Washington, DC—As the global COVID-19 pandemic strains health systems around the world, its toll among Venezuela’s already suffering population could be devastating unless the international community mobilizes quickly in support of meaningful solutions.
The lack of urgency in declarations by political actors in Washington and Caracas about the likely impact of the pandemic in Venezuela is alarming. There are already widespread shortages of equipment, supplies, medicine, and even running water in hospitals across Venezuela. With the pandemic overrunning health systems across the developed world, it should be anticipated that Venezuela’s nearly collapsed health institutions will prove incapable of meeting the need for hospital beds, ventilators, and necessary medicine. This will have devastating consequences for a crisis that has already forced nearly five million Venezuelans to flee the country.
Perhaps in recognition of this grim fact, the Maduro government has decreed some of the most stringent quarantine measures in the region. However, a population that has been ground into poverty by years of corruption and economic mismanagement, and whose situation has been aggravated in recent years by economic sanctions, is in a poor position to adhere to social distancing measures. Many Venezuelans live day by day on earnings in the informal economy and wait in long lines for water, cooking gas, and food.
In order to avoid a catastrophe, it is clear that Venezuelan authorities will need to offer significant resources to keep Venezuelans at home and inject substantial funds to reinforce the deteriorated public health system. Multiple options are available to achieve this, including loans from international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund or using funds in accounts that have been frozen and reserved for National Assembly President Juan Guaidó abroad.
International assistance will require a basic agreement between the de facto Maduro government and the National Assembly, presided by Juan Guaidó. While the first retains territorial control, the latter enjoys democratic legitimacy and access to international financial support. Though U.S. officials claim to support a negotiated solution to the political crisis, Venezuelans cannot wait for a response to the pandemic until after a transition. A negotiated humanitarian agreement is urgently needed.
Reservations about providing aid to a corrupt government that has used food distribution as a form of social control are well-founded. Any agreement would have to be approved by the democratically-elected National Assembly and should be implemented with transparency by reliable authorities with experience in public health and food security.
We also urge the Trump administration to heed the recommendation of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, who has called for easing the broad economic sanctions against Venezuela so that “more resources could be allocated to treating and preventing the epidemic.” Economic sanctions did not start the country’s deep economic crisis, but they have undeniably exacerbated it. The financial sanctions that began in August 2017 do not apply to transactions related to food and medical imports, but as we have warned, these exemptions do not prevent the reality of widespread overcompliance. They also prevent joint ventures and international agreements that could recover Venezuela’s electricity grid. On top of this, the January 2019 oil sanctions have reduced revenue to pay for imports overall. The Trump Administration can and should consider issuing a general license to authorize oil sales, and the de facto government should demonstrate clearly that proceeds from oil sales would be applied towards a humanitarian response to the health crisis.