Venezuela Weekly: COVID Pandemic Eclipses Political Crisis

With countries across the world struggling to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, Venezuela is no exception. In recent days, both the Maduro government and the opposition have announced new measures to respond to the looming health crisis. 

Maduro, for his part, has extended the national lockdown for another 30 days, until May 11.  At time of writing the government has announced it has carried out over 200,000 tests with just 204 confirmed cases and nine deaths from the disease. This figure is the among the lowest in the region, but it has been widely questioned by health experts.

As Reuters reports, one important factor in Venezuela’s low number of confirmed cases is the low quality of testing. Some 99 percent of the tests that have been carried out so far have been Chinese rapid antibody tests, which the World Health Organization (WHO) has said should not be used for diagnosis because of their low accuracy rate. There are more accurate nasal swab tests being carried out by the National Hygiene Institute, but their laboratory only has capacity to process 100 tests per day.

While the prospects of a humanitarian accord, which many Venezuelan civil society groups have been campaigning for, remain dim, this week saw an important glimmer of hope on this front.  

In a virtual press conference Thursday, the National Assembly’s Commissioner for the United Nations Miguel Pizarro announced that the opposition would be willing to use its access to funds and international donors to mobilize funds to support public health institutions via the UN humanitarian system. The only condition for this, according to Pizarro, would be that Maduro show “genuine political will” to allow full access for humanitarian actorswhich currently face bottlenecks to registration that limit their operation. 

This announcement represents a small but significant shift in tone for the opposition, which had previously suggested that there could be no adequate response to the pandemic that did not involve Maduro’s immediate departure (see Leopoldo Lopez’s April 6 op-ed in El Pais, or this April 12 interview with Juan Guaidó).  The announcement has so far not received widespread media attention, however, because it was overshadowed by a separate announcement by Guaidó that the National Assembly would seek to pay health workers $100 per month for three months during the pandemic, using a “virtual wallet” that would be overseen by the Organization of American States (OAS).  The timeline and logistics of these payments remains to be seen, however.

International Response 

  • In a Washington Post op-ed, David Smilde and Abe Lowenthal argue that international coordination on negotiations is essential for a transition in Venezuela. They write: “If the United States and Russia were to align on Venezuela, it would be virtually impossible for either side to resist meaningful compromise.”
  • Maduro has enjoyed support from his traditional international backers in the face of the pandemic: China, Russia, and Cuba. Following the shipment of tens of thousands of antibody and PCR tests from China, this week saw the Russian government also send technical aid, including 20,000 PCR tests. Cuba has meanwhile reportedly sent more medical personnel to the country to assist in testing, and the government revealed on April 16 that four Cuban health professionals are among those who have tested positive. 
  • Russia’s Foreign Ministry rejected the U.S. State Department’s initiative for a transition government in Venezuela, issuing a statement saying: “The ideas voiced by the United States look more like an ultimatum to the legitimate authorities of an independent sovereign state than a move towards national accord. After looking into the US initiative, we do not think it deserves a serious response.”  The statement does say that the Russians would not avoid contact with the U.S. government on the issue, but it clarifies this does not mean that Russia is ready to change its position. 
  • Maduro spoke on the phone with the Chinese President Xi Jinping on April 10, an important sign of support from China. In a statement, Xi said the Chinese government is “ready to step up cooperation with Venezuela on outbreak response and continue to offer help,” and “expressed China’s support for the Venezuelan government.” When asked about this remark, President Donald Trump told reporter that he was “not happy” with the call. China also sent a delegation of health specialists and doctors to Venezuela for two weeks, which wrapped up their mission on April 11. 

Humanitarian Assistance

  • The past week also saw the arrival of 90 tons of humanitarian assistance to the country on April 9, facilitated by the United Nations. The medical equipment will go to support 14 hospitals designated for the COVID-19 response, as well as 50 outpatient clinics and child development centers in Venezuela. The shipment was supported by international donors, including USAID,  the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), as well as other UN agencies. The shipment was received in a ceremony presided by Delcy Rodriguez, as well as UN Resident Coordinator Peter Grohman.
  • The Red Cross also sent a new shipment of 45 tons of humanitarian aid (medical and hygiene supplies) to Venezuela on April 13. So far this year, the Red Cross has sent 88 tons of assistance to the country.

Repression and Social Unrest

  • PROVEA reports that  government repression has continued apace  amidst the pandemic. Between March 4 and April 7, the human rights group reports that 34 arbitrary detentions took place. This includes 10 journalists, 5 medical personnel, and 5 members of Juan Guaidó’s political team, most of whom appear to have been targeted for criticism of the government’s response to the health crisis. Twelve of these detainees were freed, 12 were provisionally released, and ten remain in detention.
  • The Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict recorded 580 protests in March, nationwide. According to the organization, the main reason for the protests is economic and social demands, and it appears that fuel shortages are becoming an increasing trigger for protests. The group highlights that such protests have taken place even despite the lockdown measures announced by the government. 

Migration

  • The Colombian government has requested the support of the international community to increase resources for Venezuelans in the country during the health emergency. While migrants and refugees have been excluded from many social policies in the face of the pandemic, this week the Colombian government announced it would be providing essential goods to some 200,000 Venezuelan families in need.
  • In the face of increasingly adverse conditions in host countries, some Venezuelan migrants and refugees have decided to return to Venezuela. The Maduro government claims that approximately 500 more are returning each day. Upon returning, they are finding a dire welcome. Venezuelan security forces have begun operating 14-day quarantine camps for returned migrants in border areas, which Bloomberg reports lack running water, sufficient food, or basic standards of hygiene.