TL;DR: Letters from Venezuela is an exclusive CoinSpice series, and inside look from a reporter on the ground, documenting the South American nation’s last stand among sanctions, political unrest, international condemnation and concern, economic collapse, and the spectre of cryptocurrency possibly demonstrating its main use case. This installment, we examine the impact from a 48 hour near-nationwide power outage on communication, connectivity, and payment systems.
Venezuela Goes Dark for 48 Hours
A blackout of more than 48 hours has hit most of the country with disastrous results. Reports of consequences include hospitals unable to treat many patients, while basic services such as internet usage was blocked and payment systems tied to the central grid went offline. Estimates are hard to pin down, but hundreds across the country are believed to be dead as a result.
The sorry state of communications in the country makes it difficult to access information sources for this reporter based in the country, but people here have turned to social media networks sporadically to offer their own observations about what is happening in the country. One of the most interesting investigations has been made by the local outlet El Pitazo, where it found out several children have died due to the effects of power outages in a hospital of the capital city, Caracas. In another instance, a malnourished child died in his mother arms because the hospital was not able to take care of him due to the blackout.
LAMENTABLE! Una mujer ingresó a su hija muerta, en sus brazos, a la morgue de Valencia. Tenía desnutrición crónica. Se complicó y al llevarla al CDI de Trapichito no la pudieron atender por falta de servicio eléctrico. Vía @Heberlizeth pic.twitter.com/bfxSRYEANe
— Sergio Novelli (@SergioNovelli) March 10, 2019
However, even with this outcome, the causes of the blackout have not been disclosed clearly by the Venezuelan government, whose only statement puts the blame on the United States government for the power outage. Minister of Communication, Jorge Rodriguez, stated the automatized control system of Guri, the most important hydroelectric dam in the country, was attacked by order of US Senator Marco Rubio and State Secretary Mike Pompeo. Both quickly dismissed this info by offering a swift, mocking rebuttal via Twitter.
The power outage and the devastation hurting ordinary Venezuelans is not because of the USA. It’s not because of Colombia. It’s not Ecuador or Brazil, Europe or anywhere else. Power shortages and starvation are the result of the Maduro regime’s incompetence.
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) March 8, 2019
My apologies to people of Venezuela. I must have pressed the wrong thing on the “electronic attack” app I downloaded from Apple. My bad. https://t.co/5oZURMSnrB
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) March 8, 2019
Maduro, the contested president, during a rally with supporters attributed service interruptions to outsider attacks on the Venezuelan power grid. He declared “electromagnetic and cyber attacks directed from abroad by The Empire,” encouraged by the US’s “right wing, together with The Empire.”
Riots spread throughout some parts of the country in response. Several reports claim food has been decomposing due to the lack of electrical power to turn on refrigerators (and there is little hope spoiled supplies can be replaced soon). Centralized payment systems have been down during outages, and banks have not been able to restore services nationwide. It could be an opening for more Venezuelans to employ cryptocurrencies, as they’ve remained more reliable for those familiar with the technology.
The few businesses that are open, operating with their own power sources, are not accepting payments with debit or credit cards, and are only taking cash in bolivares or dollars due to the problems bank networks are facing. In Caracas, dozens of people line up to buy bread and groceries in the few stores that remain open.
10:52am #Miranda | Negocios cerrados en Los Teques luego de más de dos días sin energía eléctrica. Los que están abiertos piden pagar en efectivo #10Mar – vía @polita26 https://t.co/OIOOyz3QWJ pic.twitter.com/jfpgqOu5x0
— El Pitazo (@ElPitazoTV) March 10, 2019
Internet Infrastructure and Censorship
To control the narrative and blame, there is also an information blackout. The blackout hit the telecommunications backbone of major ISP and cell carriers, whose stations are not prepared for such a big contingency. As a result, Netblocks reported an almost total internet interruption during the 48 period, noting the weakness of the Venezuelan internet infrastructure.
More than 95% of internet connected computers were disconnected during the first blackout, which lasted approximately 17 hours. The blackout effected almost all networks, with some managing to stay online due to power generators, but that could last so long.
Update: #Venezuela has been without power for 17 hours; new connectivity charts show some of the last remaining networks falling offline with generators and backups depleting and cell towers shutting downhttps://t.co/W3eqPWQUPz pic.twitter.com/PBhjfwtnx8
— NetBlocks.org (@netblocks) March 8, 2019
When connectivity was showing a sharp increase back to normal levels, another blackout happened, knocking down most of the networks that had their backup electric reserve depleted due to the first blackout. Netblocks estimations showed 96% of the country was offline.
Update: New data shows profound and sustained impact on #Venezuela's telecommunications infrastructure after second nationwide power outage with 96% of country remaining offline #SinLuz #ApagonNacional #9Mar ⬇️https://t.co/U2wV1aJihu pic.twitter.com/ejO8wsMto2
— NetBlocks.org (@netblocks) March 9, 2019
The writing of this article was interrupted three times due to power issues. At the time of publication, communications are still spotty, with reports of many regions still without cellular or landline coverage, and many people trying to get ahold of their family from outside the country without success.
Venezuela is one of the countries with a large diaspora, and especially because their citizens have abandoned the country to seek better living conditions, moving to neighboring countries like Colombia, Peru, Chile, and Ecuador. The angst of not knowing about their loved ones and friends is also being felt in other countries.
This has been the biggest power and communication blackout in the country’s history, and at the very least has revealed infrastructure gaps and weaknesses. The situation is still critical, and despite reports of partial power recovery in some areas, the truth is that Venezuelans are still at grave risk.
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