People queue outside a supermarket in Caracas where shelves are often bare in the recession-racked country
Caracas - AFP
A long weekend could mean three precious days to catch up on sleep, spend time with family, enjoy a getaway... or, in Venezuela, standing in snaking lines at supermarkets whose shelves are bare and whose lights could go out at any minute.
That was how Isleida, a government employee at the Venezuelan transport ministry, planned to spend the first of two months of mandatory Fridays off.
The measure, which applies across the public sector, was decreed this week by President Nicolas Maduro as part of an emergency plan to save electricity while Venezuela struggles through an economic crisis and a severe power shortage.
Isleida spent the morning doing housework, then planned to go shop for food -- a scarce commodity in the recession-racked country.
"It shouldn't be like this. We're paralyzing the country. Lots of things aren't getting done," said Isleida, a 50-something woman whose name has been changed to protect her from scrutiny -- or worse -- by government officials.
The socialist government blames the electricity shortage on three years of drought, which have choked off the 18 hydroelectric dams the country relies on for power.
But some economists warned that shutting down the public sector once a week would only make the recession worse.
"The impact of the electricity crisis will be devastating for the country's productivity, which was already clearly depressed. It's horrifying to see the condition of our economy and infrastructure," said economist Luis Vicente Leon.
"It's even more horrifying that the only official response to the fact that there's no light is to turn out the lights."
Blackouts have swept the country because of the crisis.
The drought has caused officials to implement water rationing, too, adding to the headaches of a nation already suffering shortages of food, basic goods like deodorant and toilet paper, and soaring inflation, which came in at 180 percent last year.
- 'Backwards like a crab' -
"Everything's running behind. This is a step backwards for the country. We're moving backwards like a crab. We're in bad shape," said Carmen Avendanos, a 62-year-old retiree who went to her state-run bank Friday -- only to find it closed.
The shutdown does not apply to schools, hospitals or other essential services.
Maduro, who had already cut the workday to six hours for ministries and state companies, has also ordered them to cut their electricity consumption by 20 percent.
The president has dispatched the army to monitor compliance.
Major electricity consumers such as hotels face nine hours of rationing a day, during which they must generate their own power.
Shopping centers have cut back their hours since that plan was introduced.
Adalberto, who has a small candy shop near the transport ministry, was waiting for customers to appear on Friday morning.
"Twenty percent of my customers work at the ministries. But the (hydroelectric) dams are in critical condition. We have to do our part," he said.
- Turning off the lights -
Anticipating a backlash from the opposition -- which capitalized on voter frustration to win a landslide in legislative elections last year, and is now trying to force Maduro from power -- the president called on the nation to avoid "hate, revenge and little diatribes."
That didn't stop the speaker of the National Assembly, Henry Ramos Allup.
"To solve the chaotic electricity problem, the genius of Miraflores (the presidential palace) has rolled out this rubbish of Fridays off. To fully solve it, he should just extend it to 365 days a year," he wrote ironically on Twitter.
Experts questioned whether the plan would even affect electricity consumption.
"There will be no major impact from this measure," said Joel Carrillo of the Venezuelan College of Engineers' Electricity Commission.
His organization has called on the government to revive old thermoelectric power plants in the face of what they warn is the imminent collapse of output from the Guri hydroelectric dam, which supplies 70 percent of Venezuela's electricity.
The dam currently has a water level just three centimeters (about one inch) above the critical limit.
Venezuela has the world's largest oil reserves, but the government has resisted using crude to generate electricity, calling it inefficient.
Maduro has urged Venezuelans to be "conscientious" by turning out lights, watching less TV and limiting use of their hair dryers in order to avoid even more drastic measures.