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Sabotage claims doubted in blackout in Venezuelan capital

| Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, 8:48 p.m.

CARACAS — Venezuelans expressed skepticism on Wednesday about President Nicolas Maduro's claims that saboteurs caused a blackout that knocked out electricity in about 70 percent of the country, setting off chaos in Caracas by interrupting subway service and snarling traffic.

For many, no explanation was necessary: Government neglect and incompetence are to blame for blackouts that have plagued Venezuela for years while rarely affecting the capital.

“I don't believe this tale about sabotage. We all know who is to blame,” said Adriana Montoya, a housewife who said she was stuck for hours in traffic that jammed up as traffic lights went dark and subway service halted in Caracas, which lost power for five hours on Tuesday.

Others complained of being stuck in trains in darkened subway tunnels before being evacuated to safety.

Blackouts are frequent in many of Venezuela's states, but few outages have affected Caracas in recent years.

Demands flooded Twitter calling for the resignation of Electrical Energy Minister Jesse Chacon, who vowed after being named to the post in April to revamp the power grid.

Chacon said the blackout stemmed from problems with transmission lines in the Bajo Caroni region, where 60 percent of Venezuela's power is generated by hydroelectric plants. Fourteen of 23 states lost power for much of Tuesday.

Maduro claimed sabotage by “the extreme right wing” was the cause, but did not present any evidence.

“We are facing a low-level conflict that seeks a high impact on society and politics,” he said.

Even before Maduro's announcement, top opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez poked fun at officials who have claimed in the past that thunderstorms or iguanas climbing on power lines caused blackouts.

“We already know what you are going to say: That it was an iguana, a lightning bolt or sabotage,” he tweeted.

During the campaign leading up to an April presidential election that Maduro narrowly won, Venezuela was hit by numerous power outages. That prompted Maduro to accuse his political adversaries of resorting to sabotage as a means of hurting his chances for a victory. The late President Hugo Chavez blamed blackouts on sabotage, and like Maduro presented no evidence.

Chacon said authorities were investigating Tuesday's failure.

But Venezuelans held out little hope of getting the real story.

After a severe drought in 2010 that affected hydropower generation, the government stopped publishing information about its electrical generation and distribution, said Jose Aguilar, an industry consultant who had worked with the government until then.

Aguilar said he expects more blackouts in the future because state utilities have focused on increasing power generation but have not sufficiently maintained transmission lines.

He called maintenance problems “the Achilles heel” of Venezuela's state-run power companies.

Victor Poleo, an expert who closely tracks Venezuela's grid problems, also said state-run power companies have not modernized power lines as a means of boosting transmission capacity.

“They have attempted to send more electricity through the lines that don't have any more capacity,” Poleo told Union Radio, a local broadcaster.

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