Chavez declares 'electricity emergency' in Venezuela

Tue Feb 9, 2010 12:08am GMT

* Power cuts weigh on Chavez's popularity

* Conservation measures not enough

* President starts new radio show called "Suddenly Chavez"

By Patricia Rondon

CARACAS, Feb 8 (Reuters) - President Hugo Chavez inaugurated a folksy new radio talk-show on Monday by declaring an "electricity emergency" in oil-rich Venezuela.

Despite its huge crude reserves, the South American OPEC member relies on hydro-electricity for 70 percent of its power needs, and a drought has hit supply since late 2009.

"We are ready to decree the electricity emergency, because it really is an emergency," Chavez said in the first edition of a show on state radio air waves called "Suddenly Chavez."

With electricity cuts weighing on Chavez's popularity ahead of important legislative elections in September, the government blames the shortages on the drought and soaring demand during five years of economic growth until 2008.

But critics say poor management and under-investment have undermined the power grid and exposed the failings of Chavez's "21st century socialism" policies during his 11-year rule.

Analysts say power cuts have played a big part -- along with water shortages and high crime levels -- in cutting Chavez's popularity levels from more than 60 percent a year ago to around 50 percent now.

A formal decree of emergency would enable the government to speed up moves to confront the power crisis, which range from stricter rationing and more thermoelectric generation, to the "seeding" of clouds in an attempt to produce rain.

"I call on the whole country: 'Switch off the lights.' We are facing the worst drought Venezuela has had in almost 100 years," Chavez said in what appeared to be a new radio version of his long-running "Hello Mr. President" TV show on Sundays.

HARP SOUND MEANS CHAVEZ

Chavez said the program would always be preceded by the sound of a harp playing local folk-music. "When you hear the pluck of a harp on the radio, maybe Chavez is coming. It's suddenly, at any time, maybe midnight, maybe early morning."

While provincial cities and villages are without light for hours at a time since rolling blackouts began in January, an attempt to ration electricity in the capital Caracas last month caused chaos and protests, forcing Chavez to suspend it.

Given the desperate situation, though, the government may try again in Caracas soon.

Energy Minister Ali Rodriguez, appointed after the previous minister was fired over the power crisis, said over the weekend that the country had achieved only a four percent cut in energy use in recent weeks, despite aiming for 20 percent.

A report by Edelca, one of the companies that form part of state-run power firm Corpoelec, has predicted the closure of the El Guri reservoir, which provides 44 percent of national demand, if the drought continues during 2010 and levels of consumption are not drastically reduced.

Electricity demand has increased by 38 percent since 2003 to an average of 14,100 megawatts in 2009. The government calculates the current deficit as 1,600 megawatts.

As well as stirring up local politics, the power-cuts are an obstacle to Venezuela's recovery from recession after the economy shrank 2.9 percent in 2009. Major oil sites have their own generators, so remain relatively unaffected.

(Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Will Dunham)

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