Words by Florence Robson
Venezuela is facing a devastating political, human rights, and humanitarian crisis. The accumulation of power in the executive branch that began during the presidency of Hugo Chávez has enabled Venezuelan authorities to intimidate, censor, and punish its critics. This has only intensified under his appointed successor Nicolás Maduro with the arbitrary prosecution of political opponents. In early 2019, National Assembly President Juan Guaidó, invoking the Constitution, was declared by the legislature as acting head of state and was immediately recognised by the US, Canada and most European and Latin American countries. Despite this, Maduro continues to control all government institutions in the country, including the armed forces, with the sole exception of the Legislature.
Against this backdrop, more than 4 million Venezuelans have fled their country, generating an unprecedented refugee crisis in Latin America. Yet, while conditions on the ground continue to deteriorate regime change is still unclear. We hosted four expert speakers at The Conduit for a discussion around the origins of the Venezuelan crisis, the situation on the ground and the steps the international community can take.
Our speakers included Diego Moya-Ocampos, Principal Analyst, Latin America Country Risk Team, IHS Markit; Alejandro Arenas Pinto, Venezuelan Physician, Principal Clinical Research Fellow, UCL Centre for Clinical Research in Infection and Sexual Health; Tamara Taraciuk Broner, Acting Deputy Director, Americas Division, Human Rights Watch; and Stephanie Hancock, Media Manager, Human Rights Watch.
A collapsing economy
Chávez’s ascension to power in 1999, said Diego, was a direct response to political insecurity in Venezuela at the time. Twenty years later, the country is in an even more precarious position. The murder rate has risen from 24% per 100,000 inhabitants in 1999 to 79%, while the average salary is $2 a month, say the panellists. Venezuela has been in economic recession for more than five years, partly as the result of a lack of investment in the oil sector – the country’s main source of revenue. “How did we get to this point?”, asked Diego. “By widespread corruption and epic mismanagement from heads of state, as well as the dismantling of a very productive oil industry”.
Protests and repression
Human Rights Watch have been documenting the crackdown on public dissent in Venezuela for many years, said Tamara. “The first time Venezuelans took the streets on masse was in 2014 and then again in 2017. On both occasions there was a battering of dissent by security forces arm in arm with military groups, using excessive force against protesters.” More than 15,000 people have been detained, with many subject to arbitrary prosecutions without due process. What’s more, more than 800 civilians have been prosecuted by military courts – something not seen in Latin America since the dictatorships – and have been treated with electric shocks, severe beatings, being hung in uncomfortable positions and other shows of excessive force, as authorities try to get information on possible anti-government conspiracies.
Equally as disturbing is that almost 18,000 people have been killed in ‘alleged instances of resistance to authorities’ since 2016 – and those are only the people that the government recognise have been killed by security forces. These forces are going openly into (mostly low-income) neighbourhoods to take justice into their own hands, attacking or killing people without any evidence of criminal activity. “This has become a systematic practice by security forces that happens with total impunity”, said Tamara. The situation is worsened by the lack of judicial independence in Venezuela; the government has taken over the Supreme Court and most judges do not have security of tenure. In practice, this means that the justice is only useful to prosecute political critics and opponents, and not to investigate crimes.
A fleeing population
The situation in Venezuela has led to the largest refugee crisis in Latin America recent history, as Venezuelans flee the country in the most vulnerable circumstances, often leaving only with what they can carry. While those who could afford a plane ticket left months ago, the majority of those fleeing cross the border to Colombia and walk for days to a final destination, often ending up in Peru or Ecuador. The level of desperation means that people are exposing themselves to recruitment by armed groups, violent attacks and sexual abuse.
In the north of Brazil, the UN Refugee Agency has established 13 refugee camps – a response at a scale not previously seen. These camps are sheltering 6,500 Venezuelans and many are at maximum capacity, with people waiting outside for a space to be found.
As our panellists pointed out, Venezuela has a history of sheltering people fleeing from dictatorships across Latin America, meaning that neighbouring countries have been very welcoming to Venezuelan refugees. However, with 4.3 million people seeking shelter, the scale of the crisis is creating enormous challenges for countries that are unprepared to take people in, leading to rising incidents of xenophobia and legal restrictions.
A failing healthcare system
The manmade crisis in Venezuela is having serious consequences for the healthcare system, which is now on the brink of collapse. People with chronic conditions are struggling to access their medication while vaccine prevention has led to diseases including malaria and tuberculosis returning to the country. What’s more, these diseases and infections are in turn being exported via a fleeing population to neighbouring countries in a spreading health crisis.
Venezuelan authorities are making sustained efforts to hide the scale of the issue, harassing and retaliating against medical professionals who speak out and ordering doctors to edit patient death certificates to avoid mentioning malnutrition. Alejandro pointed out that this has led to a distinct lack of available information for any stakeholders, as the official documentation of health indicators – the government – is no longer reliable. “We have eliminated diseases like malaria in Venezuela before and we can do it again”, Alejandro said, “but we need to train people and provide them with the tools and resources to do their jobs”.
What can we do?
While protests can help to bring attention to the crisis, they’re not necessarily a long-term solution, agreed the panel. What’s more, while elections are vital, they are often rigged or go wrong. So, what is required from the international community to tackle the situation in Venezuela?
Firstly, the panel agree, the international community needs to properly understand the regime and its significance. “The only way to deal with these people is through a law enforcement solution”, Tamara said. “We need tougher sanctions against key officials implemented in corruption.”
Until recently, it’s been almost impossible for international organisations to help in Venezuela because of government restrictions, but now charities, aid groups and legal investigations are able to make headway in the country. Human Rights Watch are working to give victims access to justice abroad, collaborating with the International Criminal Court for a preliminary examination into possible crimes against humanity in Venezuela. They are also pushing hard for the UN Human Rights Council to adopt a fact-finding mission, where a group of independent international experts (to be appointed in the coming weeks) investigate arbitrary arrests, disappearances and torture.
When it comes to healthcare, it’s possible to support the charities working in the country as they deliver care and try to provide solutions. It’s not solving the crisis singlehandedly, points out Alejandro, but it is helping to ensure the survival of those unable to leave the country. Healing Venezuela is one such organisation; 90% of money raised by the charity goes directly to those on the ground, including doctors and nurses. “Tackling healthcare systems from the primary care approach can work very well in scenarios like malaria outbreaks”, said Alejandro, “but you need to combine this with universal approaches like tackling the mosquito population overall”.
Despite the subject matter being discussed, the panel ended on an optimistic note. “If we can be optimistic, we can achieve a more open world”, said Diego. “We can stand on our feet again”.