From Miraflores with love

CARACAS, Venezuela

President Hugo Chavez has turned to his friends in Cuba for help in tackling Venezuela’s energy crisis, drawing criticism Wednesday from opponents who say that the communist-led island is notorious for its own electricity woes.

The socialist leader announced that Cuban Vice President Ramiro Valdes had arrived on Tuesday to head a Cuban team advising Venezuela on its efforts to reduce energy consumption.

He gave few details of what Valdes would do, but the announcement bewildered some.

“It’s laughable that Chavez is looking for help from Cuba,” said Aixa Lopez, director of the Committee for People Affected by Power Outages, which monitors the extent of current energy shortages and rationing in Venezuela.

Chavez blames a drought for bringing the country’s crucial hydroelectric reservoirs to their lowest levels in decades, prompting a wave of planned and unplanned blackouts across the country.

Critics acknowledge the lack of rainfall, but blame Chavez’s government for failing to upgrade power generation capacity even as the country’s consumption has soared.

Cuba itself has suffered a series of electricity crises since the collapse of the Soviet Union removed a major source of oil and financing. It now gets much of its imported oil from Venezuela.

The island’s communist government has had some success against once-routine blackouts by upgrading generating capacity and imposing sometimes draconian energy-saving measures.

Even so, Cuban officials last summer were forced to idle some state factories while turning off the lights and air conditioners in many government office buildings, banks, retail stores and other businesses. Officials have hinted even more strict conservation methods will be imposed throughout 2010.

Chavez has experimented with similar measures, ordering some public institutions to close at 1 p.m. and partially shutting down state-run steel and aluminum plants. Officials also are installing tens of thousands of energy-saving light bulbs imported from Cuba.

Cuba is already aiding Venezuela in a cloud-seeding effort the government hopes will ease the drought.

Valdes, who fought alongside Fidel and Raul Castro to topple dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, is a former interior minister and current minister of communications. For more than a decade, he ran Cuba’s Electronic Group, overseeing technology projects and skirting the U.S. trade embargo by importing tons of equipment into Cuba through third-party nations.

“The electricity crisis should be resolved by Venezuelans,” Lopez said. “I don’t think that Mr. Valdez is the most suitable for the job because what’s he’s done in Cuba is impose rationing. He’s not en expert in investment, maintenance and production.”

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