald Heads Party, finished ahead of Jude Celestin, the former boss of a state construction company.

Further disputes ensued and a rescheduled vote due last month was postponed when Hurricane Matthew struck, killing up to 1,000 people and leaving 1.4 million needing aid.

Voters in the poorest country in the western hemisphere hope the next president will boost the economy and repair the damage.

“We need aid, aid for the country,” said Clauzette Fortine, a 41-year-old voter in Port-a-Piment, a town in southwestern Haiti pummeled by Matthew last month. “Aid after the hurricane, because everything was lost,” she added.

Men wait in line for roofing material during the eviction of residents from a shelter for people displaced by Hurricane Matthew in Lycee Jean Claude Museau, which will be used as a voting centre, before the election in Les Cayes, Haiti,

Men wait in line for roofing material during the eviction of residents from a shelter for people displaced by Hurricane Matthew in Lycee Jean Claude Museau, which will be used as a voting centre, before the election in Les Cayes, Haiti, November 19, 2016. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

Moise, an entrepreneur who was tipped to prevail by one recent opinion poll, was leading the count according to some radio stations broadcasting from polling stations. Calvin Cadet, a former director of the communications ministry under Martelly, said Moise was on track to win 64 percent of the vote.

However, Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas party said the vote had given a majority to Narcisse, a doctor.

And Celestin, who placed second in last year’s vote, is also in the running, as is former senator Moise Jean-Charles. All told, more than two dozen candidates are competing.

Martelly left office in February, and since then Haiti has been in the hands of a caretaker government. To win outright in the first round, the top candidate must secure more than 50 percent of the vote or a lead of at least 25 percentage points.

Failing that, a Jan. 29 second round run-off is likely for the top two finishers. The victor is due to take office in February, and faces a formidable task rebuilding the country after Matthew.

The deadly storm battered homes, farms and schools across southern Haiti, piling fresh misery onto the nation of more than 10 million people on the western half of the island of Hispaniola that is still recovering from a major earthquake in 2010.

There were a number of reports of voting fraud on Sunday, although election observers made a broadly positive assessment, suggesting it had gone more smoothly than last year.

Some Haitians complained they could not cast a ballot because their names did not appear on lists at the polling stations, while others said that when they tried, they were told somebody had already voted for them.

Electoral council president Leopold Berlanger said the vote had been a success overall. Still, he also noted there had been several arrests and an attempt made to burn a polling station in southeastern Haiti. National police said 43 people had been arrested for interference in the election.

(Additional reporting by Makini Brice in Les Cayes; Editing by Dave Graham and Christian Schmollinger)