Andres Schipani in Bogotá | Financial Times
Acute energy shortages, historically a warning sign for unpopular Latin American leaders, are threatening to undermine the government of Colombia and plunge neighbouring Venezuela deeper in to crisis.
Free-market Colombia, until recently a regional star, and the crisis-ridden, socialist Venezuela have both been forced to introduce energy-saving measures amid a combination of factors aggravated by a lack of rain due to the El Niño weather phenomenon.
Venezuela’s government even extended the Easter holiday from three to five days to save electricity.
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The shortages have helped drag down Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos’s approval rating to a historic low of 25 per cent, well below even that of Nicolás Maduro (33 per cent), the unpopular leader of Venezuela.
Such low support threatens Mr Santos’s efforts to push through a long sought-after peace deal with Farc rebels, which he has promised to put to a plebiscite.
The issues in Colombia and Venezuela have awkward historical echoes in Latin America, where rolling blackouts have preceded the fall of governments.
In 1989, an energy crisis in Argentina sparked a nationwide power shortage that, alongside hyperinflation, pushed president Raúl Alfonsín to an early handover of power. About a decade later, after nine months of energy rationing, the popularity of Brazil’s Fernando Henrique Cardoso was likewise undermined.
In recent months, El Niño has been wreaking havoc in the region. In Colombia it has dried up parts of the Magdalena River, the country’s main waterway, where children have been spotted playing football and running bicycle races on its riverbed.
Most of the electricity in Colombia is hydro-generated, and low rainfall, high temperatures and lower oil and gas output have compounded troubles at key dams. This has prompted the resignation of the energy minister and brought back painful memories of shortages in 1992 that cut economic growth.
Bancolombia says power outages could cut 0.3 percentage points off the country’s expected economic growth of 2.6 per cent this year. This is bad news for Colombia which last year grew at its slowest pace in six years, at 3.1 per cent, as the price of oil, its main export, dropped.
More politically explosive though, power outages could cause prices to rise a further 0.24 percentage points as Colombians grapple with accelerating inflation of 7.59 per cent.
The government has launched an energy-saving campaign, releasing pictures showing some cabinet meetings taking place in candlelight.
“We are going to reward those who save and punish those who waste energy,” said Mr Santos.
“We have to make a true savings crusade if we want to avoid preventive energy cuts and rationing.”
But the shortages come at a time when many Colombians believe the country is going through a Venezuela-like economic crisis, rather than just a slowdown. And Mr Santos will need all the popular support he can muster to push through a hoped-for peace deal with Farc guerrillas to end the country’s long civil war.
Eurasia, the risk consultancy, warned: “His popularity will likely suffer further amid delays in peace talks with the Farc [and] probable electricity rationing resulting from a draught caused by El Niño phenomenon.”
Critics such as opposition senator Iván Duque say the electricity problems caught the government off-guard due to bad energy policies: “We warned them last year that if nothing changed, by April we’ll have to ration.”
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Despite Colombia’s problems, things are much worse across the border.
With water levels at Venezuela’s power generators at critical levels, Mr Maduro extended the Easter holiday for public employees and most private businesses. Last month, his government ordered shopping centres to cut their opening hours.
“They are desperate to avoid a collapse,” said Luis Vicente León, a Caracas-based analyst. “They have neither prepared themselves, nor the country, for the cost of such a crisis.”
The government, which oversees the world’s largest reserves of oil, has been rationing electricity and water, blaming the shortage on El Niño but also on sabotage by rightwing foes.
Opponents, who are determined to remove the president from office this year, blame the problem on lack of maintenance and investment since Hugo Chávez, Mr Maduro’s mentor and predecessor, nationalised the sector in 2010. Chávez was himself forced to extend Easter by three days to save energy.
“The electricity situation is truly serious, nevertheless the government wants to mask it without assuming its responsibility,” said opposition leader Henrique Capriles.