Venezuelan bills for power and water soar as subsidies cut back

By Mayela Armas

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelans are battling fast-rising utility bills as subsidies from the cash-strapped government dwindle, leaving many paying large chunks of their salaries for electricity and water despite regular blackouts and mains water shut-offs.

Residents and business owners told Reuters that a sharp spike in water, gas and phone bills since the start of the year as government income has dwindled from the South American country's once-booming energy sector.

"Bills go up and we still don't have good services," said Maria Rodriguez, 36, a speech therapist from Valencia in Carabobo state, adding the city suffered frequent power outages.

Rodriguez is paying the equivalent of $80 per month in bills for services this year, double the rate in 2022 and almost a third of her monthly income of roughly $300, she said.

For years Venezuelans' utilities bills were kept largely frozen despite political turmoil in the country, with the government able to rely on oil income to fund subsidies.

However, in recent years those have declined, starting with those for garbage collection and then state Internet. Since December, water, electricity and telephone bills have spiked.

Inflation for basic services - including electricity, water and garbage collection - rose 325.4% in the 12 months through March, according to data from Venezuela's central bank, published last week. Prices for telecommunications and internet services rose 1,003% in the same period, the bank said.

Venezuela's Ministry of Information did not respond to questions about subsidy cuts. The Ministry of Water and the state-owned electricity provider did not immediately comment.

The cost increases come as wages stagnate. This month President Nicolas Maduro announced that the monthly minimum wage would not rise from 130 bolivars, just over $5 at the official exchange rate, blaming U.S. sanctions.

Average monthly wages in the private sector were $142 in the first quarter, the Venezuelan Observatory of Finances said, while public-sector pay was just $35 per month.

Monica Ochoa, president of the Chamber of Commerce in Urena, a town bordering Colombia, said rising costs were squeezing businesses.

"Companies that paid the equivalent of $290 in services in March paid $560 by April. If they don't make enough business, how can they pay for services?" she said.

Meanwhile, utilities services have in many places got worse, due to years of divestment and mismanagement, analysts say. Some people have had to turn to using power generators to ensure they have electricity and drilling wells to have reliable water.

"The lack of water was a blow. We had to change our habits according to the times it was available, two or three days a week," said Angelica Paredes, 69, who lives in a neighborhood in the east of capital Caracas, where a well was recently drilled.

"Now we hope we can have water all the time."

(Reporting by Mayela Armas in Caracas; Additional reporting by Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal, Mariela Nava in Maracaibo, Tibisay Romero in Valencia and Jhonny Carvajal in Caracas.; Writing by Oliver Griffin; Editing by David Gregorio)