Venezuela workers to take long weekends to prevent power outages

Venezuela shopping mall

CARCAS, Venezuela (AP) — Public employees in Venezuela will take long weekends under the government's latest bid to ease a nationwide power crisis.

President Nicolas Maduro announced late Wednesday that he would sign a decree giving state workers Fridays off for 60 days, a move that drew scorn from critics who said the employees would just go home and turn on the lights and air conditioning.

Officials have been warning for weeks that the water level behind the nation's largest dam has fallen to near its minimum operating level. Almost 70 percent of the South American country's electricity comes from the Guri Dam, which holds back the Caroni River in the southeastern state of Bolivar. If water levels fall too low, the government will have to shut down the dam entirely, crippling electricity supply.

Maduro's socialist administration blames the crisis on a drought caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon and acts of sabotage by its opponents.

But experts say rationing could have been prevented had the government invested in maintenance and in the construction of thermoelectric power plants.

Venezuela has grappled with blackouts for years, including one that took President Nicolas Maduro by surprise as he delivered a national address on live television. Caracas occasionally shuts down because of citywide losses of power and some rural areas are living mostly in the dark.

Maduro's predecessor President Hugo Chavez promised to solve the problem in 2010, but little has improved.

Opponents of the socialist administration said the long weekend decree would do little solve the energy crunch. Electricity here is virtually free, giving Venezuelans little incentive to conserve.

"The geniuses at the presidential palace are increasing days off to resolve the electricity chaos. To really solve the problem, clearly you have to increase them to 365 days a year," tweeted Henry Ramos, leader of the country's opposition-controlled Congress.

Some public workers greeted the news with muted excitement, while others complained that the day off wouldn't even give them a chance to hunt down scarce grocery staples, since the government only allows people to shop one day a week at state-run supermarkets, with the day pre-determined by ID number.

It's unclear how Venezuela's national furlough will affect institutions like schools and hospitals.

The country has seen a bit of rain in recent days, but not enough to signal the end of the dry season.

Other Latin American countries are also grappling with the drought, though still working normal work weeks.

Colombia President Juan Manuel Santo has been urging Colombians almost daily to cut back on power consumption to avoid rationing, and the Panama Canal is imposing restrictions on ships as it struggles with low water levels.

Maduro gave workers a full week off in March to save electricity, and in February cut the hours of more than 100 malls across the country.

Together with other measures, he hopes to reduce electricity consumption by at least 20 percent. On Wednesday, Maduro urged Venezuelans to make small changes to their routines, including embracing the tropical heat, and using clotheslines rather than driers. He also urged notoriously beauty conscious Venezuela women to stop blowing out their hair.

"I always think a woman looks better when she just runs her fingers through her hair and lets it dry naturally," he said. "It's just an idea I have."

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