Photo: Ivan Reyes
The precarious state of its healthcare system, rampant power cuts, water and basic goods shortages, and a generally collapsed infrastructure on the background of punishing sanctions on its already devastated economy, are only some of the obstacles Venezuela is facing in the fight against COVID-19. Yet the biggest challenge, as usual in Venezuela, is purely political.
See, the already tense and divided political landscape has been galvanized by the USA’s recent indictment of Nicolás Maduro and several other regime officials for drug trafficking and terrorism, followed by the Department of State’s proposal of a Council of State without Maduro or Guaidó. There’s already a notorious rise in political persecution against the opposition, as authorities use COVID-19 to carry out arbitrary arrests.
There’s already a notorious rise in political persecution against the opposition, as authorities use COVID-19 to carry out arbitrary arrests.
Because COVID-19 is an element of our political landscape and it will remain being so for a while.
The escalation in the political arena poses a further threat to Venezuela’s already limited capabilities in the fight against COVID-19. Stepping down one epidemiological category, endemic outbreaks of preventable diseases like malaria, tuberculosis, diphtheria, measles, and HIV have been testing Venezuela’s emergency readiness for years, showing the collapsed healthcare system is incapable of carrying out even the most basic steps in epidemic mitigation.
Experts around the globe agree there’s but one strategy that works: testing, testing, testing—a difficult task for a country with just one institution (the National Hygiene Institute, in Caracas) capable of adequately performing a diagnosis. Patient treatment poses further difficulties, as most hospitals remain grossly unprepared, some lacking even basic services such as running water (not to mention medical supplies).
The harsh reality is that Venezuela can’t cope with a surge in the epidemic. The recent arrival of international aid from Russia, the UN and other organizations will provide some relief, although supplies on their own aren’t enough. The situation demands effective coordination between entities within the country, as well as its neighbors and other foreign governments—something which our current political reality doesn‘t allow.
Divisions in the political field are proving to be as costly for the fight against the virus as the nation’s devastated infrastructure.
A Global Pandemic as Means for Coercion
While the U.S. Navy deploys an anti-drug operation that could approach the coasts of Venezuela and Maduro makes a symbolic “call to arms” to defend the motherland, the regime’s priorities have now shifted from dealing with this new threat to dealing with the opposition, a faction that has also lost focus, as its leaders fill news headlines with familiar talks of a transition government (an American initiative) and the road to free elections. With all parties distracted by this recent momentum in the fight for democracy, the existential threat posed by COVID-19 has been effectively overshadowed by its political implications.
Trump’s apparently clumsy maneuver seems to assume that the rest of the interested parties understand that whatever plans to mitigate the pandemic now seem to depend entirely on a change of government. It’s the U.S.’ and the opposition’s hope that the dire need for international aid and a quick and effective response—neither of which Maduro’s government can provide—might drive the Armed Forces to the negotiation table.
The situation demands effective coordination between entities within the country, as well as its neighbors and other foreign governments—something which our current political reality doesn‘t allow.
However, the U.S. isn’t the only world power with interests in Venezuela. Their request for Chinese, Russian and Cuban officials to leave the country and make way for a transition government is as unlikely to yield results as their plea to the Armed Forces to turn on a government whose personal interests remain closely tied to their own. Setting aside the pandemic and Maduro’s indictment, the scenario we’re faced with is strikingly similar to the one we had a year ago when Guaidó was declared caretaker president, and it would be rather naïve to believe it will end differently.
Our present situation is more urgent than ever before, and whatever limited help Maduro’s government may be able to secure from its allies will undoubtedly fall short. Scenes of dead bodies piling up in the streets of Guayaquil, Ecuador, are but a taste of the horrors we might see in Venezuelan cities. There’s little doubt Maduro and his allies will first see their country plunge into unknown depths of misery before giving up any power.
As the prospects for a cross-party, unified response—arguably Venezuela’s best fighting chance—are lost, it’s becoming clear that the coronavirus crisis, a potential interlude in the political struggle, will carry a heavy cost for the Venezuelan people, and one that will ultimately be paid for with human lives.
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