Venezuela’s power grid disabled by cyber attack

A cyber attack on Venezuela's main electricty generator affected 70% of the country.

An electricity blackout has affected most of Venezuela for several days after an alleged cyber attack crashed the country’s main electricity generator, the Simon Bolivar Hydroelectric Plant in Bolivar State, commonly known as the Guri Dam.

Starting around 5pm on March 7, the outage affected 70% of the country, with only several eastern states unaffected. By the morning of March 9, power had been restored to most of Caracas and to central states such as Miranda, Aragua and Carabobo, when a second major outage took place — the result of a renewed cyber attack, according to Venezuelan authorities.

Power was restored to most of the capital and to parts of the western states of Tachira and Barinas by the evening of March 10.

President Nicolas Maduro told crowds at a pro-government rally on March 9 that a large-scale attack against the country’s electric infrastructure had taken place. He pointed the finger at the United States, stressing the high level of sophistication of the alleged aggression and adding that efforts to restore power were set back by a new cyber attack that morning.

Maduro announced he was ordering a massive distribution of food and drinkable water starting on March 11, as well as efforts to secure the normal functioning of hospitals. Water minister Evelyn Vazquez announced on March 10 that water tanks were being deployed while the water pumping system was being restored.

According to Communications Minister Jorge Rodriguez, the cyber attack took place against the “Ardas” computerised system of the Guri Dam, targeting three out of five generators and forcing the dam’s turbines to stop. He said Venezuela would present evidence of the attack to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to other international bodies.

Rodriguez denied the opposition’s claim that 79 people had died in hospitals as a consequence of the outage, but did not offer an official number. Doctors for Health reported 21 deaths as of March 10 after allegedly contacting hospitals throughout the country.

Beginning in the middle of rush hour, the outage immediately affected public transit networks, paralysing the Caracas metro and suburban trains. Miranda state mobilised buses to help take citizens home, while many were forced to walk. Caracas’ metro system has yet to restore service, with authorities waiting for the electricity supply to stabilise. The Venezuelan government suspended work and school activities for March 11.

The power outages generated some skirmishes in various cities, with groups burning tyres or garbage, but no major confrontations with authorities have been reported at the time of writing.

Poor maintenance and sabotage have dogged Venezuela’s electricity system in recent years, with infrastructure strained by under-investment and Washington’s economic sanctions further compounding difficulties. In addition, as the New York Times reported, fuel shortages caused by US sanctions have prevented thermal power plants from backing up the Guri Dam.

Self-proclaimed “Interim President” Juan Guaido gave a press conference on March 10, slamming the government’s handling of the electricity crisis and repeating calls for the armed forces to back his efforts in ousting the Maduro government.

Guaido announced he would ask the opposition-controlled National Assembly, which has been in contempt of court since 2016, to declare a state of “national alarm” on March 11.

The opposition leader had previously addressed supporters after a march on March 9 in the capital’s east. Tensions flared between opposition followers and security forces after the former blocked the Francisco Fajardo highway for a short period.

“All options are on the table,” Guaido told supporters when pressed about calling for a foreign intervention, while adding that further mobilisations would be announced in the near future. Hours earlier he had tweeted that “electricity will return once the usurpation ends.”

A Chavista anti-imperialist march from the city centre to Miraflores Palace also took place on March 9, marking the fourth anniversary of the executive order declaring Venezuela an “unusual and extraordinary threat” to US national security.

Maduro and other Chavista leaders slammed what they termed the “worst aggression” in recent history, praising the population’s “resistance” and urging patience while efforts to restore electricity to the country continue.

US officials blamed the Maduro government for the blackout, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeting “No food. No medicine. Now, no power. Next, no Maduro.”

Venezuelan officials have pointed to tweets by Pompeo, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and other US leaders as evidence of a US hand behind the blackout, though further evidence has yet to be made public.

[Abridged from Venezuela Analysis.]