Caracas and other major Venezuelan cities hit by new blackout

by Esteban ROJAS

A new blackout hit Caracas and other major Venezuelan cities on Friday, the third major electricity outage in the crisis-plagued country this month. The blackout began around 7:10 pm (2310 GMT), leaving the capital as well as cities including Maracaibo, Valencia, Maracay and San Cristobal without electricity, according to users on social media networks. It is the third time since March 7 that a major power outage has hit Venezuela -- worsening the already-dire economic and living conditions in a country that is witnessing a major political showdown between President Nicolas Maduro and opposition chief Juan Guaido. Maduro has blamed the previous outages on sabotage, but experts have said that infrastructure crumbling from years of neglect is a more likely culprit than outside interference. Earlier on Friday, the Red Cross said it would begin impartially distributing aid in Venezuela in two weeks, brushing aside the threat of political interference amid the Maduro-Guaido power struggle. Malnutrition and disease are on the rise as living conditions plummet in the oil-producing Latin American nation, which is spiraling ever deeper into economic chaos during a protracted political crisis. "We estimate that in a period of approximately 15 days we will be ready to offer help," said Francesco Rocca, head of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. The United States -- which considers Guaido interim president along with some 50 other countries -- welcomed the announcement as a "real opportunity." Rocca told reporters in Caracas the organization would begin distributing aid mid-April, including tons of mostly US food and medical supplies that Maduro has to date refused to allow into the country -- leaving it stockpiled for weeks on the borders with Colombia and Brazil. The Red Cross -- aiming to reach 650,000 people initially -- would act according to its principles of "impartiality, neutrality and independence," he said, "without accepting interference from anyone." - 'Victory over sanctions' - Meanwhile, in a boost to Maduro, a Chinese plane loaded with 65 tons of medical aid landed in Caracas on Friday. His government celebrated it as a victory over US sanctions, which the socialist leader blames for the economic crisis. Though unpopular, Maduro has the upper hand at home, thanks to loyalty from his military chiefs and, since last weekend, the presence of 100 Russian troops. The Russian deployment to Venezuela has drawn fire from Washington, but Caracas' defense minister said Friday that "no one should be alarmed" by their presence. "We are overcoming the purported siege, the blockade, which has been undertaken by President Trump and the diabolical puppet from here in Venezuela," said vice-president Tareck El Aissami, referring to Guaido. El Aissami, on the tarmac to meet the Chinese plane, said the medical supplies were the "first cargo of several that start from this moment." It includes analgesics, surgical equipment and medicine for diseases such as diabetes. China's ambassador Li Baorong said the delivery was part of previous "cooperation agreements" with Venezuela. Speaking at a news conference in Caracas, Rocca said agreements had been put in place to guarantee aid distribution, but declined to give details. In Washington, Elliott Abrams, the envoy heading the US effort to oust Maduro, praised the Red Cross initiative and credited appeals by Guaido. "This looks like a real opportunity, and we think that it is a response to the efforts that interim President Guaido has been making," Abrams told reporters in Washington. "So it's very welcome, we hope it works, and -- assuming that it does, which we do -- the United States would be happy to put some of our aid into this method of reaching the Venezuelan people," he said. Maduro ordered the border closed to keep out the aid, thwarting a high-profile February 23 operation orchestrated by Guaido to bring badly needed food and medical supplies into the country where the UN says seven million people are in dire need. At least seven people were killed and dozens injured in subsequent rioting at the border. - Seven million in dire need - The socialist leader said aid would be a precursor to a US military incursion. "That was an issue that was very politicized," said Rocca. "If that help complies with our rules and our protocols, of course we are willing to distribute it." About 24 percent of Venezuela's population -- seven million people -- are in dire need of humanitarian aid, according to an internal UN report that showed malnutrition and disease were on the rise as living conditions plummet. Abrams nonetheless said the Red Cross assistance was no substitute for toppling Maduro. "The kind of aid that is needed for a broad recovery of the Venezuelan economy really cannot be put in place until the regime is replaced by democratic government," Abrams said. Drivers try to move along a pitch-dark, congested street during a new power outage in Caracas on March 29, 2019 The head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) Francesco Rocca (L), speaks during a press conference in Caracas, on March 29, 2019 Workers unload medicines and disposable medical supplies from a Chinese 747 cargo plane after it landed at Simon Bolivar International Airport on March 29, 2019