The Venezuelan government has been accused of taking advantage of the rampaging coronavirus pandemic and overexerting its decision-making power for political gain. The South American government, in the midst of navigating a nationwide response to the COVID-19 pandemic, has a history of corruption and political instability. However, last week, the world-renowned Human Rights Watch, comprised of lawyers, journalists and professionals, alleged that the current Venezuelan PSUV socialist government under President Nicolas Maduro has been abusing these legislative powers. Spokesperson and deputy Americas Director for Human Rights Watch, Tamara Taraciuk, asserted that a “very disturbing” strategy to eliminate political opposition by quarantining, imprisoning and hiding them in accordance with the new lockdown laws has been carried out to lengthen the PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela)’s parliamentary influence beyond the wishes of the Venezuelan people. Additionally, Taraciuk claimed that “COVID [has] become a wonderful excuse for the Maduro regime to do what it knows how to do best, which is crack down,” on these activists, going on to say that “Venezuela’s police state [was] moving ahead with full force”.
Indeed, Venezuela’s ‘state of emergency’ has been extended four times since its conception in mid-March. Critics have questioned why the government has been given these legislative powers when the country is doing much better than many of its South American counterparts, including its neighbour, Columbia, a nation with a little less than double the population of Venezuela, which has reported 20, 348 deaths from COVID-19. In contrast, the latest official figures from Venezuela reveal only 398 deaths, meaning that despite Colombia having a population approximately double Venezuela’s, they have reported 51 times as many coronavirus cases as Venezuela’s figures indicate. In June, the president of Colombia, Ivan Duque, voiced his concerns pertaining to the lack of transparency in Venezuela’s coronavirus case reporting, suggesting that Venezuela did not have a “good hospital capacity or good epidemiological capacity”, likening Venezuela to a “time-bomb from the public health point of view” due to its government’s lack of transparency about the true case numbers and existing social and economic issues.
Many commentators believe that the Venezuelan police detaining and quarantining of political opposition to the PSUV party is designed to enable its power-hungry government to win the 2020 parliamentary election scheduled for December this year. The 2015 landslide election victory ended the regime of the PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela), after 20 years of leadership under President Hugo Chavez and a further five under current president, Nicolas Maduro. However, Maduro is not recognised as president of Venezuela by at least 50 countries, including Australia and the USA- rather, many nations recognise Juan Guaidó, National Assembly leader, as Venezuela’s true leader; a politician who declared himself interim president in 2019 following the 2018 election in which Maduro resumed power, which many pundits believe was “rigged”. This political instability has contributed to the nation’s many issues. Primarily, the nation faces a food scarcity crisis as a result of Maduro’s economic mismanagement, however, Maduro has prohibited international aid from entering the country, proclaiming that such foreign intervention is merely disguised regime change. The economic crisis has placed Venezuela at around 80% food scarcity, with 94% of Venezuelan households in poverty and hyperinflation topping 10 million percent according to US State Department statistics. How has this struggling nation been able to combat COVID-19 faultlessly?
The concerns about the potentially tyrannic actions of Maduro’s government were echoed by Venezuelan human-rights NGO, Centre for Justice and Peace in July. The organisation claimed that it had seen an increase in police-state-led harassment, unwarranted house raids, detention without apparent cause, increased censorship of messages on social media critical of the government’s response in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic and ignoring of systematic acts of violence against political opposition, pointing to an abuse of power. Moreover, a recent Centre for Justice and Peace report uncovered at least 184 cases of systematic international human rights violations between March 16 and June 9, comprising of over 90 journalists, 56 political leaders and 11 human rights defenders. A disturbing pattern is beginning to emerge in Venezuela, as its government begins to routinely hide its critics amongst a global pandemic, shaking both their desperate residents and democracy to its core.