Power shortages dim Chavez's reelection hopes

By Daniel Kerner

Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez faces the real possibility that he may lose the 2012 presidential election after more than a decade in office, in part because of his administration's failure to ensure adequate power supplies. Venezuela was forced to implement strict rationing in 2010, which thwarted the country's economic recovery. But while last year's problems were caused mostly by shortfalls in rain that stressed hydropower reservoirs, the problems are now the result of the government's failure to meaningfully address capacity and transmission problems.

The recent measures to address the situation are unlikely to solve the sector's problems. On June 13, the government announced it will offer up to 50% reduction in rates to households who reduce their consumption by up to 20%, but will also fine consumers 200% of their bill if they increase consumption by over 20% from a 2009 baseline. In addition, commercial users have been asked to install their own generating capacity, and face surcharges or electricity cuts if they do not. Finally, illuminated billboards will be shut off after midnight. The measures could contain demand, but do not address the fact that the system cannot meet peak demand.

The government has promised to increase generation capacity, the only real solution to the current structural problems. But it is unlikely to deliver given financial and logistical challenges, and Venezuela will still face transmission bottlenecks. The country is estimated to have around 24,000 MW of installed capacity; effective capacity, however, is around 17,000 MW. The government claims it installed 1,250 MW of new capacity in 2010 and will install an additional 2,568 MW in 2011, but the data's reliability is suspect -- the government stopped publishing data on Venezuela's power system last year, a tacit admission that the problems are severe. The government has also promised to invest some $21 billion in the sector over the next several years, but a long list of spending commitments and the government's proven inability to manage the electricity sector means these promises are hard to take seriously.

The shortages are likely to have a dramatic impact on an economy that is only now slowly recovering -- it grew by 4.5% in the first quarter, the first positive figure in a year and a half. Similar measures in 2009 and 2010 helped cut industrial activity by 6.4% in 2009 and 3.4% in 2010. Energy saving measures could limit industrial production, and blackouts could disrupt oil output.

Higher energy prices and electricity shortages, however, pose a serious political liability for Chávez's hopes of reelection, especially if they affect economic growth. In 2009, power shortages helped reduce his approval ratings from 61% to around 50%. A variety of opinion polls show that Chávez has lost support. The government has done its best to protect Caracas from the power shortages as a means of avoiding the political costs. But the state of Zulia, which recently suffered a day-long blackout, is home to the country's second largest city, Maracaibo.

Chávez will still likely have an edge over the opposition, however. He does have a strong group of core supports among the rural poor who are over represented in the legislature and he is gearing up to expand debt-fueled spending on social programs. But the election is shaping up to be the tightest of his decade-long run as president and Chávez is more vulnerable than ever before to economic and social problems.

Daniel Kerner is an analyst in Eurasia Group’s Latin America practice