Race against time in blackout-hit Venezuela to save food stocks

Caracas (AFP) –


Vicente Fernandez has not opened his freezer since the massive blackout began in Venezuela on Thursday. He wants to try to save everything that's in there, but he's starting to worry.

"I'm afraid it has all gone bad," says Fernandez, a 54-year-old who sells telecoms equipment.

Venezuelans, already feeling the pinch due to food and medicine shortages, are suffering even more now that the power has gone down.

Though it slowly came back online in some areas late Sunday, service was patchy and power often lasted just a few hours before dropping out again.

Many homes and businesses still had no electricity on Monday, and resilient residents launched into a race against the clock to save whatever supplies they could.

"I haven't had even one minute of power at my house," said Fernandez, who was planning on "a diet of green bananas" at the Chacao market, which was shrouded in semi-darkness.

Its butcher shops, fishmongers and dairy vendors were closed, because they had no way to refrigerate their wares.

Fernandez decided to buy only the bare minimum that he needed to get by.

Aggravating factor: sellers were only taking cash, either in dollars or bolivars -- a rare sight in a country used to digital payments, given the scarcity of hard currency.

After convincing one vendor that he would transfer him some money, Fernandez said: "They should send in the cavalry, already!" -- meaning he was hoping the US would put boots on the ground to force President Nicolas Maduro out of office.

Food is growing scarce in oil-rich, cash-poor Venezuela, especially when the average monthly salary can barely pay for two chickens.

"Nowadays, no matter what the price, we have to eat. And get ourselves out of this hell. This government is useless. They stole the money that should have been used to maintain our infrastructure," says Fernandez.

- 'Survival strategy' -

Maduro, who has blamed the blackout on US "sabotage" of the country's main hydroelectric complex, said a massive amount of food aid, water and fuel would be distributed on Monday.

He ordered that hospitals -- where patients were languishing without proper treatment, and where at least 15 people reportedly died due to a lack of kidney dialysis treatment -- should be given top priority.

The government has denied any hospital deaths related to the blackout.

At another market in Caracas, Libia Arraiz -- seated at her restaurant -- says she hopes not to lose the perishables she has. But if the power does not come back on Monday, it will be too late.

She will have to throw out a week's worth of meat and fish.

"Oh my god ... I will either have to give it all away, or divvy it up among my family members. Selling it will be impossible," a tearful Arraiz told AFP.

For now, she is preparing communal lunches: whoever wants to take part brings what they have and she cooks it up.

"Survival strategy," the 60-something woman explains.

"This is the work of dark forces working in the shadows," she says. "People on the side of the opposition say this is what we need for them to be able to take power, but everyone is suffering."

Arraiz believes that opposition leader and self-declared interim president Juan Guaido, who has been recognized by more than 50 countries as Venezuela's rightful leader, is behind the blackout.

"He says the worst is yet to come, that there will be more surprises ... these people have no conscience, they are terrorists," she says.

- Rotten meat -

At the butcher shop where Henry Sosa works, there is a giant surprise -- an 80-kilo (175-pound) pig. He's going to bring it home to the Guarenas neighborhood in Caracas, where the power is back on -- sporadically.

While he loads up the animal, he says he has lost half his merchandise.

"It's not even good enough to give away -- who will eat this rotten meat!" Sosa says.

For some, the blackout is a good time to make deals.

In the El Cafetal neighborhood, someone is selling small bags of ice from the back of a truck for three dollars each.

Maria Ribas is among those who are paying in cash sent to them by relatives who have fled the country and are living abroad.

According to UN figures, some 2.7 million Venezuelans have left since 2015, when the economic crisis started to spiral out of control.

Nearby, Maria Mendoza is hurrying to sell papayas and watermelons that she'll otherwise soon need to give away. Eventually, she cuts her price, knowing time is running out.

"At least I won't lose my entire investment," she says with a sigh, railing against "sabotage and the US embargo."

With her bag of ice in hand, Ribas talks about the sacrifices everyone is forced to make in Venezuela these days.

"It's like the Middle Ages," she says.