Earlier this millennium, a series of power brownouts and blackouts in California led to the recall of a sitting governor and a special election for his replacement: Arnold Schwarzenegger. Argentina’s leadership is running for reelection this October, and if it can’t keep the lights on, it may not be welcomed back to power.
Around the world, from Argentina to Venezuela, Bulgaria to California, state and national governments need to deliver citizens electricity or face voter wrath. Argentina is now facing a political challenge more severe than the one in California a generation ago. Electrical blackouts just plunged the entire nation of 44 million people and some of its neighbors — Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil and Chile — into the dark.
One of the most important functions of any modern government is to keep the juice flowing. Electrical power is the driver of modern society, keeping industry chugging along, hospitals working round the clock and refrigerators, air conditioners and computers whirring. In most modern societies, government runs, manages or regulates the power grid. That means that any failure, disruption or collapse of that grid reasonably is pinned on government leaders.
Predictable, reliable power is an economic necessity and the key to giving government and leaders legitimacy. In democracies, no electrical power means reduced political power for governing parties and ripe opportunity for opposition movements. Over the years, governors and governments have collapsed because of power failures. In authoritarian states, the thin thread that keeps autocrats hanging onto power is their ability to deliver basic services like electricity.
In 1989, I covered demonstrations in Bulgaria that eventually brought down Communist President Todor Zhivkov. Ecoglasnost — an environmental organization — and others crowded the streets of the capital, Sofia, to protest the government’s political oppression and incompetence. The lack of dependable electrical power was one of the reasons Bulgarians were fed up.
That cold winter, power in Sofia was scarce and unpredictable. Hydroelectric plants provided uneven power during droughts, and the Soviet-era nuclear plants supplied inadequate power generation. Despite the chronic electric shortages, young environmentally oriented citizens also opposed building new nuclear capacity because of the plant’s proximity to the capital and their fresh memory of the Chernobyl accident in nearby Ukraine.
During that time, I lived on the 13th floor of one of the many tall Eastern European apartment blocks known for their uniformly drab architecture, poor materials and lack of amenities. Peeling paint and drafty doorways led to a small lobby elevator that was in good working order but that no one dared to use. The problem? Neighborhoods in Sofia faced rolling blackouts every two hours, turning elevator rides into a game of Russian roulette.
Useless elevators and dark stairwells, stocked candles and flashlight batteries, spare generators and canned goods are just some of the popular signs that people need to look beyond their governments for help, whether in Eastern Europe or Latin America.
In Venezuela, the lack of power has brought industry to a near standstill.
Nicolás Maduro’s incompetence has led to a dramatic increase in poverty, out-migration and a scarcity of medicine. Further, everyone feels Maduro has turned this otherwise beautiful and oil-rich nation into a basket case because of frequent electrical blackouts.
March 7-14 was a particularly bad, mainly candlelit, period. Outages not only made daily life more miserable, causing a number of deaths, they kept everyone in the dark and uninformed, hindering the opposition from effectively organizing. News and social media rely on a steady stream of direct and alternating current to keep phones charged, laptops working, and websites running.
Electrical blackouts mean news blackouts, which Maduro exploited — after all, no credible news means conspiracies gain credence. Maduro blamed a Venezuelan hydroelectric plant’s failure on a U.S. cyberattack. This seemed a plausible conspiratorial argument given America’s well-developed offensive cyber-capabilities. Right now, American defense and national security forces are busy digitally boring into electric grids around the world, lying in wait to trigger attacks on foreign grids and render them useless.
Grid attacks are a new form of modern warfare and a way to undermine a foreign nation without leaving fingerprints. It’s a dangerous game to go around turning out the lights on other countries in the hopes of destabilizing them, but it’s becoming more common as a tactic practiced not only by the United States, but also China, Russia and North Korea.
Venezuela’s Maduro put the blame for his country’s power outage squarely on America, and now Argentina is looking around the world for someone potentially to assign the political fallout from the electrical blackout.
Whether cyber attacks, aging infrastructure or outright neglect and incompetence, Argentina’s power problems could soon lead its citizens to flip off more than their light switches. In an election year, this will energize opposition to Argentine President Mauricio Macri. Doubters should ask Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Markos Kounalakis is a McClatchy foreign affairs columnist and visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.