* 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 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)