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article imageTop Venezuela court tightens noose on opposition chief Guaido

By Margioni BERMÚDEZ (AFP)     Mar 31, 2019 in World

Venezuela's Supreme Court called Monday for Juan Guaido to be stripped of his legislative immunity, tightening the noose on the opposition chief just days after authorities announced a ban on him holding public office.

Guaido -- recognized as Venezuela's interim president by some 50 countries -- is locked in a power struggle with President Nicolas Maduro that has drawn in neighboring states as well as superpowers such as the US and Russia.

As the political battle plays out, the country has been hit by a series of devastating blackouts that have left millions without water, prompting the government to replace the country's energy minister and institute power rationing in a bid to address the outages.

The decision by the Supreme Court -- which is controlled by Maduro loyalists -- to call on the ruling Constituent Assembly legislature to strip Guaido of his immunity could open the way for the opposition chief to be prosecuted.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has replaced his energy minister in the wake of repeated power o...
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has replaced his energy minister in the wake of repeated power outages
HO, Venezuelan Presidency/AFP

The court ruling cited Guaido's violation of a ban on his travel outside Venezuela when he visited Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Paraguay from late February to early March.

The move came after Venezuela's auditor general's office announced Thursday that it had stripped Guaido of the right to hold public office for 15 years, a decision he rejected as invalid.

Three major blackouts hit Venezuela in March, worsening already dire living and economic conditions in the country, and prompting authorities to take steps aimed at curbing the outages.

Maduro -- whose government has blamed "terrorists" for alleged attacks that have damaged the country's main hydroelectric power plant -- announced that he was Igor Gavidia Leon to replace retired general Luis Motta Dominguez as energy minister.

The new minister "is an electrical industry worker with 25 years of experience, an engineer who had many responsibilities," Maduro said.

- Electricity rationing -

People draw water from a spring water tank to be used in their toilets in Caracas
People draw water from a spring water tank to be used in their toilets in Caracas
Federico Parra, AFP

On Sunday, Maduro announced 30 days of electricity rationing, after his government said it was shortening the workday and keeping schools closed due to blackouts.

The measures are a stark admission by the government that there is not enough electricity to go around, and that the power crisis is here to stay.

With no electricity, pumping stations can't work, so water service is limited.

Street lights and traffic lights go dark, pumps at fuel stations stand idle, and cell phone and internet service is non-existent.

But people try to find water wherever they can: from springs, leaky pipes, gutters, government-provided tankers and the little that flows through the Guiare River in Caracas.

"We fill up from a well near here but we don't know if its drinkable. But we're using it," said Erimar Vale, who lives in the capital.

Angel Velazquez said he bathed at work because he did not have water at home.

- 'Brain drain' -

People walk along a dark street during a power outage in Caracas  on March 30  2019
People walk along a dark street during a power outage in Caracas, on March 30, 2019
CRISTIAN HERNANDEZ, AFP/File

Crippled infrastructure, little investment in the power grid and poor maintenance have all contributed to the country's electricity woes.

A "brain drain" of qualified personnel has also hit the industry, with about 25,000 people in the electricity sector among the 2.7 million Venezuelans who have emigrated since 2015.

Guaido has asked his supporters to protest each time there is a blackout.

"This is going to continue. The situation is very serious, there will be more blackouts and rationing," said Winton Cabas, president of the Venezuelan Association of Electrical and Mechanical Engineering.

Jose Aguilar, a Venezuelan consultant living in the United States, said the problems with the power grid run deep.

"Over the past 20 years, the infrastructure has been abused due to a lack of maintenance and the postponing of upgrade plans," he told AFP.

Another problem was the "de-professionalization" of the sector when Chavez nationalized the power company in 2007 -- a move that led to pro-government loyalists taking positions as managers and engineers.

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