Venezuela: Guaido stripped of immunity, protest erupt over blackouts

April 5, 2019
Residents in Altagracia, Caracas, gather in the streets to protest blackouts and water shortages. Photo: Katherine Delgado.

Venezuela’s National Constituent Assembly (ANC) has lifted self-declared “interim president” Juan Guaido’s parliamentary immunity, opening the door for criminal charges to be brought against him.

The unanimous April 2 decision came following a request from the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ) and included an “authorisation” to continue investigations into the parliamentary deputy and president of the National Assembly.

The ANC based its move on article 200 of Venezuela’s constitution, which gives the TSJ the unique power to overrule parliamentarian’s immunity from prosecution.

Guaido, who was chosen as National Assembly president in January, violated a court-ordered travel ban on February 22 when he crossed into Colombia to lead efforts to force humanitarian “aid” across the border. He later travelled to Brazil, Paraguay, Ecuador and Argentina before returning to Venezuela March 4.

The travel ban, as well as an asset freeze, were also extended by the ANC “until the investigation [against him] is over.”

Two criminal investigations against Guaido are being led by the attorney general’s office: one relating to his unconstitutional behaviour as a public official and the other regarding his alleged role in what the government describes as sabotage against the electrical grid, which has led to rolling blackouts across Venezuela in recent weeks.

Venezuela has suffered from several major power outages in March, affecting most of the territory, following what authorities have denounced as repeated cyber, physical and electromagnetic attacks against the electrical grid and the country’s main electricity generator, the Guri Dam in the eastern Bolivar state.

Water pumping systems in Caracas and throughout the country represent a significant demand on the electric grid and had yet to be fully restored before the latest blackouts occurred on March 29-30.

Several protests broke out on March 31 in Caracas and other locations, leaving local authorities scrambling to send tanker trucks to communities that have not had water for extended periods.

Several Caracas neighbourhoods, including Catia, El Valle, San Juan and Cotiza saw protests over the lack of electricity and water, with residents in some cases blocking streets with barricades or burning tyres.

While in some situations security forces observed the protests from a distance, in others they employed armoured crowd control vehicles and tear gas to disperse crowds.

The arrival of tanker trucks from the municipality helped lower tensions in some cases.

There were violent clashes in Caracas’ Fuerzas Armadas Avenue. After masked anti-government protesters barricaded the street and allegedly attacked residents who were getting water from a truck, a pro-government motorbike collective moved in to disperse the protesters. There are unconfirmed reports of two people being wounded as a result.

Violent disturbances also broke out on San Martin Avenue in south-west Caracas early on April 1, with several vehicles torched.

Protests were likewise seen in other states, such as Carabobo, Lara, Anzoategui and Zulia, with reports of barricaded streets and highways and authorities responding with tear gas.

To deal with the situation, President Nicolas Maduro ordered the implementation of a national electricity rationing plan on March 31. He did not, however, offer details regarding the specifics of the plan, adding only that safeguarding water pumping systems was a priority.

Commerce minister William Contreras said that day that an electrical generator was being installed at the Tuy pumping system, which supplies water to Caracas and nearby states.

The following day, Maduro replaced electricity minister Luis Motta Dominguez with Igor Gavidia. Gavidia is touted as someone with extensive knowledge and experience in Venezuela’s electricity sector, having risen through the ranks of the state-run electrical corporation, CORPOELEC.

Venezuela’s electrical grid has been plagued by under-investment, lack of maintenance and emigration of qualified personnel, while previous and recent US sanctions have also compounded issues. 

According to Venezuelan Electrical Engineering and Mechanics Association President Winston Cabas, some 25,000 electrical workers have left the country since 2015, thought the figure has not been independently verified.

Other experts such as Torino Capital Chief Economist Francisco Rodriguez have pointed to the role of previous and recent US sanctions in exacerbating vulnerabilities in the electrical grid, including by shuttering international credit lines and cutting off vital imports of diesel fuel needed to power thermoelectric plants.

A sizeable anti-imperialist demonstration was held in western Caracas on March 30. Marches started out from four different locations before converging in O’Leary Plaza.

The aim of the march was to support peace and express solidarity with CORPOELEC workers.

[Compiled from Venezuela Analysis.]

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