Fridges go off as Venezuela power-rationing hits

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Caracas (AFP) - Fridges zapped off in kitchens across Venezuela as the government turned off the electricity supply to help ease a power shortage that is worsening the country's economic crisis.

It is the latest drastic measure by the government in a crisis that already has Venezuelans queuing for hours to buy scarce supplies in shops.

The government imposed a four-hour blackout in eight states starting Monday and said the measure will last 40 days. The states of Caracas and Vargas had also been on the list for blackouts but were spared at the last minute.

The timing of the switch-off caught Pedro Tarazona by surprise at his shop in the town of Santa Teresa del Tuy southeast of Caracas.

The fridge was full of meat when it suddenly stopped working. So did the electric fan.

The machine for processing bank card payments wouldn't work either without power, so at least two customers left without buying anything.

President Nicolas Maduro's government blames the power shortage on a drought caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon, which has caused the country's hydroelectric dams to run low.

Critics, however, say it is the result of economic mismanagement and inefficient running of the energy network.

Maduro is under growing pressure from the center-right opposition, which vowed to oust him when it took control of the legislature in January after winning a landslide election victory.

- Broken mincer -

Venezuela's economy has plunged along with the price of the oil it relies on for foreign revenues. Citizens are suffering shortages of medicines and goods such as toilet paper and cooking oil.

Maduro blames the collapse on an "economic war" by capitalists.

Last week, his government said it was shifting its time zone forward by 30 minutes to save power by adding half an hour of daylight.

Maduro has even urged Venezuelan women to stop using their hairdryers.

Other measures include giving government workers an extra day off each week for the next two months.

He has cut the workday for ministries and state companies and ordered them to lower their electricity consumption, along with shops and hotels.

Analysts warn the measures will further damage productivity.

Research group Capital Economics calculated the power crisis could further cut economic growth this year by about 1.5 percent, deepening the contraction to as much as 10 percent.

Power cuts are a particular hazard for businesses because the sudden power surge when the current is restored burns out the resistors on electrical appliances.

Tarazona said he has already lost a fridge and an electric mincer that way. He can no longer make sausages.

"We tradespeople suffer from this because the equipment and the merchandise gets damaged," he said.

Sonia Sotillo, a 39-year-old seamstress, said that the power cuts will oblige her to get up earlier to get work done in time for her customers.

"I will have to work hard at night. I hope sleep doesn't get to me," she said, after spending several hours queuing for groceries.

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