The decree was made after a severe drought in the country depleted hydroelectric electricity production which provides for more than 66 per cent of the country's power.

Incompetence claims

A statement from the state utility said that if the firms do not reduce their power consumption in the coming weeks they could have their electricity cut for three days and then indefinitely.

The opposition has said that Chavez is to blame for the crisis due to incompetent management of the power sector.

Chavez responded in a newspaper column: "This [opposition] campaign has, of course, one single aim: declare Hugo Chavez guilty of everything, even the drought.

"Indeed, I would love to have the powers I'm accused of by the opposition to defeat this situation which not only hurts Venezuela but the whole world as a result of the destructive voracity of the capitalist system."

Polls show that the issue has caused Chavez's typically high ratings to drop, and it is feared the crisis could affect Venezuela's chances of coming out of recession. 

Legislative elections are planned for September and there will be a presidential vote next year.