Venezuela hits out at US ‘spy plane’ incursion

CARACAS: Electricity has been restored in all of Caracas and several other regions of Venezuela after a major blackout, the government said Tuesday-the latest taste of misery for a country mired in economic crisis. The outage that began Monday afternoon triggered gridlock in the capital as traffic lights went dark. Sidewalks teemed with pedestrians walking home after the metro stopped running.

The government blamed sabotage, saying a hydroelectric plant that provides 80 percent of the country’s power had been hit by an “electromagnetic attack.” A nationwide blackout in March lasted a week, accentuating the woes of people in an oil-rich country that now has shortages of food and medicine and such basics as toilet paper and soap. This time, the lights went out in a dozen hospitals, telephone service was knocked out and faucets ran dry, according to a consumer rights group called the Public Services Observatory.

Stores closed Monday night as the lack of electricity prevented the use of credit and debit cards. They are essential because cash is scarce in inflation-plagued Venezuela. “I’m hungry, I want to eat, but there is nowhere to use my debit card,” said Hernan Montalvo, complaining of not having enough cash to buy a hot dog. “I’m outraged,” Eurimar Guere, 36, told AFP after leaving her office in eastern Caracas. “Necessary repairs weren’t carried out and it’s more of the same.”

Early yesterday, the state run utility Corpoelec said power had been restored in all of Caracas and parts of four other states. “We are moving toward total restoration of the service,” it said on Twitter. President Nicolas Maduro denounced what he said was a “criminal attack against tranquility and peace of the homeland,” adding that the country’s armed forces had been deployed for relief efforts.

‘Destroyed’ electricity system
The power outage in March affected all 23 states in Venezuela and lasted a week, paralyzing basic services such as the water supply and forcing the work day to be canceled and school classes to be suspended. Hospital care was also affected by that incident and another one that came days later. Opponents of Maduro said at the time that about 20 people died due to problems receiving medical treatment because of the blackout. Maduro blamed unnamed “terrorists” for that near-nationwide blackout, claiming they had attacked the Guri hydroelectric plant-the same one that was allegedly targeted this time.

Another huge outage in April left large parts of the country, including Caracas, in darkness, although it lasted hours rather than days. Blackouts are a common occurrence in Venezuela, especially in remote western regions. The government usually blames them on sabotage but experts say that a lack of investment, poor management, the emigration of qualified engineers and personnel, and corruption are the more likely culprits. “They tried to hide the tragedy by rationing throughout the country, but the failure is clear,” said opposition leader Juan Guaido on Twitter.

“They’ve destroyed the electricity system and they don’t have any answers.” Venezuela has been mired in a political impasse since January when opposition leader Juan Guaido proclaimed himself acting president, quickly receiving the support of more than 50 countries. The country has been in a deep recession for five years. Around a quarter of Venezuela’s 30-million-strong population are in need of aid, according to the United Nations. Three million people have left the country since the start of 2016.

‘Spy plane’ incursion
In another development, Venezuela claimed on Monday that a US “spy plane” had entered its airspace, just days after Washington accused a Venezuelan fighter jet of “aggressively” shadowing an American intelligence plane over the Caribbean Sea. Venezuela’s Communication Minister Jorge Rodriguez said a plane that had come from the United States flew over the Caracas airport “flight information region,” without explaining its reasons for doing so.

On Sunday, US defense officials said a Russian-made Venezuelan SU-30 had followed a US EP-3 aircraft at an “unsafe distance … jeopardizing the crew and aircraft.” The US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) blasted the maneuver as “unprofessional” and claimed the EP-3 was “flying a mission in approved international airspace.” It also claimed the action demonstrated Russia’s “irresponsible military support” to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s “illegitimate regime.”

Maduro’s right-hand man, Diosdado Cabello, alluded to the two incidents in a press conference on Monday, hitting out at the “very serious military actions” by the US military that he said were “threatening” Venezuela. “All threats will elicit an immediate response” from the Venezuelan military, he said. Venezuela and the United States have been at loggerheads since Maduro’s predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez came to power in 1999.

Chavez aligned himself with communist Cuba under the late Fidel Castro and other socialist regimes in Latin America, and was a prominent critic of Washington. Venezuela has been in political crisis since January, when opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself acting president in a direct challenge to Maduro’s authority. The United States was one of the first of more than 50 countries to recognize him as such. Venezuela’s opposition say Maduro is a “usurper” and claim he was re-elected last year in a rigged poll.- Agencies