By Vivian Sequera and Luc Cohen
CARACAS (Reuters) – The Venezuelan government said opposition leader Juan Guaido would be barred from public office for 15 years on Thursday, as it seeks to crack down on the U.S.-backed rival to President Nicolas Maduro.
Guaido has called for fresh protests on Saturday against Maduro, following a blackout this week that left the country without power for days.
Cities across Venezuela recovered electricity on Thursday after the blackout, the second major one in less than a month. Maduro on Wednesday night blamed the outage on a “terrorist attack” on the Guri hydroelectric facility that provides electricity to most of the country.
Guaido, the leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, has challenged Maduro and his socialist party for power. He invoked the country’s constitution to assume the interim presidency in January, arguing Maduro’s May 2018 re-election was illegitimate.
Most South American and Western nations have recognised Guaido as Venezuela’s rightful leader, while Maduro calls Guaido a puppet of the United States attempting to oust him in a coup.
In February, Venezuela’s state comptroller, Elvis Amoroso, launched an audit of Guaido for allegedly lying on his personal financial disclosures and receiving funds from unauthorised sources.
In a Thursday state television address, Amoroso said Guaido had not explained the source of funds he used to pay for foreign trips he took since joining the assembly.
Amoroso said his office had decided to bar Guaido from public office for up to 15 years, the maximum for public servants who commit irregularities.
At a rally, Guaido questioned the validity of Amoroso’s role.
“The only body that can appoint a comptroller is the legitimate parliament,” he said.
To deal with the power outages, Maduro has announced a plan of “load management” for the coming days, without providing details. Generally, load management refers to the process of balancing the supply of electricity on a network with the electrical load.
After blaming a “cyberattack” by the United States for the first outage, Maduro said this week’s blackout was caused by a gunman linked to the “perverse, diabolical right-wing” who fired on Guri. [nL1N21E119]
But local electricity experts, as well as government critics allied with Guaido, said the outages were due to years of underinvestment and lack of maintenance as Venezuela’s economy spiralled into a hyperinflationary collapse.
“I do not think there has been any sabotage,” said Yolimar Arellano, a 43-year-old office worker in Caracas, who said he had electricity at his home, but still no water. He took three buses to get to his job because the subway was not working.
“They have spent years stealing money and not doing maintenance.”
The blackout came less than two weeks after electricity returned to most of the country following an outage that began on March 7 and lasted as long as six days in some cities. That blackout was the longest and most widespread incident of its kind in a country that has grown accustomed to unreliable public services.
Since the second outage hit on Monday, three people died in public hospitals due to a lack of electricity, according to Julio Castro, a doctor and member of the “Doctors for Health” nongovernmental organisation.
The blackout also halted operations at the Jose terminal, the main port for the country’s crucial oil exports.
(Reporting by Vivian Sequera, Luc Cohen and Diego Ore in Caracas; Additional reporting by Mircely Guanipa in Punto Fijo, Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal, Tibisay Romero in Valencia and Francisco Aguilar in Barinas; Writing by Luc Cohen; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Rosalba O’Brien)