CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan cities cleaned up from a night of looting and fiery protests Wednesday as government offices closed their doors for the rest of the week in the face of a worsening energy crisis that is causing daily blackouts.
In Caracas, hundreds of angry voters lined up to sign a petition beginning the process of recalling the deeply unpopular President Nicolas Maduro.
The socialist administration began imposing a four-hour daily blackout around the country this week to save electricity. Then, Maduro announced that millions of officials will now work only Mondays and Tuesdays, taking the rest of the week off in a bid to save electricity.
Angry residents in darkened towns around the country took to the streets Tuesday night, setting up flaming barricades and raiding shops for bread and other scarce food.
On Wednesday, more than 1,000 police fanned out around the western city of Maracaibo after a night of riots. More than 100 people were arrested there for looting that damaged dozens of businesses, according to local governor Francisco Arias, who supports the Maduro government. Venezuela is among the world's most violent countries, and crime generally spikes here when the lights go out.
Maduro condemned the night of protests, and said his political enemies were trying to sow chaos and sabotage him.
"The crazy right wing doesn't understand that in hard times, a family has to band together," he said. "They're trying to create a violent situation."
Maduro warned that the water level behind the nation's largest dam has fallen to near its minimum operating level because of a severe drought. If it gets much lower, the whole nation could be plunged into darkness.
Experts say lack of planning and maintenance is to blame as much as the weather.
Caracas is being spared from the rolling blackouts and has not seen violent protests. Some Venezuelans complain that the country is starting to resemble the dystopian series "The Hunger Games," in which districts suffer for the benefit of a heartless capital city.
As people become more desperate in outlying states, opposition politicians in Caracas are appealing for calm after scoring a small victory that will allow them to begin an effort to recall Maduro.
Venezuela's electoral authority on Tuesday delivered petition sheets to collect signatures needed to start the multi-step process. Some had believed that government institutions, which have stymied the opposition at every turn in recent months, would never hand those sheets over.
Opposition leaders held festive rally to launch the start of the recall drive Wednesday as many institutional buildings downtown remained closed.
"The government is scared of this count and that's why they're throwing up all these obstacles, but we will collect all of these signatures," said Henry Ramos, head of the country's opposition-controlled Congress.
About two-thirds of Venezuelans want Maduro to go, according to local polling.
Retired Environmental Ministry worker Edgar Diera sat on the steps of the Justice Ministry, making doomsday predictions to people who showed up only to find the doors locked.
"A country needs its workers to show up," he said, shaking a newspaper at a snarl of cars in front of a broken traffic light. "This place is in ruins."
Venezuela's economy is projected to contract 8 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.
People working for the state, the country's largest employer, will be paid for the days they stay home. Some have been using their Fridays off to wait in lines to buy groceries and other goods. Others have been going home to watch TV and run the air conditioning, leading critics to say the furlough is not an effective energy-saving measure.
There's also the question of the jobs they will be leaving undone.
"The measure will paralyze Venezuela's public administration, further hampering the state's ability to function," said Diego Moya-Ocampos, an analyst with the London-based consulting firm IHS Global Insight.
Hannah Dreier is on Twitter: https://twitter.com/hannahdreier
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