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Energy Crisis Darkens Colombia And Brings Chaos

April 21, 1992 GMT

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ The worst energy crisis in Colombia’s history has brought fear and darkness to the cities and drastically changed peoples’ lives.

As if drug wars, guerrilla violence and rampant crime weren’t enough, Colombians must now also live without electricity during most of their waking hours.

A prolonged dry season combined with government corruption and mismanagement have significantly reduced energy production.

Every evening, the poor line up along dark streets to wait for buses in the capital, Bogota. When it rains, the lucky ones huddle under cigarette kiosks or awnings to keep dry.


″I pray my kids get home from school before dark,″ said one worried mother, Cecilia Munoz, waiting in a bus line.

Between eight and 10 hours every day, there is no electricity to cook, watch television, operate computers, study, iron, play stereos or walk safely through the streets at night.

Children do homework by candlelight. The simplest activity - like opening a door when arriving home at night - can be terrifying.

One woman, her face black and blue, said she was mugged as she tried to fit a key into her door lock on a pitch black street.

As in most crises, the poor suffer the most.

The eight to 10 hours of rationing is being implemented so that wealthy neighborhoods lose eight hours and poor areas 10 hours.

Many working-class neighborhoods have no water for days at a time. Electricity cuts pumping, and many poor neighborhoods are on the sides of mountains where pumping is necessary.

The president and energy minister repeatedly call for sacrifice. Many Colombians feel they are being asked to pay for the government’s mistakes.

″Welcome to the future,″ said a newspaper cartoon caricature of President Cesar Gaviria, quoting the leader’s favorite motto. The next frame showed a completely blackened city.

The nationalized electricity sector is about $4 billion in debt. Hydroelectric and thermal coal plants badly need repair. The government has built billion-dollar reservoirs where it hardly rains.

And it has unnecessarily delayed electrical projects, including the $2.4 billion Guavio Dam, which is five years late and was only supposed to cost $1.3 billion.

Currently, the electricity sector is operating at about 20 percent of capacity. Labor strikes and attacks by leftist rebels have added to the crisis.

The nocturnal blackouts, which began a month ago, create a haven for criminals.

Murders, muggings, rapes and burglaries have increased by 40 percent, according to a national judges’ report.

Many women who are raped never report it. But it is no secret that hundreds of women are attacked each week during the darkness.

After a day at work, most people go home, lock their doors and stay off the streets until the lights return late at night. Business is down for movie theaters, restaurants and stores.

So far, factories have not had power cuts. ″Rationing the productive apparatus would be very grave for the country,″ said Lazaro Mejia, president of the Bogota Energy Company.

Nevertheless, authorities have threatened to do just that if companies don’t unilaterally cut back on electricity.

Cutting factories’ electricity would be a severe setback to Gaviria’s free- market reforms, which seek more foreign investment.

There is no official estimate of exactly how much the energy crisis is costing the economy, but it is in the millions of dollars. The rationing will last three or more months, depending on how much it rains.

As Colombians blame the government, nature, rebels and labor unions for the crisis, another important cause has gone largely unmentioned: deforestation.

Colombia, once one of the world’s richest countries in water resources, has seen its rivers dry up and its rainforests destroyed.

Millions of trees have been chopped down by loggers and for peasants’ firewood.

As a result, much of the land cannot retain the water which would otherwise seep into dams during the dry season.