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Hunger, Infection, and Repression: Venezuela’s Coronavirus Calamity

In late February, Carolina González, a Venezuelan health-care worker, was summoned for a meeting near the Clinic hospital, in northern Caracas. Doctors, nurses, residents, and union leaders crowded the room. One of the doctors spoke of a deadly virus that had originated in China and was spreading rapidly around the world. The doctor said that no cases of the coronavirus had been confirmed yet in Venezuela, but the country’s ties with China were close enough that workers needed to know that it would surely reach them and their families. “Fear took hold of every one of us,” González recalled. Many people around her broke into tears. Others asked how a country where most hospitals lack running water, electricity, and soap could combat such an illness. González’s thoughts drifted away from the meeting room. She feared for her seventy-year-old mother, who suffers from hypertension; her three children, ages twenty-one, eighteen, and eleven; and her granddaughter, who has been in González’s charge since her daughter-in-law fled to Peru, in search of work. With a joint income of ten dollars per month, González and her partner support the entire family. Sheltering in place was not an option for them, nor for millions in Venezuela, a country where the poor line up outside slaughterhouses to fill buckets with cow blood, the only protein they can afford.

González, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, lives with her family in Barrio Kennedy, a slum on the capital’s southwestern edge. Spread for miles over a hilltop, the community is blanketed by red-brick shanties and narrow streets. Like many of her neighbors, González, who is in her forties, knew that a national lockdown would be impossible to comply with. “We were told that the cure to the coronavirus was isolation,” she said. “But, in a country where there is no food, no water, no light, no nothing, how are you supposed to isolate?” In mid-March, when President Nicolás Maduro ordered a lockdown, she and many other Venezuelans carried on with their normal lives. That meant going to the market every day to find whatever they could afford, if anything. Venezuela has the highest inflation rate in the world—bolivares are practically worthless, and most prices are in U.S. dollars. “A kilo of flour that today costs two hundred and ten thousand bolivares will be two hundred and fifteen thousand tomorrow,” González told me. Eggs now cost more than the monthly minimum wage, and the World Food Programme has warned of a potential famine during the coronavirus pandemic.

Even if González had the means to buy food, she would have no way to store it for long periods of time. Power in Kennedy comes and goes. The first time González and I spoke, she had gone twenty-two days without running water. When it finally returned, in the middle of the night, she woke her children to help her fill every container they had. “We spent hours filling tanks, plastic buckets, pitchers, pots, bottles,” she recalled. “We’d fill teaspoons if we could!” Amid such deprivation, doctors are finding it difficult to raise awareness about covid-19. Jaime Lorenzo, a surgeon from Caracas, told me that he has spent days in the city’s slums talking about how to contain the virus. “When you tell people that they need to wash their hands for at least forty seconds, they look at you as if you came from another world,” Lorenzo said. “An old lady recently told me, ‘Look, my son, I’d rather die from covid than from hunger.’ And when someone speaks to you with such truths, there’s nothing else to be said.”

Until last week, the Maduro regime had recorded a suspiciously low case count—fewer than a thousand coronavirus infections and only ten deaths in a nation of twenty-nine million. In recent days, though, the number of cases reported by the government more than doubled. Some argue that Venezuela’s isolation from the rest of the world has helped contain the virus’s spread, but the country’s limited testing casts doubt on the official figures. All testing has been centralized in one laboratory, the National Institute of Hygiene, in Caracas, which can only process six hundred tests per day. Since the country’s first coronavirus cases were reported, on March 13th, the government has carefully guarded testing data. Julio Castro, an infectious-disease specialist at the Central University, in Caracas, criticized the government’s lack of transparency. “They claim to be making hundreds of thousands of rapid tests, but no one knows how or where they are being conducted,” Castro, who also advises the opposition leader Juan Guaidó, said. “If you don’t have any information or data to monitor an epidemic, it will very likely go astray.”

It’s increasingly clear that Venezuela’s regime is using the pandemic to strengthen its hold on power. Earlier this month, the Academy of Physical, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences issued a report accusing the government of underreporting infections. It warned of an estimated one thousand to four thousand cases, per day, as early as June. Days later, Diosdado Cabello, the Vice-President of Venezuela’s ruling party, dismissed the report and announced an investigation into the academy’s work. Appearing on his weekly state-television program, “Beat Them with a Club,” Cabello declared the report “an invitation to state security bodies to summon” its authors. Maduro’s nationwide lockdown has largely thwarted people’s ability to hold mass demonstrations. In a show of force, the military is enforcing quarantine measures and overseeing hospitals. More than a dozen health-care workers and journalists have been detained for speaking publicly about missing supplies or questioning the official infection count. As the pandemic spreads, the Trump Administration has continued its aggressive use of economic, legal, and military pressure on Venezuela—first by tightening sanctions, and recently by deploying naval destroyers off the country’s coast.

The country’s health-care system is in disarray after years of mismanagement and corruption. Shortages of medicine, supplies, and personal protective equipment are endemic. As of May 28th, six of the sixteen hospitals tracked by health-care unions in Caracas did not have face masks, five had no running water, and thirteen did not have soap. Not a single MRI machine in the capital is running. In the country’s forty largest hospitals, just more than two hundred ventilators and a hundred and sixty-three I.C.U. beds are functioning. Doctors no longer speak of apagones, or blackouts, but of alumbrones—a reference to the rare occasion when the lights turn back on. The majority of Venezuelan doctors have fled, and those who chose to stay say that they are woefully unprepared to deal with a pandemic. Lorenzo, the surgeon in Caracas, fears that the coronavirus is drawing attention away from combatting other diseases. A number of illnesses, including measles and diphtheria, have resurfaced in recent years. “We have malaria and tuberculosis pretty much all over the country, malnutrition is growing, and cancers go untreated,” he said.

The regime has not published periodic health statistics in years, and one of the few international organizations with knowledge of the situation is the World Health Organization. Its local representative, Gerardo de Cosío, has publicly praised some of the measures adopted by the regime, and has also participated in meetings held by a government-appointed commission, treading carefully in his dealings with officials. “We have to earn their confidence in order to access that kind of information,” de Cosío told me. “And we try to keep a low profile to have an impact on the country’s health issues.” Many of the Venezuelan doctors who have spent years denouncing the system’s deterioration take issue with the W.H.O.’s approach. “It’s a problem when technicians assume a diplomatic role just to guarantee their presence in the country,” Lorenzo said. The fear is that the W.H.O.’s coöperation with Maduro may conjure a false sense of security, and allow officials to deflect attention from the dire conditions inside hospitals.

Nationwide, gas shortages make it increasingly difficult for medical workers and sick patients to reach hospitals. Although Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves, the government has no means to refine them, and it relies heavily on imports. Many gasoline stations in the country have closed, and those that remain open are tightly guarded by the military. Lines outside gas stations stretch for miles in Caracas and elsewhere, and people wait for hours, if not days, only to get five or ten gallons. According to the government, doctors and nurses should be able to fill their tanks freely, but the health workers I spoke to said that they’re subject to the whims of whichever military officer is in command. González can no longer rely on the minibus she used to ride to get to the train every day. Instead, she has to walk several miles to her closest subway station, where trains are often too crowded to board. Funeral homes also struggle to find gasoline for hearses. In some cases, families have been forced to transport the bodies of their loved ones in the backs of their own cars. Military officers are reportedly asking hearse drivers to show corpses as a condition for filling their tanks.

Inside hospitals, military officers are also asserting their authority. Some health workers said that they were directly involved in medical decisions. Others claimed that they were primarily there to spy on health-care workers. “Sometimes they pretend to be patients or dress as civilians,” Mauro Zambrano, a union representative of hospitals and clinics in Caracas, told me. “You see someone standing in a corner, looking around conspicuously, and you know it’s a military agent.” He added, “Infectious-disease wards typically have a very limited staff, three doctors and three nurses, and they’re terrified of telling the truth about what they see.” According to the human-rights group Foro Penal, at least eighteen health-care workers and journalists have been detained for denouncing conditions inside hospitals or criticizing the government. “One can’t contest the data publicly without being cast as a liar or risking persecution,” a doctor from the western state of Barinas, who asked not to be named, told me.

In late March, six members of a special police force surrounded the home of a journalist named Darvinson Rojas, in Caracas. Rojas had tweeted about a discrepancy in the government case count, and the officers claimed to have received an anonymous tip regarding a covid-19 case. After Rojas refused to open his door before seeing a search warrant, forty officers arrived and took him into custody. He spent twelve days in detention and was released pending a criminal investigation on several charges, including inciting hatred. “It sets a precedent,” Rojas told me. “What they’re wanting to say is that the only figures that can be put out are theirs.” Similar excuses have been used to go after members of the opposition. Ten people close to Juan Guaidó have been detained—half of them were abducted in the midst of the pandemic.

After Maduro declared a lockdown, on March 16th, Henrique Capriles, a leader of the opposition, called for a negotiation with the regime to address the needs of Venezuelans during the pandemic. “You know you can’t do this alone, that you need international help,” Capriles said. The I.M.F. had just rejected the government’s request for five billion dollars of assistance, and Maduro offered to begin talks without Guaidó. Ultimately, the opposition and the government could not reach an agreement. Since Guaidó declared himself interim President, last year, he’s repeatedly insisted that Maduro step down and allow a transition to democracy in Venezuela. Michael Shifter, the president of the Inter-American Dialogue, said that Guaidó should compromise. “The opposition makes the argument that, in order to solve the humanitarian crisis, you have to have a political solution,” Shifter told me. “I think that’s true over the long term, but saving lives should take precedence right now.”

The Trump Administration, though, has complicated negotiations with bellicose rhetoric and demands for Maduro’s arrest. The day after Capriles’s call for negotiation, the U.S. Justice Department indicted Maduro and fourteen other Venezuelan officials on charges of narco-terrorism and corruption. Attorney General William Barr claimed that the timing of the announcement was right because “people are suffering.” But many observers said that the indictments and other Administration actions doomed potential talks between the regime and the opposition. Less than a week later, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a “Democratic Transition Framework for Venezuela,” which proposed a lifting of U.S. sanctions and then a free election. It also stipulated that the military high command can remain in power until elections are held. Pompeo’s framework was similar to a proposal laid out by Guaidó last year, during talks brokered by Norway. But the opposition leader was not one of the people whom the State Department’s proposal named as potential members of a new Council of State. “It’s one thing if Guaidó decides to take a step back, and another if the Americans decide to leave him out,” a leader of the opposition told me. (A State Department official said that the framework would allow Guaidó to run for President eventually.)

The Administration’s twin announcements appear to be backfiring. For more than a year, it has tried to convince the military that abandoning Maduro is in their best interest. Yet the indictment seems to have convinced military leaders that they are better off remaining loyal to Maduro. Inside the regime, generals and admirals have free rein to command, and profit, from state contracts or illicit activities. If they abandon it, they face accountability, or worse, retribution. “To undertake both of these in the midst of a pandemic just seems to be tone-deaf,” Shifter observed. “The Venezuelan military may be many things, it may be corrupted and involved in criminal activity, but I’m not sure they’re stupid.”

Elliott Abrams, the U.S. government’s special representative for Venezuela, has publicly defended the framework. He has insisted that Venezuelan officials have reached out to the State Department, secondhand or thirdhand, to inquire about it. Some say that the Administration’s approach is the result of incompetence; others point to domestic political interests. “Maybe the audience is not the Venezuelan regime,” Harold Trinkunas, a scholar of Venezuelan politics at Stanford University, told me. “Maybe the audience are Venezuelan-Americans and other conservative-leaning people in Florida, for whom the indictments against Maduro are more important than the transitional framework.”

The pandemic has also placed U.S. sanctions in the spotlight. Since Trump took office, his Administration has carried out a “maximum pressure” campaign of attrition, gradually broadening sanctions against Venezuela. Many have questioned the efficacy of the current sanctions regime, which Maduro has largely managed to evade with the aid of Iran, Russia, and China. He has also shown a bewildering capacity to adapt in the midst of mayhem and retain the support of key military and political leaders. “When you’re the captain of a sailing ship, you want sailors who don’t know how to swim, because they have a vested interest in keeping the ship afloat,” Trinkunas said. “Every time the U.S. sanctions somebody in the Venezuelan regime, that’s one more sailor that has no other place to go.”

Abrams has insisted that none of the measures in place limit the flow of food or medicine to Venezuela, and he has rejected calls for sanctions relief during the pandemic. Yet experts point out that they act as a deterrent to any bank involved in transactions of humanitarian supplies to Venezuela, and that they may be hurting average Venezuelans. As Shifter observed, “It defies common sense to say that cutting off the main source of foreign exchange in the country only hurts the regime.”

In recent weeks, looting has spread across the country. For many Venezuelans, scenes of rioting and bloodshed bring to mind the caracazo, a mass revolt sparked, in the late nineteen-eighties, by a fiscal-austerity plan. Carolina González, the health-care worker, recently forwarded me a video of teen-agers brandishing rifles on the streets of Petare, a slum east of the capital. “They took to the streets after guards killed forty inmates for starting a riot,” she said. “They’re starving to death, and families are not allowed to take food into the prison, so they’re desperate.” At home, González is grappling with her own despair. Last month, the Minister of Education announced that in-person classes will be called off through the end of the year. That means, in addition to feeding her children, González has to insure they don’t fall behind in school in a community where power comes and goes, and where there is no Internet. More than once, the thought of moving to Colombia has crossed her mind. She could work there, if only for a few months, and give her children a better life. She could join the five million Venezuelans who have chosen to flee. But she knows that now is not the time—the pandemic has prompted many to lose their jobs abroad and return to Venezuela. “Everything is perfect. At least that’s what our President claims. Why doesn’t he come for a stroll around here, to see what it’s really like with his own eyes?” González said. “Before covid-19 arrived, we were dealing with another kind of virus: the virus of poverty.”




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