Chaos as machines fail, patients die, in Venezuela blackout

Published March 9, 2019, 12:50 AM

by Ellalyn De Vera & Richa Noriega

By Agence France-Presse

CARACAS -Venezuela’s nationwide blackout left large areas of the country in chaos on Friday, crippling day-to-day functioning of hospitals and other public services.

Witnesses described scenes of chaos at several hospitals as relatives tried to move patients in the dark to clinics with better emergency power facilities.

People cross a street during a power cut in Caracas on March 7, 2019 (AFP / MANILA BULLETIN)
People cross a street during a power cut in Caracas on March 7, 2019 (AFP / MANILA BULLETIN)

Marielsi Aray, a patient at the University Hospital suffering from an aggravated infection, died at dawn on Friday after her respirator stopped working, her uncle Jose Lugo said.

“The doctors tried to help her by pumping manually, they did everything they could, but with no electricity, what were they to do?” a distraught Lugo told AFP.

Wiping away tears, he described how his niece had been brought to the bottom of the 11-story Caracas hospital on a stretcher after the elevators stopped working.

“They got her to the ground floor where they had electricity, and connected her up but because of the transfer and the waiting and everything, she faded away,” he said.

The power cut compounded an atmosphere of chaos that has gripped the South American nation, already battered by economic collapse, since opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself interim president in January and asserted that President Nicolas Maduro was no longer legitimate.

Lugo said another patient had died in the parking lot in the chaos of the blackout, as people “tried to get sick people out of here and move them to other places where they had generators and equipment that would work.”

“The screaming was brutal,” he said.

‘Electrical war’

The blackout in the capital hit Thursday at 4:50 pm (2050 GMT) — just before nightfall. Its cause is still unknown.

Thousands of homes in Caracas — a crime-ridden city of two million people — were without water. Telephone services and access to the internet were knocked out while the subway system ground to a halt.

The capital’s Simon Bolivar international airport was hit, as were others across the country.

Following Maduro’s decision to close the borders to keep out humanitarian aid for his people, the country was completely isolated on Friday.

“The electrical war announced and directed by US imperialism against our people will be defeated,” Maduro tweeted.

Critics blame the government for failing to invest in maintaining the electrical grid, although the government often blames external factors when the lights go out.

The state power company Corpoelec said there had been sabotage at the Guri hydroelectric plant in Bolivar state, one of the largest in Latin America. It gave no details.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Maduro was wrong to blame the US or any other country for Venezuela’s woes.

“Power shortages and starvation are the result of the Maduro regime’s incompetence,” he tweeted.

Emergency generators fail

Backup generators at the JM de Rios children’s hospital in downtown Caracas failed to kick in when the blackout hit, said Gilbert Altuvez, whose eight-year-old boy is among the patients.

“The night was terrible. Without light. Total madness,” he said.

When more generators were brought to supply emergency power, they weren’t enough. “None managed to supply it completely,” said Altuvez, 38.

Emilse Arellano said urgent dialysis for her youngest child had to be canceled Friday, after a night during which staff worked by the light of cellphones.

“The children were very scared,” she told AFP.

The putrid odor of rotting flesh hung around the entrance to Caracas’ main Bello Monte morgue on Friday where the refrigeration system had stopped working.

Worried relatives gathered outside, waiting for bodies to be handed over so they could bury their dead.

“We can’t take in any more corpses,” an employee said on condition of anonymity.

Luis Moises Guerra had come to collect the body of his son, Johan, a gunshot victim killed three days ago.

“This is the second day I’ve spent here and now there is no light,” said Guerra. “If they don’t give me the body of my son today I’ll leave it here and I won’t come back anymore.”

Guaido told supporters in Caracas it wasn’t normal “that 50 percent of the hospitals in the country don’t have electric plant” to be able to cope with such an emergency.