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Daniel Bastardo Blanco

Daniel Bastardo Blanco is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. He heads the local Venezuelan alliance Venezolanos En Memphis (@vzlanosmemphis).

Venezuelans in Memphis live a nightmare from afar

By Published: March 13, 2019 5:04 PM CT

We are going to bed afraid of what we will read on our cellphones the next morning. This fear has become the norm for Venezuelans for the past few years. Those of us who no longer live in our home country have felt it nearly every night since we emigrated.

This past weekend, however, the fear and anxiety turned into something stronger: despair.

As I write, it's Tuesday, March 12, and most of Venezuela has been without electricity since Thursday afternoon, when the country's power system went down. Cities, large and small, have been experiencing a massive national blackout for over 110 hours. What is worse: Experts warn there is no end to the blackout in sight yet.

Early Saturday, I woke up and saw the green light of my cellphone blinking, indicating I had unread WhatsApp messages. "Do we know anything about Aunt Lourdes and Aunt María?" My brother was asking about my eldest aunts in our family's chat group, named "A bit closer Family."

"Good morning, family. We got electricity back at midnight. Thirty-two hours with no electricity," responded Aunt Miriam shortly after. She lives in Puerto La Cruz, a city an hour away from our hometown Cumaná, where aunts Lourdes and María live. "I have been trying to call them, but the communication is bad.... We have no running water, I think the whole city is without running water."

That was the first time we had heard from one of my mother's sisters since Thursday afternoon; all five of them live in Venezuela. The majority of my cousins have emigrated — we now have family spread all over the continent.

My love for my country and the need to do something have put me in an unsolicited leadership role with the local Venezuelan community. I came to Memphis in 2013 after accepting a scholarship from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center to pursue my Ph.D. studies in biomedical sciences. Back then, it never went through my mind that I would not go home again. However, as the political situation in Venezuela continued to worsen, I found myself as a forced migrant who did not have a chance to say goodbye.

I am a scientist at a world-class institution where a lack of power is unimaginable, but Venezuela's blackout is affecting me personally. Fear, uncertainty, helplessness is what the outage has generated in all Venezuelans.

Two weeks ago, Venezolanos En Memphis, the Memphis-based organization I lead, collected over half a ton of donations in medicines, foods and hygiene items to send to Venezuela as humanitarian aid. All of these items are scarce in Venezuela due to the failed economic policies the government has imposed, which have resulted in hyperinflation.

Today, we are reading reports on social media that patients are dying just because there is no electricity in hospitals — patients are missing dialysis, doctors have no incubators for premature babies or respirators for patients in critical condition. Hospitals have no working backup power plants.

Near noon on March 9, electricity was back on in many areas of the country, including Cumaná; no running water yet, however. One of my cousins living in Cumaná finally wrote in our family's group chat, "electricity came back at around 4 a.m. Thirty-six hours without electricity. We just visited Aunt María, and she is OK, she was laying on her bed."

We can breathe. They are OK. Maybe I can finally focus on my reading ... but not for long. Shortly after, I read on Twitter that areas that were back on in Caracas are losing power again.

No power also means no refrigerators to maintain the scarce food families have at home, no energy to pump water to the cities, and virtually no commercial activity in the country; Venezuela's inflation rate for 2018 was calculated to be 1,700,000 percent, making cash transactions nearly impossible.

President Nicolas Maduro's regime blames the U.S. for "sabotaging" the country's supply of electric power. Their only evidence is U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio's tweet denouncing the nationwide blackout minutes after it started on Thursday. However, outages in Venezuela are not new; they are so common and widespread nobody cares to report on them these days.

Through the years, the regime has blamed anything and anyone for the electrical crisis, including iguanas eating wires. For the past 10 years, however, the Venezuelan Association of Engineers (Colegio de Ingenieros) has been denouncing the lack of proper maintenance and investment by the government on the national electric system. 

Back in 2007, the late President Hugo Chávez nationalized Venezuela's electrical industry. In 2013, the regime militarized the electric service to "prevent sabotage from the opposition”; still today, all hydroelectric plants in the country are under the control and protection of the military.

Here in Memphis, we had a meeting of Venezolanos En Memphis on Sunday. Our mission is to support the local Venezuelan community and to build bridges of integration and contribution with the Memphis community. Venezuelans are happy people by nature. Our meetings always look more like a celebration than an assembly, but this meeting was different — attendants just wanted to say what they knew about their families and their hometowns.

We have many items on the agenda, one of them being the organization of a festival for the end of the month to bring the local Venezuelan community together. We all agreed to postpone the event indefinitely: The situation back home is not given to having Venezuelan parties.

We move on to discuss other items. Someone raises her hand. "Can I say something? I just learned my parents are alive and they are well,” she says as she begins to cry. She had not had any news from her parents since Thursday; they live in San Cristobal, a city in a mountainous region of western Venezuela. Her father has advanced Parkinson’s disease and requires an electric medical bed, which is useless without electricity. She has been living in Memphis for 15 years; she moved here for a job offer. "It's tough. I cannot focus on anything," she later said.

The Venezolanos En Memphis meeting was coming to an end, and my cellphone's green light was blinking again; it was around 8:30 p.m. on Sunday. "All the streets of Cumaná are closed with (tires) lit on fire. Still no electricity. People are setting on fire everything they can. We are in chaos. We are desperate. We do not know what to do." I waited until I was alone in my car to read more, but there were no more text messages; we received no more messages from our family in Venezuela until the following morning.

"It's like a horror movie," another member of Venezolanos En Memphis texted me on Monday. She has been living in Memphis for just over a year and coordinates the international services committee of Venezolanos En Memphis. "Part of my family got electricity for the first time today before dawn and others later this morning... but they tell me it looks as if they are in the middle of a war. Everything is lonely." Her family lives in Bolivar, Venezuela’s largest state in territory located in eastern Venezuela.

The corruption and inefficiency of Maduro's regime are killing us, literally. The fight for freedom Venezuelans are undertaking is an existential one. As a Venezuelan, more importantly as a citizen of the world, I urge the international community to raise their voice and strength to save my innocent countrymen who are victims of Maduro's regime.

In addition to the lack of resources to replace and fix the machines that have broken, the biggest problem now is that there are not qualified personnel capable of doing the work needed in a timely manner – Venezuela's young professional and skilled generation left the country looking for a better life elsewhere, just like my parents, my brother, my cousins, my classmates, my friends, and I, inadvertently, did.


 The Daily Memphian welcomes a diverse range of views and invites readers to submit guest columns by contacting Peggy Burch, community engagement editor, at pburch@dailymemphian.com.

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Venezuela Venezolanos En Memphis

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