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Blackout leaves tens of millions in the dark in Argentina and Uruguay

Authorities are still investigating the cause of the unprecedented power failure.

Massive Electrical Failure Cuts Power to Much of Argentina and Uruguay
A massive blackout in Argentina, affecting other countries in the region, including Uruguay. June 16, 2019.
Ricardo Ceppi/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

An “unprecedented” blackout hit Argentina, Uruguay, and other parts of South America on Sunday, leaving tens of millions of people in the dark, disrupting transit, and shuttering businesses.

Power had largely been restored by Sunday night. The outage began at about 7 am local time, throwing nearly all of Argentina and huge swaths of Uruguay into darkness. There were also reports that parts of Paraguay, Brazil, and Chile witnessed outages. About 50 million people were affected, according to the Argentinian newspaper Clarín.

Edesur, an Argentinian energy company, said the power failure started between two power stations, in Yacyretá and Salto Grande. That set off safeguards at the power plants, which ultimately forced the shutdown that affected the entire grid.

But it’s still unclear what caused that transmission disruption. Argentina’s energy secretary, Gustavo Lopetegui, told the media that the investigation could take up to 15 days.

Lopetegui also said authorities did not believe a cyberattack sparked the outage, though they’re not ruling out any possibilities just yet. “It’s very extraordinary that this happened,” he told reporters. “It has never happened in the history of Argentina.”

Uruguay’s energy company also blamed Argentina for the outage, citing a flaw in Argentina’s system, according to the Associated Press. About 3 million people in Uruguay experienced the blackout.

The blackout forced some businesses to close and interrupted public transit; it also led to some water shortages, as some water systems were powered with electricity. “It looked like a zombie city,” a taxi driver in Buenos Aires told the New York Times.

But the fallout likely would have been far worse had the blackout happened on a weekday. The outage did complicate gubernatorial elections in a few provinces in Argentina, where people had to cast ballots by the light of their cellphones or candles.

Argentina’s power grid problems may become a political issue

Argentine President Mauricio Macri called the blackout “unprecedented” and promised a thorough investigation. Lopetegui, the energy minister, also assure the public that there was “zero” chance this incident would repeat itself.

But the outage could put renewed focus on Argentina’s economic struggles. Macri, a center-right politician first elected in 2015, is facing a tough reelection battle in October 2019.

Macri took office promising to jump-start Argentina’s economy, trying to spur investment and imposing austerity measures to cut down the government deficit. In doing so, he broke with the populist policies embraced by the leftist government of President Néstor Kirchner, starting in 2003, and later the presidency of Kirchner’s wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, in 2007.

As part of these policies, Macri’s administration cut energy and electricity subsidies, which led to increases in the cost of utilities for consumers.

But those cuts have been unpopular, and Argentinians have protested the austerity measures, including those reductions in subsidies. What’s more, Macri’s policies have failed to fix the ailing economy, which is struggling with a still-stubborn recession and increasing inflation, among other economic woes.

While the cause of the blackout is still being investigated, it’s bound to raise questions about the state of Argentina’s infrastructure — and whether this is another sign that Macri’s promised reforms have failed. That could put Cristina Fernández de Kirchner back in power in October; she’s running for vice president, despite facing trial on corruption charges.

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