World

Venezuela orders long weekends to stave off power crisis

Public employees in Venezuela will take long weekends under the government's latest bid to ease a nationwide power crisis.

60 days days of 4-day workweeks aimed at reducing electricity consumption by 20 per cent

Venezuelan President Nicolas Madurohas ordered state workers to take Fridays off for the next 60 days to cut back on the country's electricity use. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

Public employees in Venezuela will take long weekends under the government's latest bid to ease a nationwide power crisis.

President Nicolas Maduro announced late Wednesday that he would sign a decree giving state workers a Friday furlough for 60 days. Together with other measures, he hopes to reduce electricity consumption by at least 20 per cent.

Officials have been warning for weeks that the water level behind the nation's largest dam has fallen to near its minimum operating level.

Almost 70 per cent of the South American country's electricity comes from the Guri Dam, which holds back the Caroni River in the southeastern state of Bolivar. If water levels fall too low, the government will have to shut down the dam entirely, crippling electricity supply.

Maduro's socialist administration blames the crisis on a drought caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon and repeated acts of sabotage by its opponents. But experts say rationing could have been prevented had the government invested in maintenance and in the construction of thermoelectric plants.

Venezuela has grappled with blackouts for years, including one that took President Nicolas Maduro by surprise as he delivered a national address on live television. Caracas occasionally shuts down because of citywide losses of power and some rural areas are living mostly in the dark.

Maduro's predecessor, president Hugo Chavez, promised to solve the problem in 2010, but little has improved.

Act of desperation 

Critics ridiculed the long weekend decree, saying it was an act of desperation and would do little to solve the energy crunch, as workers will simply go home and turn on the lights and air conditioning. Electricity here is virtually free, giving Venezuelans little incentive to conserve.

"The geniuses at the presidential palace are increasing days off to resolve the electricity chaos. To really solve the problem, clearly you have to increase them to 365 days a year," tweeted Henry Ramos, leader of the country's opposition-controlled Congress.

Some public workers greeted the news with muted excitement, while others complained that the day off wouldn't even give them a chance to hunt down scarce grocery staples, since the government only allows people to shop one day a week at state-run supermarkets, with the day pre-determined by ID number.

The country has seen a bit of rain in recent days, but not enough to signal the end of the dry season.

President urges women to stop blowdrying hair

It's unclear how the move will affect institutions like schools and hospitals. Maduro said the decree applies to all public workers who can be furloughed without affecting production.

Maduro gave workers a full week off in March to save electricity and in February cut the hours of more than 100 malls across the country.

On Wednesday, he urged Venezuelans to make small changes to their routines, including turning off the air conditioners in the tropical heat, and using clotheslines rather than driers. He also urged Venezuelan women to stop blowing out their hair.

"I always think a woman looks better when she just runs her fingers through her hair and lets it dry naturally," he said. "It's just an idea I have."

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