Foreign Policy

Underneath Cowl of Coronavirus, Maduro Is Consolidating Management

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EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re making some of our coronavirus pandemic coverage free for nonsubscribers. You can read those articles here and subscribe to our newsletters here.

Few countries are as ill-equipped to deal with a pandemic as Venezuela. Despite boasting the largest proven oil reserves on the planet, the South American nation is mired in economic, political, and social turmoil. Some 4.5 million Venezuelans have left altogether, mostly for other Latin American countries, with doctors and nurses among them. Those that stay have to work with dwindling resources. Roughly eighty percent of Venezuela’s hospitals lack basic supplies, including soap, masks and gowns, while a survey of doctors across the country carried out by the local nongovernmental organization Médicos Unidos in March this year found that 32 percent of respondents did not have reliable running water in their health centers.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has taken hold in the country. Venezuela had confirmed 23,280 cases of coronavirus and 202 deaths as of Aug. 7, with two senior figures in the government—United Socialist Party of Venezuela politician Diosdado Cabello and the country’s oil minister, Tareck El Aissami—testing positive for the coronavirus, although observers see little reason to trust the government’s data. The government’s outlook is also contradicted by the worsening outbreak in hot spots across Venezuela, including in the country’s northwestern Zulia state. A study carried out by the Venezuelan Academy of Physical, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences and published on May 11 projected the possibility of up to 4,000 daily cases between June and September.

As hospitals get overrun and confidence in government collapses, Venezuela is bracing for chaos. But President Nicolás Maduro has been treating this crisis as an opportunity, steadily strengthening his grip on power ahead of this year’s parliamentary elections.

An investigation carried out by Alianza Rebelde Investiga—a coalition of three independent Venezuelan media outlets—found that when cases jumped 93 percent in the last week of May, hospitals across the country were without X-ray machines and reliable water. The last time the government provided reliable and comprehensive data on disease outbreaks was in 2016. “The health system here is severely weakened and hospitals are in ruin,” said José Félix Oletta, who served as Venezuela’s health minister from 1997 to 1999. “We have shortages of everything from masks and ventilators to hospital beds, we have an impoverished population without basic food security, and there are huge faults in the epidemiological information offered and in the transparency of the response.”

The government has attempted to show strength by using the military to enforce a nationwide curfew and social distancing measures. But most Venezuelans make less than $10 a month, and many could not afford to stay home. Videos circulating on social media showed bustling markets, one of the few spots where goods are available, but possible hot spots for virus transmissions. Despite the urgency of the crisis, Maduro and his chavista allies have been using it to strengthen their hand against the opposition. “To a government that is determined to cling on no matter what, a crisis is an opportunity to cement itself in power,” said Raúl Gallegos, the director of Control Risks, a consultancy firm.

Maduro currently remains in power, though a U.S.-led coalition of more than 50 countries does not recognize his legitimacy, instead backing 37-year-old opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who declared himself as the constitutionally mandated president in January 2019. Despite mounting pressure abroad for regime change and a botched attempt to oust Maduro militarily in April 2019, Guaidó has made few practical gains. The young opposition leader’s stake was further weakened following a calamitous attempt claimed by an American mercenary, Jordan Goudreau, to force Maduro from office. The plot was quickly foiled, arrests were made, and Maduro came out looking in control.

Indeed, in recent weeks, Maduro has managed to strengthen his grip on the country’s institutions and political parties. In mid-June, Venezuela’s top court—which remains loyal to Maduro—ousted the leaders of two major opposition parties, replacing them with chavista loyalists. In early July a similar move suspended the leadership of Voluntad Popular, the former party of Guaidó.

These authoritarian moves, which occurred despite an early June agreement to work with Guaidó and health officials to tackle the coronavirus outbreak roundly drew criticism from observers. “When a judiciary that answers to Maduro decapitates opposition political parties that represent dissenting voices, it undermines the rights of all Venezuelans, dispensing with even the pretense of a democratic process,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement at the time. “Venezuelans’ right to vote for their preferred candidates requires a free and fair election in which all parties and candidates have a reasonable opportunity to present their ideas to the electorate.”

Despite the criticism, Maduro has emerged firmly in command of the levers of power in Caracas. “It’s an asymmetrical situation: Guaidó has support and some power outside the country, but inside the country all the power is concentrated in the government,” said Margarita López, who recently retired as a professor of political science at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas. Chief among Maduro’s ability to stay afloat is his largely unwavering support from the military. That support is difficult to break, as Maduro willingly turns a blind eye to the military’s excesses, including involvement in the illegal trafficking of drugs and minerals such as gold and coltan. He is also bolstered by civilian militias, known as colectivos, which have been accused by human rights watchdogs of carrying out extrajudicial executions of opposition supporters.

Maduro, as is common practice for dictators in times of crisis, has been furthering repression. Journalists have reported harassment by authorities and Maduro’s supporters while covering the pandemic. The Committee to Protect Journalists slammed Maduro’s administration after Darvinson Rojas, a freelancer, was violently detained in late March, ahead of other crackdowns.

Adding oil to a raging fire, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has sent mixed messages to Maduro at breakneck speed. At the end of March, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted Maduro and 14 of his suspected cronies for drug trafficking, offering a $15 million dollar reward for information. That was followed days later by calls from Elliott Abrams, the U.S. special representative for Venezuela, for Guaidó and Maduro to step aside and allow for free and fair elections to resolve the impasse. Then the administration announced that it was dispatching a naval flotilla to the Caribbean to combat narcotrafficking, an unmistakably provocative display of force.

The browbeating did not stop there. In late June, the White House sanctioned Iranian ships for delivering oil to Venezuela, and a U.S. Navy ship navigated near Venezuela’s coast. Trump also signaled a willingness to meet with Maduro before walking it back shortly afterward.

“Ultimately what I see is a White House with no clear plan,” said Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuela expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank. “One day it’s indictments, another it’s negotiations, and then the next it’s back to saber rattling. They’re throwing everything at the wall and hoping that something sticks.”

But pugnacious words and actions out of Washington tend to favor Maduro, who is comfortable both leveling blame on the United States for his country’s woes and mocking it for its own challenges. “You’d have to be a degenerate to wish any country in the world an evil as great as becoming the epicenter of a pandemic,” he said in a combative televised address on March 26, the same day that the United States announced its indictments and became the country with the largest number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus.

Adopting a siege mentality rallies Maduro’s supporters behind the flag and allows him to lambaste U.S. sanctions. But observers say those sanctions, while adding to the hurt of Venezuelans, are not responsible for the health system’s disarray. “The health service had collapsed long before sanctions were imposed,” Phil Gunson, a consultant for the International Crisis Group in Caracas, said.

Venezuela’s ongoing response to the pandemic has raised eyebrows around the world. Despite its broken health system, local authorities are still reporting some of the lowest rates of infection and mortality in the region. But local health workers say that does not chime with the reality on the ground. “There is no way to assess if these numbers are right, and [the government] is not informing about results,” said Feliciano Reyna, who runs Acción Solidaria, a Caracas-based NGO that imports and distributes medicines to those who otherwise cannot get them. Reyna added that national lockdowns are hard to enforce, allowing the disease to spread unchecked. “It’s impossible to enforce quarantines, when people cannot afford to buy food for more than two or three days. This is happening all over.”

Maduro’s government has relied on rapid-result blood tests donated by China, which give a quick diagnosis, but are considerably less reliable than the molecular version of the test recommended by the World Health Organisation. Reuters found that the National Institute of Hygiene, responsible for administering the 15-minute tests, “can’t keep pace with the retesting workload, creating a backlog that has kept Venezuela’s coronavirus case count artificially low.” The news agency reported that 100 tests a day was a more realistic figure. In July, Reyna said that “there’s simply no way of knowing how many tests are being carried out.”

As the political stalemate in Caracas continues, heath experts who once hoped that some common ground between Maduro and Guaidó would appear in response to the crisis are now disappointed. “The situation really is very difficult and getting worse,” Reyna said. “Moving against the opposition, arbitrarily arresting health professionals and journalists, overstitching a dire health system: The government is simply trying to divert responsibility for its failings in the pandemic.”

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