It's hard to think Venezuela was once the most prosperous nation in South America.

Now millions of its people are starving, a deadly blackout has left much of the country without power for five consecutive days, and those who can still afford to are jumping ship at their first chance.

The oil-rich nation has been hit by power outages before, but this one is the worst in Venezuelan history.

Supermarkets are closed, public transport is barely functioning, doctors are unable to treat hospital patients and food can't be refrigerated.

Advertisement

The tragic photos say it all. In one image, people are pushing a car without fuel to one of the few gas stations that still have an electric generator in the capital city, Caracas.

Photo / AP
Photo / AP

In another, a man collects water in a bucket from a stream in Avila National Park; the blackouts have affected the water pumps in people's homes and apartment buildings, leaving large numbers to scramble at natural springs to collect water they can drink.

A man collects water in a bucket from a stream in Avila National Park. Photo / AP
A man collects water in a bucket from a stream in Avila National Park. Photo / AP

People have been forced to queue in the darkness for drinking water from a tanker in the capital city.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio tweeted that at least 80 babies were reported to have died at one hospital since the blackout began.

No national data was available about the impact of the power outage, but an NGO said at least 15 patients with advanced kidney disease died after they stopped receiving dialysis treatments in darkened hospitals.

There are reports a further 10,000 are at risk if they continue without treatment.

On the streets, locals are being arrested for looting as supermarkets close down and the desperation for food grows.

"We don't want to loot stores, we don't want to cause problems. What we want is food. We're hungry," a Caracas resident named Majorie told the BBC.

72-year-old Elizabeth Guzman Espitia navigates narrow passages up to her windowless room she calls her 'little cave' during the blackout. Photo / AP
72-year-old Elizabeth Guzman Espitia navigates narrow passages up to her windowless room she calls her 'little cave' during the blackout. Photo / AP

Security forces have detained large groups of people amid looting, with pro-government biker gangs reportedly enforcing vigilante law at gunpoint.

The blackouts have also hit the oil industry. The country hasn't shipped $506 million in oil since the power failures started, and "the whole system is grinding to a halt," said Russ Dallen, a Miami-based partner at the brokerage firm Caracas Capital Markets.

THE CONSPIRACY THEORY

So who's responsible for all this?

Juan Guiadó, the country's self-described interim president — who is now officially recognised by over 50 governments including Australia's — called the deaths "murders" over the weekend, pinning the blame squarely on the Maduro government.

Venezuela's self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guiado greets the crowd during an event. Photo / AP
Venezuela's self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guiado greets the crowd during an event. Photo / AP

"I can't call it anything else, due to lack of electricity. Imagine if in your country, you wake to the news that there's been four days without electricity because they steal from electricity plants and 17 people died. That's murder," he told CNN.

But President Nicolas Maduro is shifting blame on the deadly outage to the US government, which has also backed Mr Guiadó.

At the end of January, the US imposed heavy sanctions on Venezuela's oil industry, limiting transactions between US companies that do business with the country.

"The power war announced and directed by US imperialism against our people will be defeated," Mr Maduro tweeted in Spanish late on Thursday, suggesting the sanctions had caused or contributed to the deadly blackout.

He also claimed the US committed "sabotage" in the form of an electromagnetic attack on the country's main hydro-electric complex in Guri, which supplies 80 per cent of the nation's electricity.

People collect water gushing from a leaking pipeline along the banks of the Guaire River amid the country's worst-ever power outage, in Caracas, Venezuela. Photo / AP
People collect water gushing from a leaking pipeline along the banks of the Guaire River amid the country's worst-ever power outage, in Caracas, Venezuela. Photo / AP

His bizarre claims were slammed as "crazy talk" by Mr Rubio.

Mr Guaidó dismissed that explanation as "Hollywoodesque", describing it as an attempt to divert attention from the government's own failings.

Critics blame the government for failing to maintain the power grid, as did the Lima Group, a primarily Latin American bloc.

Elliott Abrams, the US special envoy for Venezuela, denied the US played any role in the blackout.

The outage "is a reminder that the country's once quite sophisticated infrastructure has been plundered and allowed to decay under Maduro's misrule", The Washington Post reported him saying.

Mr Guaidó likewise said the blackout was not about foreign sabotage. "Sabotage is corruption, sabotage is not allowing free elections, sabotage is blocking the entry of food and medicine," he said on Twitter, referring to the Maduro government's move to block international humanitarian aid trucks from arriving in the country.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also hit out at Mr Maduro over the claims of foreign interference, saying the "power shortages and starvation are the result of the Maduro regime's incompetence".

Non-governmental groups worry the US sanctions will lead to even worse hunger across the nation, which is already at risk of facing famine.

Venezuela has been in recession for more than four years, has struggled with hyperinflation the International Monetary Fund says will hit a staggering 10 million per cent this year, and there's been a mass exodus of an estimated 2.7 million migrants since 2015.

— with wires