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After Grid Failure, Millions In 3 Latin American Countries Lack Electricity


In South America, a massive power grid serves Argentina and neighboring Uruguay, as well as parts of Paraguay. Tens of millions of people rely on that grid, until Sunday morning, when they could not. The grid crashed. Much of three countries went dark. NPR's Philip Reeves has been covering this story from Rio de Janeiro. Hey there, Philip.


INSKEEP: How did this unfold?

REEVES: Well, it started, Steve, at around 7 in the morning. People were - woke up for, you know, what they hoped would be a nice, peaceful Sunday to discover that the power was out across almost all of Argentina, which is the second largest country in this region, and also in parts of neighboring Uruguay and Paraguay, which get electricity, as you mentioned, from the Argentine grid. Now, the impact would have been a lot worse on a working day, but big power cuts are always very serious matters.


REEVES: So trains stopped running. Water supplies were disrupted. Gas stations couldn't pump gas, so there were long lines at those stations that could. Phones and the Internet were disrupted. It happened on a day in Argentina - in parts of Argentina, where there were gubernatorial elections. These actually still went ahead, but people had to use their cellphones...


REEVES: ...To give themselves enough light to vote by. And it also happened on Father's Day, when people were hoping to go out for Sunday lunch but had to cancel because, you know, restaurants and businesses were shut. It took all day to get the lights completely back on; they are now back on. But people have a lot of questions about what precisely happened and what's going on in the region.

INSKEEP: Well, I've got images of people in the darkened voting booths doing their business there. I'm just thinking about - this a reminder of how widespread electricity is. I mean, hospitals, I suppose, might have backup generators - maybe, maybe not. I mean, people could be killed in a situation like this. Is there any sense of what caused it?

REEVES: Well, we know that's true from Venezuela, where there was a huge power cut recently. But in Argentina and in Paraguay and Uruguay, we - you know, we're not hearing reports so far that hospitals were in that kind of dire crisis.


REEVES: They did have generators working, as did the airports. Now, officials are saying that this was a failure in the grid's interconnection system, which happened in the northeast, between two big installations there, and then triggered this unprecedented chain reaction. They don't think, by the way, that this was a cyberattack or any other kind of sabotage. But they don't exactly know what happened yet. They say it could be a couple of weeks before they do. We do know, though, that the grid and the infrastructure is not in good shape.

INSKEEP: How are people responding to this odd Sunday?

REEVES: Well, they're very angry, obviously. I mean, in Argentina, they're already facing really very hard times. Inflation there is among the highest in the world. The economy is - you know, they've got this boom-and-bust economy that's right now in such a mess that the government very controversially decided to sign on to this huge $56 billion IMF bailout. There are strikes and protests over President Mauricio Macri's austerity program, regularly.

And right now, Steve, there's a very highly charged political environment - I mean, even more highly charged than usual - because presidential elections are coming up in October. Macri's fighting to keep his job in the face of a remarkable resurgence by the former president, Cristina Kirchner, who's running with her former cabinet chief, this time on a ticket to be vice president, despite a stack of corruption charges against her.

INSKEEP: Plenty of debate to come on who can keep the lights on. Philip, thanks so much.

REEVES: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Philip Reeves. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.
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