Darkness has blanketed Venezuela since yesterday afternoon. Even before the lights went out yesterday, the Opec country was already struggling to keep its oil flowing.
To write about the impact of Venezuela´s biblical blackout on its oil wells, pipelines and refineries seems callous right now. At 19 hours and counting, the nationwide loss of power has unplugged infant incubators, refrigerators holding food and medicine and air conditioners fending off oppressive heat. Millions of Venezuelans abroad are desperately trying to reach family left behind.
But the oil industry is on life-support too. Even before darkness blanketed the country yesterday afternoon, oil production, refining and exports were already pummeled by a lack of investment, maintenance and spare parts, labor flight, corruption, chronic accidents and –most recently – US oil sanctions. National oil company PdV lost much of its independent power supply years ago, so without a functioning electricity grid, the company´s operations are deeply impacted. No one knows yet by how much, because communications inside Venezuela are barely functioning either.
It´s tempting to interpret this catastrophic event as a catalyst for ending the country´s political standoff between Nicolas Maduro, the autocratic president who is no longer recognized by most Western countries, and Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader whom these countries recognize as interim president. Maybe it will be.
But in the meantime, both sides are politicizing the tragedy. Maduro and his close associates say the blackout is a “US imperialist attack”. Guaidó says the lights will come back on after Maduro is gone.
Neither one is true. Apart from sanctions and a foiled aid campaign, Washington is mostly cheering on Venezuela´s opposition from the sidelines and is resisting diaspora lobbying for military intervention. On the other side, the opposition runs the risk of raising false expectations. It will take many years to rebuild Venezuela´s gutted infrastructure, as Iraq´s choppy reconstruction experience shows. Power is just one of a multitude of public services that no longer function in Venezuela. Billions of dollars in aid and loans will be needed to restore them. Even the promise of free elections cannot be fulfilled if there is no steady light to count the ballots.
Which brings us back to oil. Venezuela needs to recover oil production and exports to pay to rebuild everything that has been lost in the two decades of Bolivarian rule. That may be the easy part. As prominent Venezuelan exiles said this week, the struggle to remove Maduro pales in comparison to what lies ahead, less in terms of infrastructure than in the long process of political healing. That´s when the darkness will finally lift.