Venezuela: From Crisis to Humanitarian Disaster

Image source: TASS

Background- Fall from Grace

Venezuela is under the autocratic rule of Nicholas Maduro. Under his rule the economy and along with the social and legal structures in the society, collapsed. Although the misfortune of heavy dependence on oil was to some extent inherited from the previous leader Chavez. However, the present situation is doing multiplicity of factors after Nicolas Maduro assumed power. The Venezuelan government has stopped releasing statistics and the mainstream media outlets are not allowed to run news of violence and dissent taking place in Venezuela. The opposition has overtaken the parliament. Corruption is rampant in the bureaucracy of the country. Maduro has prohibited aid from inside. There’ no worse way to manage the country.

The country which was once one of the richest in the region has now become a breeding ground for violation of several human rights and civil liberties. Plummeting value of Venezuelan Bolivars has exacerbated Poverty and crime rates. The dollarization has increased the gap between the small upper-class elites and the rest. Shortage of gasoline has heavily impacted the transportation and supply chains of essential commodities, depriving thousands of Venezuelans of basic needs. The poor and middle class are on streets every day protesting as they are forced to queue up in miles-long lines at gas stations.  Pharmacies are out of medicines, hospitals are short of equipment, farmers don’t have access to fertilizers and pesticides. Once eradicated diseases are claiming lives again. Desperation is driving people to kidnap for ransom and resort to looting to sustain themselves.

The two leaders Nicolas Maduro and Juan Guaido are busy in a power struggle to win their claim to the presidency. USA and Russia are in a quest to ensure their presence in Latin America. The blanket sanctions by the USA are aimed at cornering Maduro. Washington is on an endeavour to protect the interests of American companies in Venezuela and thereupon grants special licenses. Meanwhile, Russia, who owns several oil fields in Venezuela continues to criticise American sanctions and back Maduro in order to remotely resist a regime change that would be favourable to Washington. There’s little doubt that Venezuela is a site of proxy war.

Image source: BBC

The Humanitarian Disaster- citizen surrounded

The repercussions are more harmful than what meets the eye. The socio-economic issues are the root cause behind the ruin of welfare and justice systems. It’ also behind the largest exodus in the western hemisphere. The currency has become so worthless that people are crafting the paper notes into hats, crowns and other props. During the second half of 2019, the Government adopted economic and fiscal reforms to contain hyperinflation and increase the availability of goods. These reforms, however, led to a de facto dollarization of goods and services, increasing the gap between a minority of the population with access to foreign currency and the rest of the population. Currently, more than 90 percent of the population lives in poverty. The minimum wage has not been able to keep up with the inflation and the real income in terms of its purchasing power has fallen dramatically.

Hunger and malnutrition According to an evaluation undertaken by the World Food Programme (WFP) in October 2019, 59 per cent of households reported having insufficient income to buy food. Venezuelans have involuntarily lost around 19 pounds of weight due to their inability to purchase a proper diet for their families and themselves. Many people are forced to buy rotten meat and leftover portions of the game for food as its cheaper. This is also known as the “Maduro Diet”.

illustration by Brookings

The agriculture along with other sectors collapsed as the crisis unfolded. In the best-case scenario, cities with population loyal to Nicolas Maduro, only fruits and vegetables are available readily. But even they are too pricy for everyone to be able to purchase as per their need. The government launched the “CLAP” programme which distributes imported foodstuff from Mexico and Columbia to poor citizens. According to ENCOVI and independent initiative by universities of Venezuela to release true statistics, A staggering 87.5% of households now receive CLAP’s subsidized food handouts. Caracas Chronicles sees heavy dependence on politicised food distribution as Slavery. Still, 8.2 million had two meals a day or fewer. Sources of iron, vitamins and other nutrients were lacking from people’s diet. The food distributed under CLAP was found to be of extremely poor quality and causing ailments like food poisoning in the consumers.

Healthcare System

The country sees thousands of cases of diseases like malaria every year which was once upon a time eradicated from Venezuela. Prevalence of diseases like Zika, polio, diphtheria and measles has become a national concern. Infant mortality, an important indicator of the quality of public health services, grew by 44 percent between 2013 and 2016 and continues to increase. There are several infrastructural challenges. Hospitals are short of beds. The bed to population ratio is unsustainable. Surgical supplies are again insufficient. Hospitals face lack of beds and power cuts. During the coronavirus outbreak, 6 doctors died reportedly due to lack of PPEs. The hospitals do not have sufficient ventilators too.

illustration by Brookings

The Pharmaceutical Federation of Venezuela estimates the country is experiencing an 85 percent shortage of medicine. During the course of the crisis, the pharmaceutical market has shrunk greatly. This has discouraged imports. However, the bulk of the plunge occurred prior to the August 2017 sanctions. Since, President Maduro continues to refuse foreign humanitarian aid, blocking pharmaceutical shipments from entering the country, Venezuelans are forced to seek expired, or unaffordable medication, on the black market. According to official figures, Venezuela has registered some of the lowest numbers of confirmed cases in the Americas as a result of early quarantine, proactive identification of positive cases and information campaigns. The doubts about the credibility of the same still remain given the condition of the healthcare system.

Crimes, Violence and Protests

Even if a person is able to afford nutritious food and healthcare for themselves, it doesn’t ensure a safe and healthy life. Violence both at the hands of state and citizens is rampant in Venezuela, making It one of the most unsafe countries in Latin America. Although, a modest downward trend has been seen in the homicide rates but it isn’t enough to restore faith in the law enforcement bodies. Killings of young men by security forces in marginalized neighbourhoods continue to denote high levels of insecurity. An important dimension to violence is added by the continuous protests which often become sites of police brutality and looting.

Image source: NYT

“Protests are a general phenomenon in Venezuela,” says Vincente Quintero, a political and cultural analyst from the Caracas Metropolitan District. According to the NGO Observatorio Venezolano de la Conflictividad Social, from July 2019 to May 2020, 10,026 protests were registered throughout Venezuela. “Most of the anti-government protests used to be attended by the young, middle-class citizens of Venezuela, but as the national situation started to worsen, the poor started to protest against Maduro”, he adds. Most of them are related to low wages, high food prices, delays in the distribution of food assistance boxes, lack of basic services, poor healthcare, lack of water, high food prices and fuel scarcity.

Protestors often face arbitrary detention and custodial violence. Quintero remarks that the government has responded to reports of arbitrary detention and custodial violence, but they are highly contextual. OHCHR documented the killing of a man in the context of looting in the State of Bolivar on 23 April 2020. The criminal proceeding was initiated against four members of the municipal police for homicide and unlawful use of a firearm. “The Venezuelan State has duties to fulfil, but individual officers are more likely to be held accountable for their actions and decisions.”

Amidst this crisis, the refugee problem hardly comes as a surprise. According to the U.N. agencies, more than 2.7 million have left since 2015. That makes an average of 5,000 people crossing the border every day, mostly to Colombia. A country that opened the doors to refugees from Syria half a decade back has now become the largest sources of the diaspora in the West. However, the Government did seek the assistance of the United Nations to address the return of over 50,210 migrants affected by COVID-19 measures adopted in host countries.

Conclusion- the way forward

Quintero echoes the opinion of several others when he says “Venezuela is in trouble these days… It is time to solve the problems of Venezuelans, but it looks like the Venezuelan political parties and the foreign world powers are only seeking to make political capital out of the Venezuelan humanitarian crisis.”

On 13 March 2020, President Maduro decreed a “state of alarm” to address the COVID-19 pandemic. It sought support from the United Nations and adopted economic measures to alleviate the impacts of social confinement. However, it also observed that armed officers were involved in the enforcement of confinement measures in poor neighbourhoods. OHCHR also documented undue restrictions on access to information and expression, which resulted in the detention of demonstrators, journalists, human rights defenders, and political leaders by security forces.

According to OPEC, sanctions against the PDVSA oil production have contributed to a sharp decrease in revenue that could otherwise have been available for social programmes and public services. However, the problem goes beyond the geopolitics of oil and sanctions. Since President Maduro has restricted foreign aid, USA has resorted to inducing instability via National Endowment for Democracy and USAID, the messiahs of civil society organisation in Latin America and Venezuela in particular. NED is particularly known to fund local bodies which are anti-government, specifically, in countries that are averse to the USA. The politicisation of Civil Societies is an impediment in building a stable democracy where all voices receive an equal platform and the ultimate power lies with the. The goal is a democratic regime and not a puppet installation.

As a society, Venezuela still has a long way to go. “There is still a lot to overcome when it comes to women and LGBT rights in Venezuela. Legislation has been passed in order to achieve gender equality. However, nothing substantial has been done to materialise the promises” said Quintero. This indeed highlights the absence of true expression of public opinion in the function of the government and its opposition.

OHCHR recommends that access to key data to assess the realization of rights and re-establish the oversight role of the National Assembly on use of public funds must be guaranteed. The national annual budget and expenditure reports must be published on public domains.

Global action is required against discrediting human rights defenders and media professionals by the government and take effective measures to protect them. The use of force and the functions of “special forces’ must be regulated by international standards to prevent institutional or state-sponsored violence. The specialized protocol must be adopted to investigate human rights violations and criminal offences against protestors and activists as they are the custodians of democracy.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Nishtha Gupta

Nishtha Gupta is a Former Research Intern at The Kootneeti. Her areas of interest include Human Rights

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