In The Great Blackout, Caracas Steakhouses Are Busier Than Ever

(Bloomberg) -- The staff at Maute Grill never stopped uncorking the bottles of fine Chilean reds. The place was packed at night, and the lights were on, while every inch of Caracas without a generator was in the dark.

The famed steakhouse has one, of course. “We’re attending to a specific kind of clientele,” said Ramon Villarreal, a waiter serving up sirloin steak and pork tenderloin to the lunch crowd Tuesday. “But there has been a flood of people.”

The great blackout -- in its fifth day in some parts of Venezuela -- derailed water service, stalled refineries, knocked the Caracas subway out of commission and carved another dividing line between rich and poor in a devastated economy. Those who can afford it have passed the time in power-flush restaurants and bars or booked rooms in self-sufficient hotels. Many of the rest are still putting their kids to bed by candlelight.

Electricity has begun flickering on in fits and starts, spurring mad dashes to charge cell phones and take stock of rotting food. But water service, intermittent in the best of times, is still dried up in much the capital, perhaps because pumping stations that dispatch supplies from area reservoirs haven’t been fired back up.

Actually, it’s impossible to know. The cause of the blackout is also a mystery. President Nicolas Maduro accused the U.S. of sabotage and opposition leader Juan Guaido blamed government mismanagement and neglect. Many Venezuelans seem to be inclined to side with Guaido’s theory, in no small part because they’ve been witness for years to a crumbling infrastructure. Reliable electricity, after all, is a distant memory.

Whoever has got it right, there’s no question that Caracas has been plunged into a new kind of crazy chaos after years of exploding inflation, empty store shelves and desperate shortages of medicine.

“It’s miserable,” said Maryuri Mata, 42, an office manager who lives in a part of the Petare slum that was still without power late Tuesday. She was buying provisions for dinner on a market street down the hill from her home, surrounded by men and women shouting out that they had something to sell, pasta or tuna or aspirin or contraceptives, for anyone who could pay in dollars or euros or Colombian pesos. Venezuelan bolivars are almost worthless.

In The Great Blackout, Caracas Steakhouses Are Busier Than Ever

The shops that were open on the street would accept bolivars via debit cards. But while they could turn their coolers back on, the shopkeepers couldn’t rely on their card-reader machines to work. The line at one local butcher’s was 50 strong as people tried, and failed, to pay. “I’ve noticed that when I raise my hands to the sky, sometimes the payments go through,” said Juan Colmenares, 39, a vegetable vendor.

At a supermarket running on a generator but with no meat or bread -- and no functioning card machines -- one shopper’s half-full cart was stocked with cereal, crackers, coffee, pasta, eggs, fruit, cheese, shampoo and candles (of course) and came to the equivalent of $180. It was paid in cash with precious greenbacks.

Maute Grill has the card-reader problem too. “There’s a stack of unpaid bills in the back,” one of the waiters confided, adding that he’s confident the customers will come back to settle up.

The restaurant gets its water from a private company; people with money in Caracas similarly pay for deliveries. The others have been scrambling in the past five days to collect it however they can, carrying plastic jugs just in case. Dozens sloshed around Tuesday in the mud near a busted main outside Central University of Caracas, scooping up the rank water that flowed out.

“This is madness, but what else can we do?” said Jessica Sanchez, 30, a manicurist on her fourth trip to site. “It’s this or not being able to wash the children.” Nobody in the crowd was thinking of drinking the stuff.

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