CARACAS, Venezuela— It’s lunchtime, and the San Ignacio shopping center is almost empty. The lights from the common areas are shut off. The lifts and escalators are not working. And the mall's employees are milling around, waiting for the power to come back on so activities can start up again.
Hernan Padrón works just a couple of blocks away from the mall and regularly heads to the food court for his lunch break. But now he's got to change his meal time, or find a new place to eat. That's because government-ordered power rationing has the shopping malls in darkness twice a day: from 1-3 p.m., and again at dinner time, from 7-9 p.m.
“I don’t care if I have to change my lunch time,” Padron said. “What really concerns me is that this measure will finish destroying the country’s productive apparatus.”
On Wednesday, the Venezuelan government initiated the daily shopping mall blackout and said it would last for three months. The measure is aimed at saving electricity, which has become more scarce than usual as dry weather conditions brought by El Nino reduce the country's hydroelectric power supply.
But the latest power cuts are not sitting well with many Venezuelans, who have responded to growing crime rates by retreating to malls that are protected by armed guards. Shopping malls are one of few remaining places where Venezuelans feel truly safe for family recreation; so the nightly blackouts feel almost like a 7 p.m. curfew.
The power comes back on after 9 p.m., which means nightclubs can still operate in shopping malls. But that doesn't do much for families seeking an early evening escape, or those who prefer less noisy forms of entertainment.
“Due to the insecurity here, it is impossible to organize any entertainment show after 9 p.m.,” said Solveg Hoogesteijn, the director of a popular Caracas theater located in the Paseo Las Mercedes shopping mall. “The measure is condemning over six thousand people who come here every week looking for a distraction to their problems.”
Venezuela has been facing problems with its electric service for years. This is especially true outside Caracas, where the power cuts have lasted up to eight hours per day since former President Hugo Chávez first declared an electrical emergency in 2009.
Now President Nicolas Maduro’s government says Venezuela’s hydroelectric reservoirs are much lower than normal. But that's not the whole story.
While it's true that El Niño is hitting the country for the third year in a row, the problem is compounded by the deterioration of the country's electrical grid and the government's mismanagement of money that was aimed at fixing the crisis. The energy crisis has cost the country an estimated $60 billion, according to the book ‘El Gran Saqueo’ by Carlos Tablante and Marcos Tarre. And nobody seems to know what happened to that money.
Energy Minister Luis Motta insists the government is not rationing energy, but rather trying to implement previous plans under which shopping malls were required to have their own energy plants. The minister said the current measures are part of a five-year old law requiring private-sector businesses that consume more than 100 Kv of energy to generate their own sources of power. But business owners argue that Venezuela’s foreign exchange controls make it practically impossible for them to import generators with which they could make their own electricity.
The minister says the rationing shouldn’t affect theaters and cinemas, and insists that anyone who claims otherwise is lying.
But the 1-3 pm power cuts are creating real anxiety among merchants who fear the rolling blackouts will kill their businesses.
“I sell food, and the time in which I sell most is during lunch,” says Hector, who owns a small bakery in the San Ignacio mall. Others are worried that the power cuts will lead to job cuts. “This situation can bring not only losses on sales, but also staff cuts in some shops,” says Daniel, an employee in a cosmetics shop.
Solveig Hoogesteijn, director of Trasnocho Cultural, an important theater located in the Paseo Las Mercedes mall, worries her establishment will not survive the newly imposed 7-9 p.m. power cuts.
“This measure is not only condemning the public, but also the artists who could see themselves jobless and end up leaving the country,” Hoogesteijn said. “We already lost valuable artists because they don’t see any future inside the country.”
Laura Rondón, a regular at the theater, said she’s not planning to attend any late night functions, because 9 p.m. is too late to go out. “I prefer to be home before 11 p.m.,” Rondon said. “I don’t feel safe being in the street at that point of the night”.
For many Venezuelans the mall is the public space par excellence, and its demise is a further indication of things falling apart. Now the day ends when the sun sets.