By FRANK BAJAK, Associated Press
VALENCIA, Venezuela (AP) — It's just after nightfall and the power is out again in untold hundreds of thousands — probably millions — of Venezuelan homes. If the government knows how many, it's not saying. It hasn't issued reports on problems in the public power grid since 2010.
In Venezuela's third-largest city, Pedro Martinez dons a shirt for visitors drawn by the flicker of candles inside his one-story, cement-block house in a middle-class district. The Caribbean heat is sticky thick inside. A mesh hammock hangs by the front door.
"This happens nearly every day," Martinez says of the blackout, holding a candle close so a reporter can take notes. It's the day's second outage. The first struck just after noon.
It's been like this for five years, pretty much everywhere but Caracas, the capital. Worsening power outages, crumbling infrastructure and other unfulfilled promises witnessed this week in a trip through the country's industrial heartland could be an important factor in Sunday's election to replace socialist President Hugo Chavez, who died last month after a long battle with cancer.
His political heir, Nicolas Maduro, is favored to win, largely on the strength of Chavez's generous anti-poverty programs, which the late president emphasized over public works with one big exception: housing.
But polls show that support may be eroding and the outages are a testament to the neglect many Venezuelans consider inexcusable in this major oil-producing state. Violent crime, double-digit inflation, official corruption and persistent food shortages are other factors.
Some of the rolling, intermittent blackouts are still scheduled. But most are no longer announced. They generally last three to four hours a day on average, said Miguel Lara, who ran the power grid until Chavez forced him out in 2004 for being "a political risk."
Jose Aguilar, a U.S.-based consultant with extensive and more recent experience in Venezuela's electrical industry, says it is suffering "a downward spiral of deterioration." Insufficient transmission lines are running so hot that 20,000 distribution transformers burned out last year, he said. "They run them cherry red."
Electrical substations are in a precarious state, Aguilar and Lara said. If one goes offline, others fail. Employees don't even have fuses, said Lara. "They have to cobble together their own to keep things running."
"There's no money to buy parts for something that breaks," said Giovanni Rinaldi, a 15-year employee at a hydroelectric plant in the eastern city of Ciudad Guayana, which he said is plagued by four or five power outages a week despite being in the region that generates more than 70 percent of Venezuela's electricity.
He was fired this week, he said, after posting photos on Twitter of a state utility company vehicle that was to put distribute Maduro campaign posters and other material around town.
"We had put our own money into keeping those vehicles running because the company didn't," Rinaldi, a 40-year-old father of two, said by phone. "It's not right."
The government hasn't adequately spent to expand and strengthen the power grid, critics say.
They also blame problems on Cuban, Iranian and Uruguayan technicians brought in to run by Chavez to run the system. Accidents are up tenfold, and there are places in remote states that suffer outages for as long as three to five days, says Lara.
Maduro, who was sworn in as interim president the day of Chavez's funeral, said Thursday that the state power utility would be completely restructured, and blamed a recent surge in outages on sabotage by sympathizers of his challenger Sunday, opposition leader Henrique Capriles.
He also said during the speech in Caracas that closed his campaign that the government had arrested more than 30 saboteurs but gave no other details.
The day after the election, Maduro said, he would declare the electric sector "a state security service" and militarize it. That could criminalize speaking publicly about its defects.
Rinaldi, a computer technician, was accused of sabotage in his termination notice, which he vehemently denies.
The government crackdown hasn't stopped blackouts — or complaints.
During a campaign stop in the Amazon city of Puerto Ayacucho on Saturday, crowds shouted "Lights! Lights! Lights" at Maduro. Newspapers reported that prompted state TV to nearly mute its crowd-monitoring microphone.
Attempts to seek comment from the state-run electric utility, Corpoelec, were unsuccessful. No one picked up the main phone. Corpoelec's president is Argenis Chavez, a brother of the late president.
In Valencia, Martinez and his wife, Aura, regularly turn off their TV and air conditioner in anticipation of nightly blackouts. A power spike damaged the air conditioner about month ago.
Asked whether the Chavistas deserve to stay in power, Martinez set off on a controlled tirade about the worsening challenges of daily life including food shortages and a halt in deliveries of cooking gas, for which he now must queue.
"There's no need to even discuss politics because there is no need to explain what is right before one's eyes," he said, motioning at the darkened street.
Martinez is voting for Capriles.
In a government video from 2009, a sunny female voice describes a rail line speeding nearly 100,000 people a day along a route connecting Venezuela's main port, Puerto Cabello, with Valencia and the country's other major central city, Maracay.
She says it will be ready in 2012.
Yet not a single section is complete after a decade of construction.
The railway may be the most visible symbol of unfulfilled promises in Chavez's 14-year presidency. It is the heart of his ambitious plan to create a network of lines across Venezuela, a nation that now has a sum total of 40 kilometers (25 miles) of operating tracks.
In Maracay, three-story concrete pylons linked by monstrous girders parallel Venezuela's main central highway. The elevated rail bed halts abruptly at road crossings. There are phantom stations.
"This is going really slow," construction worker Anselmo Mendoza, 46, said while walking atop one section, its steel bolts, plates and rebar coated with rust. "There isn't any type of coordination."
Mendoza has been on the job nine years. Most days, he and his co-workers try to keep busy with work often unrelated to actual construction.
Billions have been spent so far on the 128-kilometer (80-mile) project.
Transportation Ministry spokesman Alexis Cabrera was asked for information on construction delays and budgets. He said he would need to ask the minister for permission, but didn't call back.
At campaign rallies, Capriles always rattles off a list of Chavez's unfinished projects.
On Wednesday night in Venzuela's second city, Maracaibo, he mentioned one of the most striking examples: A second bridge over the lake that bears the city's name. Chavez laid the bridge's first stone in 2006. A year later, he returned to lay the first stone a second time. Nothing more has happened.
"They don't do planning," Celia Herrera, a civil engineering professor at Central Venezuela University who advises Capriles, said of the government.
Another suspected reason for uncompleted projects: corruption.
"They've said a ton of times that they are filling potholes, but it turns out that they aren't filling anything," Herrera said of the government's "Fiesta of Asphalt" program.
Maduro has generally avoided references to public works on the campaign trail, although on a stop this week in Apure state, he did apologize for a delayed highway extension, maternity hospital and bridge, promising to finish them.
Beneath one section of the unfinished elevated railway in Maracay, a handful of men sat idly on a bulldozer and two dump trucks under a punishing sun on a recent day. Then they pushed some dirt around and moved debris beneath the rails' shadow.
But there was evidence of something else that has created discontent and has made nearby resident Santiago Alvarez, a father of five, lose patience with the government.
He warned a visitor about the danger from drug dealers and crooked cops, pointing to a spot beneath the railway about a block away.
"They killed a guy there last week, under the rails, in broad daylight, about three in the afternoon," Alvarez said.
"We are in deep here," he said. "The police rob as much as the drug addicts."
Housing is a major problem, and has been a government priority.
An estimated 2 million of Venezuela's country's nearly 30 million people lack permanent homes, and one of Chavez's anti-poverty "missions" builds them.
But it's been slow going. The government says it has built 370,500 homes and apartments over the past two years, and more than 3 million people applied for them.
In the city of Guacara, a stop between Maracay and Valencia on the unfinished rail line, about 100 women invaded a fenced-in vacant lot beside a Pirelli tire factory last weekend.
Police cordoned off the lot and, two days later, weren't letting in food or water to the women, who shielded themselves from the sun under sheets strung across the limbs of bushes.
"They give houses to their families and closest friends," one woman complained about government supporters before police shooed a reporter away.
Sisters Diana, 26, and Laura Rojas, 19, had joined the squatters but gave up.
Single mothers, both yearn for their own homes. Laura lives cramped with her mother. Diana is tired of putting most of her earnings from selling bed linens on the street into a single, rented room.
"If you don't invade, you don't get your own home," said Diana, who voted for Chavez in October but wasn't sure if she would vote at all on Sunday.
Land invasions are nothing new in Venezuela. What's different now is that people are invading valuable properties in city centers.
All the squatting riles Rosa Contrera, a 57-year-old housewife who walked past the invaders, shaking her head. The day before, people from the apartment block adjacent to hers attacked the invaders with Molotov cocktails.
"This is what Chavismo has created: people who expect handouts," said Contrera, a Capriles supporter. "A country doesn't advance with that mentality."
The government says Venezuela's poverty rate dropped from more than 50 percent to 21 percent under Chavez's leadership, though there is still plenty of misery.
Lake Valencia has been rising few feet a year and swallowed Antonio Rojas' home last year.
"We filled out all the forms but in the end we didn't get a house," said the wiry 67-year-old, who works at a nursery earning the equivalent of $17 a day at the official exchange rate and $5 on the black market.
At a squatter's settlement outside Tacarigua, a town on Valencia's southern outskirts built around a sugar cane mill, Rojas and his wife share a dirt-floor, aluminum shack with their 7-year-old son, Gregorio. The boy doesn't go to school because there are none nearby.
They have neither water nor sewage service. Dirty dishes are piled on a kitchen table. Burned garbage litters the yard.
When a reporter visited, the family hadn't had power for a week. They siphon it off a nearby transformer, bare wires hanging jury-rigged on poles.
"You should see the lines throw off sparks when the poles get wet," said Rojas' wife, Carmen. She worries for the safety of Gregorio and the other children.
Despite their plight, almost everyone in the 200-family settlement is a Chavista, and plans to vote for Maduro.
Rojas said he voted for Chavez in every election but now he's disappointed — and undecided.
"What's certain is that we've been left with nothing."
Associated Press writer James Anderson in Maracay, Venezuela, contributed to this report.
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