The inability of the Maduro regime to restore power supplies to more than an intermittent fraction of Venezuela’s population has provided the 21st Century with its first glimpse of what a network collapse can do to a modern society. The EMP Commission Report anticipated civilization’s increasing dependency on electric power, telecommunication, banking, fuel, transportation, food distribution, water supply and emergency services grids. They concluded that if these crashed our seemingly solid world could come tumbling down faster than we think.
Nearly a week after the Guri Dam, which provides most of Venezuela’s base electric load, broke down, people are drinking from sewers, patients are dying in hospitals, prisoners are starving in their cells, gasoline is running out at stations from lack of distribution, food is rotting in the reefers and looting has become widespread. All cascaded from a fault that until now has not yet been fully explained. One Venezuelan described the day the grid died almost as if civilization were in the past tense:
I left the office on Thursday afternoon and when I got home the lights were out. I stopped by one of my neighbor’s apartment and we had a few beers while we waited for the power to come back on. Three days later, we still have no water, no electricity, no food, no cash and no explanations (or help whatsoever) from the authorities.
Since then, the country has turned into a ghost town. Survivors roam the empty streets looking for mobile signal, food, water, and a plug. Most stores remain closed; they say hundreds have died in public hospitals or at their homes, unable to contact anyone for help; fear has conquered the streets; looting and small protests have been reported across the nation; fires have gotten out of control. Every hour that goes by without electricity, everything gets harder to find, more expensive, scarier and sadder.
Reports describing widespread looting in Maracaibo suggest the Venezuelan state has in parts disintegrated. The only crowd control left, if the YouTube videos posted are representative, are the drive-by shootings by the Chavista colectivo militias who show up on motorcycles at sites of unrest and fire into the air like Wild West cowboys before zooming off. That’s it. That’s the Bolivarian state.
The situation has the air of a zombie movie. What happens when Venezuela winds down — when there aren’t any more groceries, bread, gasoline and comestibles left to loot — is the 64 billion dollar question. One tweet has already referred to Maracaibo as the capital of “The Walking Dead” and another called it “Raccoon City” because of the atmospheric similarities. The Venezuelan first-person account continues:
Despair is in the air. “We have seen a lot of crazy shit these past 20 years,” says Antonio, a 54-year-old butcher from Falcón. “But we had never experienced anything close to this. They turned off the lights and simply walked out the door. No help is coming. This is what losing a war must feel like. Aren’t they going to help us with water? With food? How much longer until people start dropping dead in the streets?”
Maria walks slowly with a cane, the last rays of sunshine warming her skin. “I am sad it had to happen like this, when we were so close to the end of this damned government. I have a knee problem. I have to walk 17 km to get home. I have a long way to go. When I get there, I won’t have food or water. I don’t even know if my family will be there. If they are, I won’t know how to feed them. And if they aren’t there, I won’t know how to find them.”
Even an authoritarian state can collapse from cascading chaos as their guns are powerless against this ineffable foe. It’s tempting when looking at Venezuela to think “it can’t happen here.” Yet if history teaches anything it is that collapse can suddenly overtake seemingly solid societies. After all, the average civilization lasts 340 years. “More than 99 percent of all species, amounting to over five billion species, that ever lived on Earth are estimated to have died out.” Realistic leaders always knew that survival depended on a civilization’s adaptability and a design margin against some unpredictable shock rather than some guarantee from the Arc of History. Venezuela’s socialist leadership made the mistake of thinking Darwin no longer applied to them. They were in control; they could predict and plan the future; they could even change human behavior. In so doing they created single points of failure whose collapse is still unfolding.
Yet the appeal of socialism in the West is likely to remain undiminished. To prosperous Americans and Europeans it sounds good and Maracaibo is in a galaxy far, far away. “Sanders should deliver a detailed speech that chronicles exactly where Maduro went wrong, and why he does not deserve the moniker of ‘socialist’ … He should excoriate Venezuela for remaining dependent on oil revenue, creating a rickety economy that harms the planet,” advised Politico. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says”we must overhaul America’s ‘garbage’ status quo, which is enslaved to ‘irredeemable’ capitalism” without the slightest sense of irony that it is capitalism that will soon be called on to re-energize Venezuela.
Venezuela’s collapsed networks will borrow on the design margin of other countries. The question is whether that might not also be wasted as well. “The second reason for risk blindness,” continues the Harvard BusinessReview, “relates to sunk costs … we continue to throw good money after bad.” The 16 Democratic lawmakers (among them Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) argued that “the U.S. should instead join other countries in promoting Venezuelan efforts to achieve constructive dialogue and democratic solutions to the current political crisis.”
Help them fix Venezuela, in other words. They haven’t quite grasped that the region is on the hook already. The external resources needed not only to “blackstart” Venezuela’s power grid but salvage the country itself can come from nowhere else but other people’s money:
Reenergizing a dead grid, a process known as a black start, is challenging any under circumstances … “The challenge with black start is always just knowing specifically what happened,” says Nathan Wallace, director of cyber operations and a staff engineer at secure grid companies Cybirical and Ampirical Solutions … If the procedure for black start is not accurately representing the state of the system, there can be problems.”
And the problem with millennial ideologies is they almost never accurately represent the state of the system. They are constructions of fantasy yet not above appealing to sunk costs. Someone has to provide the rescue money which they may never repay. The main argument for America not intervening in Venezuela is that it’s dangerous to come into contact with chaos.
Maduro’s neighbors, overwhelmed by refugees, are naturally trying to firewall themselves from trouble. Recently Argemiro Maduro, the president’s cousin, was turned back with his family at the Colombian border. He was trying to flee the heat and discomfort caused by the lack of power and water in his own collapsing society. But about the millions of desperate people that will follow in his wake? No man is an island. Not in our networked, failure-prone world.
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