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Venezuela and the Coronavirus: Another Path Is Possible

The international community should focus on humanitarian aid, and try to prevent a health disaster that could spread across much of Latin America.
A woman exits a Caracas grocery store during the second week of a national quarantine.Leonardo Fernandez Viloria/Getty Images

On March 26, U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced indictments of Venezuela’s authoritarian leader, Nicolás Maduro, and 14 senior current and former Venezuelan officials. The indictments, including a $15 million reward for Maduro’s capture, represent the latest tightening of the screws aimed at toppling the regime or forcing it to accept free elections.

The sanctions came amid a looming public health catastrophe as the coronavirus races around the globe. Venezuela is uniquely unprepared to treat or contain the virus, representing a threat to not only its own people but to public health in neighboring countries due to ongoing levels of migration. As such, rather than take steps to try to isolate the regime further, the international community should mobilize to provide massive humanitarian aid to neutral third parties in Venezuela. This could help avert contagion inside the country and dramatically reduce the risk to other countries to which desperate Venezuelans are fleeing.

As of March 29, Venezuela claimed it had 119 cases, out of a total of approximately 14,500 in Latin America and the Caribbean. Both numbers may seem modest. But in the absence of widespread testing, vast underreporting is to be assumed. 

To try to contain the virus’s spread, the Maduro regime has imposed a strict lockdown. The military and security forces now police the streets to enforce a nationwide quarantine, even as their chaotic blocking of roads has prevented the circulation of needed food, gasoline and other supplies. The U.S. indictments on March 26, as with previous individual, financial, oil sector and secondary sanctions, focus the regime’s efforts on survival, giving even greater power to the hardliners who currently dominate decision making. The timing could not have been worse. To meet the unprecedented threat of the coronavirus outbreak, civil society organizations were aiming to create spaces for the regime and the opposition to collaborate in mounting a national response. Opposition leader Juan Guaidó called for an emergency coalition government to confront the outbreak. But as the U.S. government doubles down, getting the regime to cooperate even on issues of life or death look remote at best. 

Venezuela is hardly the only country of the region where the poor face precarious living conditions. But the deprivation faced before the coronavirus is uniquely acute.

Venezuela’s vulnerability is difficult to overstate. The Global Health Security Index, a project that includes the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, gave Venezuela the worst score in the region, placing it among 20 lowest-ranking countries in the world. A survey last year by the Venezuelan nongovernmental organization Doctors for Health found that 63% of hospitals had experienced electrical service failures. Twenty percent did not have running water, and 70% received it only once or twice a week. People in poor neighborhoods—where food scarcity, power outages, and shortages of drinking water have been the norm—have little access to soap, let alone running water to wash hands. “Social distancing,” a staple of prevention in advanced economies, is impossible in densely-populated poorer areas. Venezuela is hardly the only country of the region where the poor face precarious living conditions. But the deprivation faced before the coronavirus is uniquely acute.

For example, a World Food Program assessment published in February 2020 indicated that only 8% of Venezuelans are “food secure;” 60% are “marginally food secure” and fully one in three “food insecure.” The humanitarian agency Caritas estimates that two-thirds of children under five in poor neighborhoods have or are at risk of malnutrition, including 12% for whom malnutrition is already moderate or acute. Those with access to dollars can buy goods, albeit at exorbitant prices. Before the coronavirus pandemic, remittances from Venezuelans abroad were estimated to top $4 billion this year. But as job loss and recession spread around the globe, that amount could be cut in half. Meanwhile, those without dollars are left with Venezuela’s worthless currency. According to the Caracas-based Center of Documentation and Analysis for Workers, the government-set minimum monthly wage is sufficient to buy less than 2% of the basic food basket for a family of five.

Mounting a vigorous international response to assist Venezuelan citizens now is both a humanitarian imperative and a requirement for regional stability.  Already some 5 million Venezuelans have fled to neighboring countries in search of basic necessities. The Maduro regime’s corruption, mismanagement, and gross incompetence had caused the Venezuelan economy to shrink by two-thirds since 2013. Now, the economy is in more rapid freefall as the price of oil, the country’s main export, plummets to $25-$30 per barrel, barely covering the costs of production. The push factors behind migration have never been greater. Although Colombia and Brazil have closed their land borders with Venezuela, they are incapable of controlling the hundreds if not thousands of informal crossing points that remain, many of them controlled by violent criminal gangs. Desperate Venezuelans will continue to seek refuge—in Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Trinidad and Tobago, and elsewhere—regardless of formal migration restrictions. A nightmarish spread of the coronavirus pandemic beyond Venezuela’s borders is not unimaginable.

Despite the Maduro regime’s longstanding unwillingness to admit the existence of a humanitarian crisis, UN agencies have built up a significant presence on the ground. Many work closely with other international and Venezuelan non-governmental organizations, including the Red Cross. On March 17, the Venezuelan government requested the UN’s help in responding to the coronavirus, something that gives the UN leverage in expanding existing operations of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and UNICEF, among other UN agencies. Just as important, the government’s request to the UN also gives it a unique opportunity to open up space for non-governmental organizations, who are demanding guarantees for the rights of healthcare and humanitarian workers to operate without threat or impediment, especially in Venezuela’s hard-hit interior.  Indeed, many in civil society are pushing the government and opposition to adopt a political agreement in order to fight the pandemic more effectively.

U.S. officials have needlessly politicized the humanitarian issue.

The U.S. government has provided more than any other international donor to assist Venezuelan refugees outside Venezuela. But U.S. officials have needlessly politicized the humanitarian issue—insisting, for example, in Feb. 2019 that a massive, and ultimately unsuccessful, effort to deliver food and medical aid inside Venezuela be coordinated through interim President Juan Guaidó. The opposition has a role in expanding humanitarian aid delivery to Venezuela through neutral third parties, as does the international community. Irrespective of what would be politically desirable, so does the Venezuelan government. It controls the ministry of health and associated healthcare centers and has veto power over what enters the country. Expanded aid needs its buy-in, not resistance.   

After Venezuelan citizens, Colombia has the most to lose from a failure to act. It is at the epicenter of the Venezuelan migration human tragedy, with some 1.7 million refugees arriving over the last five years.  Colombia’s public health system, already stretched to the limits before the coronavirus, could well be overwhelmed should the pandemic spread.

Colombian and Venezuelan officials have put aside deep antagonisms to open discussions over how to limit the spread of the coronavirus even while the border remains closed. The United Nations has also taken action, distributing more than 2,000 diagnostic kits and 150,000 masks for doctors in Venezuela. Its agencies are also working to improve sanitation and increase access to clean water in the 45 hospitals designated by the government to receive coronavirus patients. There are precedents for successful collaboration. After the nationwide blackouts that began in March 2019 led to scores of patient deaths, international organizations like PAHO and UNICEF provided generators to hospitals, drastically reducing mortalities. With PAHO’s support, health workers carried out a country-wide measles vaccination campaign that reached almost 9 million children, reigning in an outbreak that had resulted in over 7,000 cases.

While U.S. sanctions technically exempt humanitarian aid, in practice they prohibitively raise the transaction costs of doing any business with Venezuelan entities. Clarifying a sanctions exemption to provide funding to UN agencies and private aid organizations with “boots on the ground” is a vital aspect to address the current health emergency. 

The Maduro regime bears responsibility for its wretched lack of preparedness to face the current global pandemic. But the international community should spare no effort to assist Venezuela’s desperate population, along with Venezuela’s neighbors that continue to inherit the human consequences of the regime’s disastrous failures. 

Arnson is director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. Van Praag is a research consultant.


Tags: coronavirus, Nicolás Maduro
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