Venezuela’s coronavirus response requires all hands on deck

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External shocks of the past several weeks have exacerbated the long-brewing political storm for the authoritarian regime of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, and more trouble is ahead. The coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed more than 65,000 lives and decimated the economy globally, will only sharpen the Venezuelan crisis unless its leaders unite for the benefit of the country and its people to address the pandemic.

The United States ramped up pressure last week, indicting the de facto Venezuelan dictator and 14 of his senior officials on charges of narcoterrorism and money laundering. Simultaneously, the collapse in oil markets from price wars and slumping global demand have forced the sanctioned Maduro regime to sell Venezuela oil, the country’s main source of revenue, at a loss. As the coronavirus spreads in Venezuela — a nation with an economy and health care system already at the brink — catastrophe looms.

Seeking to sow internal political discord among Maduro’s cronies, the U.S. Department of State offered this week to ease certain economic and targeted sanctions if the regime agreed to and met the conditions for a transitional government until free and fair elections take place.

As grim as the forecast may be for Venezuela, democratic forces in the country must seize this opportunity to galvanize internal pressure for a renewed push for political change.

Responding to the coronavirus and limiting the economic and humanitarian fallout is paramount right now. No option, even a temporary unity government with diverse political actors, should be off the table. In the longer term, Interim President Juan Guaidó must rally democratic forces and coordinate with regional and international allies to ensure a better future for Venezuelans — one that relies on a democratically-elected government and not a narco-dictatorship. 

For the past three years, Venezuela has experienced the worst humanitarian crisis in the Western Hemisphere because of Maduro’s failed economic policies, mismanagement and extensive corruption. The Venezuelan health system, lacking basic medicines, water and electricity, was struggling even before the coronavirus outbreak.

Without effective national leadership and resource support from abroad, the uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus could push the Venezuelan state to total collapse. An ever-increasing share of the population lacks access to food and medical care, and deaths are rising rapidly. As the situation deteriorates, widespread social unrest is increasingly likely, as people take to the streets and resort to looting businesses. The chaos would be reminiscent of last year’s six-day blackout. As Colombia and Brazil seal their borders, Venezuelan migrants, who could be carriers of the coronavirus, may turn to criminal armed groups for illicit passage, causing unknown spread of the disease in host countries. The ripple effects on the region could be devastating.

If millions of Venezuelan lives are to be saved from a worst-case scenario, especially those from the country’s densely populated slums, the “national emergency government” proposed by Guaidó must be formed. This four-point response plan, dubbed Plan José María Vargas, includes actionable steps such as importing essential medical equipment, constructing deep water wells (for hospitals lacking running water), and providing cash assistance to the most vulnerable communities.

Maduro lacks credibility and recognition from international creditors to secure necessary funding. Last month, he was denied a $5 billion emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund — even before the U.S. indictment exposed his drug trafficking operations in partnership with armed guerrilla groups such as the National Liberation Army (ELN) and dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). While China has sent some medical supplies and several health care workers, the provisions are not enough to combat the spread of the virus. Furthermore, aid from Russia, which now fully controls  Rosneft’s oil assets in Venezuela, would be limited as the country struggles with economic problems of its own.

Under the leadership of Guaidó, the interim government, in cooperation with international and humanitarian organizations on the ground in Venezuela, must spearhead this temporary unity government. Not only does Guaidó have the backing of nearly 60 countries, he also has arranged up to $1.2 billion in loans from multilateral organizations to fight the pandemic in Venezuela. Maduro must allow both medical and financial resources to enter and be distributed throughout the country. 

Already facing a complex crisis, Venezuela must tackle yet another: mitigating the spread and potential devastation of the coronavirus, an invisible and highly contagious enemy. This opportunity provides impetus to mobilize Venezuelans from across the political spectrum to find sustainable solutions to this political crisis. Guaidó and the interim government have an opportunity to lead, to save lives, and to showcase how democratic leadership provides the future that the country deserves. Millions of Venezuelan lives are at stake.

Angela Chávez (@angilichavez) and Domingo Sadurní (@Sundaymingo) are assistant directors at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 Crisis in Venezuela narco-terrorism Nicolas Maduro Pandemic Politics of Venezuela

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