Darkness has yet to lift for 72-year-old Elizabeth Guzman and thousands of her poor neighbors in a forgotten corner of Venezuela’s capital that was barely getting by even before the lights went out over a week ago.
As the sun sets each day, Guzman lights a homemade oil lamp and holds it in one hand as she navigates the stairs and narrow passages up to the windowless room that she calls her “little cave.”
“I’ve never seen a crisis like this. It’s the first time,” said Guzman, who is malnourished and frail. “It makes me so sad.”
Venezuela’s power grid crashed on March 7, throwing almost all of the oil-rich nation’s 30 million residents into chaos. Many struggled to find cellphone signals to call loved ones, the Caracas metro ground to a halt, hospital services collapsed, and massive looting was reported across the country.
President Nicolas Maduro blamed the blackouts on a U.S.-led cyberattack targeting the Guri Dam, the main engine of Venezuela’s power grid. U.S. officials and Juan Guaido countered that the allegation is absurd and that the socialist government had looted public coffers for years, causing key infrastructure to collapse.
While power eventually surged back to life across most of Venezuela, residents in the hillside Caracas slum of Santa Cruz of the East say they are losing hope they’ll ever have lights again.
As a result of a second explosion at a substation near the slum, manhole covers were blown into the air, flames burst into the night sky, and charred electrical machinery smoldered for days.
Irritated residents have been left to see the darkness as a symbol of their misery.
Guzman, whose health troubles and age prevent her from working as a housekeeper, says she moved to Santa Cruz of the East from a nearby neighborhood last year after her home of 43 years burned in an electrical fire.
Now, each time she lights her oil lamp, she fears a terrifying repeat of the day when she lost nearly everything.
On a recent evening, Guzman held up a candle to illuminate pictures of her two sons and grandchildren.
She had already unplugged her microwave, toaster oven and television in case a surprise power surge sparked another fire.
“I’ll sincerely tell you that I have no hope this will ever get fixed,” she said, managing to smile. “Never.”
Guzman’s meager government pension equals $6 a month, which enables her to pay rent equivalent to 66 cents.
But affording food is a daily struggle. Her weight dropped from 143 pounds (65 kilograms) to below 100 pounds (45 kilograms) in the last two years, and she said her doctor diagnosed her as malnourished. She also lives with painful hernias and can’t afford pills needed to control her hypertension, causing her to sometimes slip into depression.
As day turned to night, singing poured out from the nearby House of Mercy Church, where fading sunlight had turned the figures of members into silhouettes.
Other residents held up flashlights as two men lugged drums of water up several twisting flights of stairs to a house.
“Do you see how the poor people live?” said Charles Belisario, adding that he and his wife would use the water to bathe and clean.
Belisario, 49, said he’s able to survive better than most of his neighbors because his daughter sends money she earns from working in medical research in New Jersey.
In the distance, two modern high-rises glowed with lights.
Dilia Rosa Gelis, 74, said she holds firm to her faith, but was struggling with the harsh reality.
Her daughter had gone to bed without eating, which gives her headaches, Gelis said the following morning.
“If God created us, why does he make us suffer?” she wondered aloud, wiping tears from her eyes.
Guzman, like Gelis, also asked hard questions.
She said she had tuned out the political debate over whether political newcomer Guaido has what it takes to oust Maduro.
Instead, she said, she is focused on meeting her basic needs.
“We don’t have water. We don’t have lights,” she said. “How am I supposed to see in this cave where I live? I’m desperate.”