Yes, a Crisis Could Bring More Authoritarianism. Ask a Venezuelan

While risks for freedom increase in several countries, Venezuelans already know how an autocracy keeps society from working together to face a crisis

Photo: Carlos Jaimes

Nayib Bukele, president of El Salvador, just passed a law to temporarily suspend the protection of certain fundamental rights; the Center for Sociological Investigations, controlled by the Spanish government, asked citizens if they consider it necessary to censor the media; the president of the Philippines ordered the police to shoot anyone generating commotion. These are the types of headlines that raise concerns and display the different battles going on at this moment, and although the struggle against COVID-19 is of the utmost importance, there’s a particular fight whose outcome is essential, too: the fight between democracy and authoritarianism.

The pandemic has forced governments to take emergency measures (extraordinary problems require extraordinary solutions), but what’s easy to apply during the storm, may be very hard to quit when calm returnsand some regimes, used to abusing power, are disinclined to surrender control in regular circumstances, let alone in emergencies such as these. Venezuelans know first hand what it’s like to have civil liberties reduced and watch autocrats disguised as democrats taking off their masks, using some crisis as an excuse. 

So we speak from experience: the claim that it’s okay to give up some freedoms to overcome dire hardships is plainly unacceptable.

What’s easy to apply during the storm, may be very hard to quit when calm returnsand some regimes, used to abusing power, are disinclined to surrender control.

Nicolás Maduro’s regime doesn’t require a state of emergency to oppress civil liberties, but it certainly suits its needs; with a very contagious virus on the loose and a health system destroyed by negligence, anyone who spreads information contradicting state media (or anyone who doesn’t comply with the imposed measures) is a target. The arrest without due process of journalist Darvinson Rojas, or the little credibility inspired by the official figures on the pandemic, makes it very clear. 

The idea that “we need to be controlled” as a way to ensure everyone’s safety is the first lie with which democracies fall. No citizen, anywhere in the world, should have to decide between their individual liberties and their health, nor do emergency measures have to be permanent. The desired outcome of this story is one in which, once we overcome the pandemic, we find more inclusive democracies and institutions that guarantee freedom and security for everyone.

The crisis has also shown the limitations of the National Assembly, despite some great efforts, and has given Maduro an opportunity to consolidate his grasp on power, with citizens that, because of the quarantine, can’t go out and demonstrate about the many issues of our day-to-day life. 

The way to overcome this crisis, with a global society that includes strong and inclusive democracies, is empowering citizens with real and accessible information, and it’s necessary to build trust between institutions and the people. Venezuelans’ trust in their security and health institutions in the hands of the very regime that destroyed themand is accused of drug trafficking, mind youis null. Regardless of the veracity of the stories about what pretty much are refugee camps for all Venezuelans reentering the nation, where people must endure some pretty rough conditions, the fact is that there’s uncertainty and mistrust, and Venezuelans will prefer not reporting their illness, for fear of what that report may bring. 

Basically, our country is in grave need of a political change that allows institutions to make consensual decisions and prioritize the people’s well-being. True freedom of speech and information is required so citizens can inform themselves without political overtones in matters of health, as this requires the preexistence of institutions close to people that can set the quarantine guidelines without incurring in abuses of power. Only through effective cooperation between citizens and the state can this crisis be overcome, while deepening social and democratic developmentinstead of proving our worst fears true, reinforcing despotism.