Venezuela and COVID-19

For years Venezuela has been in the midst of a dire economic and political crisis, but the newly arrived health crisis of COVID-19 could see the country spiral into chaos. 

Venezuelans wear masks as they try to enter neighboring Colombia on Sunday.
Photo: Schneyder Mendoza AFP via Getty Images
Source: The Washington Post

The context 

The people of Venezuela are enduring hyperinflation, severe shortages of food and medicine and a sharp increase in violence. About 5 million people, more than 10% of the population, have fled the country in recent years attempting to escape these brutal realities and secure a better life elsewhere in the region. 

There’s also a crisis of leadership as Nicolás Maduro continues to claim the presidency, backed by the military and supported by Russia and China. National Assembly leader, Juan Guaidó declared himself president in 2019 and has been recognized as the rightful ruler by the U.S. and 50 other countries, although he wields no real power. 

Now in the face of COVID-19, Venezuelans are being forced to return to a broken nation that’s uniquely ill-equipped to deal with the global pandemic. 

An already broken system

Last year a report concluded that the health system in Venezuela has “totally collapsed.” Meaning the country was already in dire need before any news of the virus hit. Not only are hospitals and clinics lacking basic necessities like masks, gloves and gowns, there’s also limited access to soap and running water. 

The gradual collapse of the Venezuelan water system has left people at home and in hospital without the ability to follow the basic, but crucial health advice, “wash your hands.” It also means that people will be congregating at water trucks and stores to secure their supply, potentially hastening the spread of the virus. 

People wear face masks as a preventive measure against the global COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic as they queue to collect water from a street pipe in Caracas, on March 21, 2020.
Photo: Cristian Hernandez AFP via Getty Images
Source: U.S. News

Consistent electricity is difficult to secure and in 2019, 164 people died as a result of complications linked to Venezuela’s frequent electricity cuts. Intermittent access to electricity also poses severe challenges in terms of refrigerating important medicines like insulin.

In a country with a population of 30 million, there are only 84 ICU hospital beds nation-wide, and 90% of hospitals don’t have protocols for respiratory virus care. 

However, speaking out about how bad the situation is has consequences under the Maduro regime. Doctors have been directly or indirectly silenced, intimidated, threatened for reporting suspected cases and exposing that there is not enough PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) for medical staff.

Forced to return home

Millions of Venezuelans have flooded into neighboring countries in recent years to escape hardship; about 1.8 million were able to find work and make a meager living in Colombia. But Colombia’s lockdown forced curtailments in nearly every sector of the economy and many lost their jobs and were unable to pay rent. Those employed in the informal sector selling their wares on the street corners saw their customers evaporate as police ordered everyone inside.

With shelters, migrant centres and soup kitchens all forced to close, and announced Colombian supports excluding Venezuelans, there was nowhere else for people to turn. This has forced many to make the difficult decision to return to their home country, most travelling for 15 days or more on foot since they can’t afford a bus ticket. 

While both Brazil and Colombia have closed their borders, Colombia has maintained a humanitarian corridor to get Venezuelas home. Venezuelans are returning at a rate of around 500 per day, Maduro says 15,000 people are on their way home. This is relatively small when considering that before the virus struck around 4,000 to 5,000 were leaving the country every day, but with a deeply broken medical system, any population influx is already an overload. 

What this means for the Maduro regime

Venezuela’s economy is oil-dependent and U.S. sanctions have significantly hindered its ability to leverage this resource. Additionally, the recent downtown in the price of oil, attributed to the drop in demand related to the coronavirus, as well as the price war between top producers Saudi Arabia and Russia, threaten to further dismantle the economic tools available. 

In a surprising turn of events, Maduro asked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for $5 billion in assistance but they turned him down citing a lack of clarity in leadership. Maduro has repeatedly criticized the IMF as a tool of U.S. imperialism, so his plea for help could mean he is not receiving assistance from his traditional sources of Russia and China. 

Source: BBC

Despite being denied aid, Maduro’s grasp on presidential power will likely remain as military measures are being implemented to uphold the national quarantine and anti-government protests are halted to avoid mass gatherings.

Unfortunately this means that the grossly underfunded and under-resourced healthcare system, coupled with the poorly controlled movement of people to and from the nation, will likely result in COVID-19’s estimated mortality rate of 3% being much higher in Venezuela. 

The Crisis in Venezuela

There continues to be a mass exodus from Venezuela, which has seen about 5 million people, more than 10% of the population, flee the country. They are attempting to escape hyperinflation, severe shortages of food and medicine, a sharp increase in violence, among other terrors. This economic and political crisis didn’t happen overnight, we have to go back at least as far as the presidency of Hugo Cháves. 

Cháves came to power in 1999 and his tactics were characterized by populism: big, sweeping ideas people could get behind as he promised to improve the lives of the poor. He was a big fan of Simón Bolívar, the military and political leader who led several South American states to independence in the 1800’s. Bolívar had a dream of a Pan-American future, something Cháves wanted to emulate in what he termed the Bolivarian Revolution. 

The aims of the Bolivarian Revolution were to create a Latin American coalition, champion nationalism and encourage a state-led economy. Cháves was able to spend liberally because the oil industry was doing well at the time. He made investments in social programs improving access to healthcare, increasing literacy rates, and contributing to an overall reduction of poverty. His presidency was situated as part of the “pink tide” of the early 2000s, a wave of socialist styles of government that swept the continent including leaders like Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua.

Hugo Cháves
Source: abc news

But the good times didn’t last as the oil industry declined and his measures like price caps on consumer goods and currency controls began to backfire. Sanctions by the U.S. also contributed to the worsening economy. In 2010, Cháves declared an “economic war” on the bourgeois of Venezuela following a decline in government revenues, marking the beginning of the crisis. In 2013, he abruptly died of cancer and his successor, Nicolás Maduro came to power. Maduro continued on with many of his policies but discontent among people started to rise with inflation skyrocketing, people starving and violence escalating. 

A helpful way to understand how quickly things have been changing is the Bloomberg Cafe con Leche index, which has been tracking the price of a cup of coffee in Caracas. Its price has jumped to 90,000 bolivars from 2,000 bolivars over the past 12 months, an increase of 4,400 percent.

In 2017 Maduro denounced the National Assembly, mostly made up of opposition members, and instead created a Constituent Assembly. Constituent Assemblies are meant to overhaul the constitution and when Cháves made one back in 1999, he did so following a referendum. Seeing this move merely a way for Maduro to maximize his power, opposition members abstained from participating in the election, as such it was filled with government loyalists.

The UN has stated that Maduro’s government has repeatedly used violence to silence opponents and instill fear in the population in order to solidify power. There have been multiple protests and many deaths and opposition members have effectively been barred from participating in democracy. Many are in exile, some are in prison, while others have been subjected to violence, torture, and extrajudicial killings. 

Nicolás Maduro
Source: Stabroek News

In 2018, Maduro entered his second six-year term following widely contested elections. In January 2019, Juan Guaidó, the leader of  the National Assembly declared himself president citing various articles in the constitution. While he wields no real power given the existence of the Constituent Assembly, and while the military still backs Maduro, he has the support of the United States and 50 other countries, while China and Russia continue to support Maduro. 

More recently, in January 2020, Guaidó’s leadership was challenged. An election to make Luis Parra speaker was held without quorum, and later Juan Guaidó was sworn in by torchlight at a different location as he was blocked by police from entering the National Assembly. 

Juan Guaidó
Source: Axios

We seem to be entering a new era with the hopeful progressive policies of the pink tide an almost distant memory, while we forge ahead into a time of heavy-handed, authoritarian style tactics. While Cháves briefly brought prosperity and hope, the economy has imploded under Maduro resulting in a man clinging to power via illegitimate means. His human rights abuses are inexcusable and it’s clear he must leave office in order for free and fair elections to take place. 

But is that likely to happen? Or will we see Juan Guaidó thrust into power with the backing of the United States? While I’m not arguing for the continuation of the tragedy that has been endured under Maduro, I am cautious of any figure that is backed by the U.S. 

The U.S. has a long and devastating history of overthrowing left-wing governments that don’t serve their economic interests. A key historic example is the ousting of democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973 after he moved to nationalize the copper industry. Instead the U.S. established the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet that committed egregious human rights abuses against its own people until it ended in 1990. 

U.S. military intervention is something Latin American nations have dealt with since their emancipation from Spain. 

Like many, I want to see socialist policies that improve the lives of the poor in Venezuela, and it’s obvious that Maduro can’t be that. But I am cautious and watching intently as to what sort of leader Juan Guaidó will be as he’s backed by the United States, who has a habit of removing socialist presidencies and implanting right-wing governments that serve their specific interests.