Flying from Panama to Caracas, at the end of January, I spotted a strange fellow. A dodgy American. Californian, late fifties, barrel-chested, clearly into lifting, along with the menacing, paranoid eyes of a professional (or was it just me?)… I ask him what brings him to Venezuela, he replies “I’m going surfing”… “Really cool!” says I, “and where are you staying in Caracas?”… “I’m meeting up with some friends, and we’re gonna head straight off.”
The guy stuck in my mind, I often wonder where he and his “surf buddies” ended up… By a curious coincidence, I read shortly after « New confessions of an economic hitman ». The author lifts the veil on what he calls the great development aid swindle. A former consultant with a US firm who was tasked, in the 1970s, with convincing poor countries to take out huge loans with the IMF or the World Bank, ostensibly to develop their economies. His real job was to deliver huge contracts, obtained through corrupt tenders, to US construction companies, underwritten by local taxpayers (via the contributions of IMF and World Bank members), garnering a large fee for himself in the process, while burying the “target countries” under mountains of debt deliberately designed to be impossible to repay, thus ensuring that the said countries would remain pliable to US interests for the foreseable future… Recalling my “surfer” fellow passenger, the author recounts how he socialised with a strange fellow who confessed, once they became friendly, that he was a mercenary, sent to partake in a whole series of twisted secret CIA plots. Each time this guy took off somewhere, it would be to “go surfing”… And, in the words of the author, “it was astonishing, the correlation between his surfing expeditions and dodgy coups/assassinations, which took place almost simultaneously in the very same countries.”
I can’t say things have improved much since my last post… There was however one week’s worth of relative normality following the massive blackout (which lasted up to six days in some parts of the country). In Caracas, the subway was running, there was water on a more or less regular basis, and the inhabitants, no doubt to exorcise the trauma of several days spent in darkness – without electricity, without water, with no means of communication, nor of payment – poured in greater numbers than usual onto Sabana Grande (the pedestrian shopping street) and Recreo (the shopping centre)… Consume to exorcise …
And last Monday (25 March) the fuses blew again. In the early afternoon. Not a general blackout, not everywhere in the country, but enough to interrupt the subway service, and take out the electronic payment systems. It only lasted a few hours, but the government, in a sign that things were probably not going so well over at the Guri hydroelectric plant (which provides 80% of the electricity for the entire country) announced later in the afternoon that schools and government offices would again be closed on the following day, and a network of bus replacements had been activated to replace the subway service.
Power came back around 5 pm in my neighbourhood, but at 10 pm everything blew again, this time all across the country. Caracas again isolated from the world, in darkness.
Unlike in previous instances, no banging of pots and no screaming at the window. Flickering of candles, flashlights, and that deep silence engulfing the city.
Power returned mid-morning the following day. But the city remained very quiet. The subway was still out of action, the banks were closed. A sign that the situation remained precarious. The government announced in the afternoon that the following Wednesday would again be a holiday… Subway, banks, government services, schools… In this country off work every other week since early March, the only public employees who work without interruption are those of CORPOELEC, the national electricity company.
I took advantage of the network service resumption to call my « electrician » friend, you know the expat industrialist I was telling you about the other day… with the aluminum ovens. « What is happening, he basically tells me, is that they are unable to repair the network. It is extremely difficult to balance loads on a system that big, and to synchronise the different sub-networks. Chances are that each time they restart the chain they accidentally destroy one of its components… At this rate the system will eventually collapse altogether. They don’t have spare parts, and the engineers who use to really know the network have long since departed. They were replaced by generals, ideologues … »
In the evening, one of the national TV outlets opportunely broadcast « Snowden », directed by Oliver Stone in 2016. In one of the scenes, the Snowden character explains that for years, the United States has been laying « mines » deep in the electrical infrastructures of a whole lot of countries, friend and foe. The film broadcast went ahead without a hitch. There was only one interruption, caused not by a power cut, but by a « surprise » phone call from President Maduro during the live show of Diosdado Cabello (a Bolivarian revolution stalwart, president of the constituent assembly) which was showing on another channel, requiring all the national outlets to interrupt their own programmes to broadcast it.
Waking up at 5:30 am, I noticed that the city had « powered down » again, and likely the rest of the country along with it. At times like these, in the darkness and the silence, something surfaces from the shadows, which could be likened, albeit softened by the years, to pure infantile terror.
Since then, it comes and goes. The days were punctuated by, in general, a good solid blackout in the evening, at peak power consumption. Almost no water. In theory, one hour in the morning and another in the evening. Sometimes there’s none at all, sometimes the distribution lasts longer. The country remained on holiday until thursday night. Then everything re-opened on Friday morning… subway, banks etc… Then everything blew again on Friday night … subway, banks etc … I was in a Tasca with friends. Tascas are restaurants where you can eat, drink and dance, and can be found all across Caracas. Since night comes early, around 6:30 pm all year round, evenings start early, and when we arrived at the Tasca, around 6:45 pm, the tables were almost all occupied, and a few couples were dancing. We had time to start eating while sipping our beers when suddenly the restaurant, the street, the city, perhaps the country, were plunged into darkness. Loud protests of course, some laughter too… It’s becoming a habit. A security lamp and a few flashlights came on. Without any music, but in a good atmosphere, with the help of alcohol, we stayed a while longer to drink and eat with the other patrons.
Around 8:30 pm, my friends wanted to leave, to catch a bus on the substitution network while they were still running. I accompanied them to the central station.
Picture it like this. A city completely in the dark, very long queues, an uninterrupted noria of buses, moving shadows and human silhouettes drawn in the darkness by the headlights of cars, and the silent shadowy figures of the tall buildings asleep above. All very well organised, very patient. Venezuelans know how to queue. They are used to it. It’s even better here than in London. Even on subway platforms, in impeccable order.
I went back to the hotel along Bulevar Sabana Grande, plunged in darkness and deserted. Only a few passers-by on their way home, and local residents chatting on public benches. From further afield emanated a violent glow of headlights and music. The Capricho (bar restaurant night club) was open, also plunged in darkness, but a patron had conveniently parked his 4WD in front of the terrace, switched on the headlights and warning lights, opened the doors and turned on his sound system which blared salsa music at significantly high volume. Inside, in the shadows, customers were drinking at the counter, others had sat down, and four FANB soldiers sat at a table eating hamburgers and fries, drinking beer. They know me at Capricho, I go there often, so they open a bar tab for me when the « puntos » are down. As I was a little drunk from dinner, and alone because my friends had deserted me to take advantage of the bus service, and not wanting to go back to my « unplugged » hotel, I settled on the terrace and enjoyed the music and the night. It’s not because it’s nearly the end of the world that we’re going to stop partying …
So what is happening in Venezuela? There are three popular theories, depending on who are your friends and your foes. For the government and its friends, domestic supporters and international allies, it is unquestionably a major cyberattack aimed at plunging the country a little deeper into a comprehensive and multi-factor crisis, a new weapon in the unconventional warfare arsenal deployed for years by successive US administrations to bring down the Bolivarian government. No solid evidence of cyberattacks has been offered as yet, of the kind there was for Stuxnet (the worm that destroyed some of the uranium enrichment centrifuges in Iran) or for the cyberattacks on the Ukrainian electricity network in December 2015 (the virus and its attack strategy has been documented in numerous publications). In the absence of hard evidence, opponents mock these claims and instead finger the advanced state of disrepair of the electrical system, its non-maintenance and lack of recurrent investment, a sign of negligence and government corruption. Still others claim that it is the government itself that orchestrates the cuts to create a climate of uncertainty and urgency among the population to divert it from its rebelliousness.
As for me, I just don’t know. It is certain that the electricity network, like that of water distribution, is poorly maintained. Pharaonic projects for its development have been undertaken in recent years, but have not been completed while the billions of dollars invested in them have however vanished. Just as brain drain due to mass emigration is a reality. But it is also technically possible that the network was attacked, even if the opposition says otherwise, claiming it is « air gapped », that is to say, disconnected from the Internet, or « analog », that is without any control computers to infect. That’s not true. The network was modernised in the noughties, and all the « usual suspects » of industrial computing with attackable vulnerabilities are present: SCADA, PLC controlled by software, man-machine interfaces controlled by Windows-based computers, data transfer protocols between ethernet components and serial ports deemed fallible. While the « air gap » between a network and the Internet is supposed to be impassable, it must be remembered that the internal network of uranium enrichment plants in Iran was also disconnected from the Internet… Considering that in the months preceding the blackout, the network had been stable (I had personally not witnessed any interruptions in a month and a half, neither of electricity nor water, nothing that could have foreshadowed the sudden collapse of it all), and that the blackout occurred precisely at the right tempo of a « regime change » (these things used to be called coup) campaign orchestrated by Washington, extremely well « scheduled », of gradually increasing intensity : self-appointment as President by Guaido, in the street ; instant recognition by the US and its allies ; popular demonstrations ostensibly covered by mainstream corporate media (which as usually acted as mouthpieces of the US administration official narrative, while ignoring any other piece of information which didn’t fall in line) ; calls for « emergency » humanitarian intervention ; operation « trucks of humanitarian aid burned by regime stooges » on the Colombian border ; intensifying economic blockade… and, while all that seemed to be failing (those « regime changes » ain’t what they used to be), the most serious and prolonged blackout that the country has ever known.
At a minimum, I would say that all this is suspicious and that it is possible (but unproven) that Venezuela was, and still is, a target of this new form of warfare that all experts in computer/industrial security have been predicting for years.
To this day I still wonder where my surfer friend from the plane ended up.
On the development scam, US consultancy firms, the IMF, the World Bank and « surfers », John Perkins’ book:
On Venezuela’s electrical grid:
On the difficulty of restarting a grid gone down:
On Stuxnet, the documentary « zero days »:
On the attack of the ukrainian power grid:
On the modernization of the Guri hydroelectric power station:
On Stuxnet and the coming of age of cyberwarfare, « Wired » journalist Kim Zetter’s « Countdown to zero day »: