First it was the three-day weekend; now it’s the two-day working week. Crippled by drought, Venezuela’s government has taken drastic measures as water levels at the country’s largest hydroelectric dam plunge to critical levels.
At the beginning of April, the Socialist president, Nicolás Maduro, decreed Fridays non-working days for public sector staff, and on Monday the government announced four-hour power outages nationwide.
Maduro followed on Tuesday with news that government offices would function only on Mondays and Tuesdays for at least two weeks in an attempt to save energy in the oil-rich but cash-strapped country.
Local media reported that protests and looting broke out late on Tuesday in and around the capital, Caracas, and the country’s second largest city, Maracaibo, as people demonstrated against the blackouts and continued shortage of food and medicine.
The speaker of the opposition-controlled national assembly, Henry Ramos Allup, called the cut to the working week a “decree for vagrancy”.
Venezuelans have reacted with disbelief at the measures, although staff have been assured they will be paid for the days they are sent home.
The government blames the energy crisis on a prolonged drought caused by the El Niño weather phenomenon, but critics say mismanagement and a lack of maintenance at the Guri dam, which provides two-thirds of all Venezuela’s electricity, has exacerbated the situation.
But they are only the latest of the country’s chronic problems. Venezuelans face food and medicine shortages, one of the world’s highest murder rates, and sky-high inflation that is expected to reach 500% this year.
Banknotes are also in short supply, according to a report by Bloomberg. After scrambling to print new bills to keep up with inflation, the government has fallen behind on its payments to currency-printing companies, which in turn are turning down new orders.
Amid the chaos, the elections council on Tuesday agreed to allow opposition leaders to collect signatures from voters to try to force a recall referendum to remove the president from office halfway through his six-year term.
“Today we took a first step to begin the recall of Maduro,” tweeted the opposition’s deputy, Elias Matta. “We, the people, support change. There is no way to stop it.”
The opposition, which won control of the parliament in December elections, has been collecting the nearly 200,000 signatures it needs to trigger the next stage towards the referendum. It has 30 days to collect the signatures but the opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, says it will take only hours. “We can’t waste time,” he said.
Removing Maduro from office will not be easy. If the opposition were to collect 200,000 signatures, or 1% of the electorate, it would then need to garner 4m signatures in a further petition for a referendum.
If the vote were held, the president would be removed only if the anti-Maduro votes exceeded the 7.6m votes he received in the 2013 election. In December’s parliamentary polls, opposition candidates mustered only 7.7m votes, even though they won control of the legislature by a landslide.