Covid-19, Sanctions and Venezuela

The following has been prepared by Next Century Foundation Research Officer Alexander Shah for submission by the Next Century Foundation as a statement to the 45th session of the UN Human Rights Council:

The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela has suffered over the past decade. Poverty rates have skyrocketed, basic goods have become scarce, and millions have fled the country. Covid-19 presents a dangerous new challenge to the country. The Venezuelan healthcare system is under tremendous pressure, having to deal with hospital overcrowding, insufficient equipment, and a limited ability to conduct testing. Only a quarter of doctors in the country have access to a reliable supply of clean water and two-thirds lack soap, gloves or masks. A new surge in Covid-19 cases could prove disastrous for the already collapsing healthcare system. 

Venezuela is hindered from delivering a rapid and efficient response to the Covid-19 crisis because of crippling sanctions imposed by the United States of America. The U.S. has continually ignored appeals by the Venezuelan government to ease sanctions, despite their clearly deleterious effect on the state’s citizens. 

Prior to any easing of sanctions, the United States has demanded that Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro, accused of authoritarian abuses of power, step down in order to hold new elections. The U.S. has charged President Maduro with the crime of “narco-terrorism” in an attempt to further this process. This move has further embittered President Maduro and narrowed the potential for discussion. 

The Next Century Foundation calls on the United States of America to end its debilitating sanctions on Venezuela in order to enable the country to adequately deal with the Covid-19 crisis. Likewise, we call on President Maduro to engage in discussions with Mr. Juan Guaidó, leader of the opposition, over how to effectively tackle the pandemic, and to potentially come to some sort of democratic power-sharing agreement as a precursor to free and fair elections.

The dangers of a fraudulent election in a fragile country

In May of this year, Venezuela will hold a presidential election between the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) party, led by President Nicolas Maduro, and the opposition ‘Progressive Alliance, under Henrí Falcon. The election comes at a time of tremendous turmoil for Venezuela. Gripped by an economic crisis: poverty, crime, and starvation have become the norm for the people. This crisis has been exacerbated by Maduro’s repressive actions to solidify his power, destroying democratic institutions in the process. In doing so, violent protests have arisen throughout the country as desperation turns to aggression. Such violence will only be aggravated by the May election, as Maduro has seemingly prevented any actual regulatory powers from being implemented, ensuring a sham vote, not unlike the July 2017 vote for the Constituent Assembly.

Whilst predictions are dangerous, the hopes for a fair election have been crushed by Maduro’s apparent refusal to agree to the opposition’s demands for regulations in the election. Talks held in the Dominican Republic between opposition and PSUV leaders have failed to produce an agreement ensuring a free and fair election and yet Maduro has called for one to take place. Venezuela’s recent history of elections has been plagued with evidence of vote-buying through social programs, and more recently through the promise of food packages. ‘Regulatory bodies’  are comprised of diplomats from allied countries or puppet NGOs who do not hide their support for the current administration. Without agreements in place that such tactics would be avoided in May, one can almost guarantee similar foul-play to continue.

If Maduro does make use of such openly undemocratic tactics in order to retain power, it will be a clear sign that democratic means of change do not work. Violent protests have plagued the country for years now, leading to repressive responses from the security services as well as the rise of both pro and anti-government militant groups. Government responses to violence have regularly disregarded rule of law and human rights, and police brutality and the misuse of power have become the modus operandi of the security services. Whilst Government forces have attracted the majority of the publicity and criticism, it is important to recognise the rise of right-wing militant groups who have attempted to spread their influence through their anti-Government rhetoric. In a country crying out for change, Maduro’s blatant and unashamed disregard for the political process is allowing these militants groups to gain in popularity. Following the election in July, which was universally decried as fraudulent, there were multiple violent protests. This included a raid on a military base by Venezuelan citizens, highlighting a signal of intent from the people to violently enforce change if it does not come from those in power. The country is a powder-keg in which desperate people need a transformation in their lives, either through diplomatic or extrajudicial, violent means. Diplomacy seems to have failed following the inability to produce an agreement in the Dominican Republic, and the election will produce an exclamation point to this in May.