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World News

Venezuelans sweating over order to cut power use

CARACAS (Reuters) - Adrian Freites mops his forehead as steam rises from the pressing irons behind him in his sweltering Caracas dry-cleaning shop.

Like others in homes and businesses in the Caribbean city, he has switched off the air-conditioning to save electricity and avoid punishment by the government, despite a heat wave.

Venezuela is undergoing its worst-ever power crisis, prompting President Hugo Chavez to declare the nation “in emergency,” impose drastic rationing, and penalize those who fail to cut consumption by 20 percent.

“Our orders have fallen to less than half,” Freites said, explaining that since drying machines can only be used for full loads, he has had to cancel “express” service.

All round Caracas, people are suddenly doing whatever they can to get electricity use down: housewives wash dishes by hand instead of using dishwashers; people work out in gyms without air-conditioning, and some shops close one day a week.

The government is sending home state employees for the day from lunchtime, rationing energy around the South American nation, and doling out millions of energy-efficient light bulbs.

Chavez says the drastic steps are needed to prevent collapse of the oil-producing nation’s grid, which relies on hydroelectric dams for more than two-thirds of its power.

In the Venezuelan capital, where an initial plan to impose rationing by zone was cancelled after a day of chaos, the government has said it will fine or even cut off consumers who use too much power.

At Freites’ “Clean & Clean” shop in the upmarket Los Palos Grandes neighbourhood, a poster has already been stuck on the door to shame its operator for using too much electricity.

“They told us we were over by 0.05 percent,” Freites said.

Fully 65 percent of Caracas businesses have failed to make the required cutbacks, according to government statistics.

The poster warns that a second offense will cause businesses to lose power for 24 hours, while repeat offenders will be disconnected -- a threat that has compelled some to close temporarily.

‘IN THIS TOGETHER’

Manager Gustavo Gonzalez shut the Galerias Avila shopping centre for a day last week in an effort to meet the quota.

“It’s hard on the store owners but in the end we all know we are facing a crisis and unfortunately, whoever may be to blame, we are all in this together,” he said.

The mall’s management team also uses an emergency generator for some lighting in public areas, has switched off down-escalators and turned air conditioning to minimal levels.

“One inconvenience we have is that we’re a new shopping centre already with efficient technology, which has hindered our attempts to get usage down further,” Gonzalez said.

Some are angry that the government based its standard for reductions on last year’s Carnival week, a time when many head out of the city and consumption is unusually low.

Private business leaders say the electricity cuts and shutdowns will diminish national production and prevent the economy from coming out of recession this year.

While the government blames the El Nino weather phenomenon for causing a drought that has cut hydroelectric capacity, some critics blame Chavez for lack of investment in the sector.

One positive spinoff is that Venezuelans are finally becoming environmentally conscious.

“It’s only now that we have this crisis that people are accepting the bulbs,” said state electricity worker Gustavo Muir y Teran, who is helping hand out energy-saving bulbs.

Scores of soldiers have been working their way through Caracas neighbourhoods, swapping traditional incandescent bulbs for new compact fluorescent ones imported from China.

“It’s good,” said Frank Vargas, 38, who runs a photocopier repair business from his home, as soldiers scoured the building for bulbs to exchange. “But they could have started doing all this more than a year ago.”

Like many increasingly energy-conscious citizens, he and his partner only keep one light and the TV on at night.

Even if the rains come and replenish the reservoirs, the crisis will have taken its toll on many Venezuelans.

Alexandro Alberto, owner of the Anas Capelde beauty salon, has cut one shift so he can close three hours earlier. “I had to let four of my hairdressers go,” he said.

Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Eric Walsh

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