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The need for a transition in Venezuela to solve the humanitarian crisis?

Nicolás Maduro came to power in 2013 after the death of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Since then he has pursued a socialist-type politics and economy; this has included a dependence on oil exports, which were seriously affected after the economic crisis of 2008. The country's economic deterioration, the increase in poverty, foreign sanctions from Western world and the authoritarianism of the regime have caused a humanitarian crisis that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. This blog post will outline the main elements of this crisis, and address the importance of a culture of peace and reparation of damage done by human right violations as a crucial part of the future democratic transition in Venezuela.

Features of the crisis

The Venezuelan population has experienced years of living under a political regime that is causing multiple violations of human rights such as the right to access healthcare, the right to food, the right to work, the right to education, the right to security, peace and prosperity. The absence of the fulfilment of these rights will ultimately affect the development of the country. This impacts not only Venezuela’s economy and international prestige, but also its people who struggle to cover their basic needs such as education and health access, physical and financial security, and decent employment. The humanitarian crisis has caused the migration of millions of Venezuelans who are looking for refuge in neighbouring countries such as Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Peru and countries of the Caribbean such as the Dominican Republic and Trinidad and Tobago. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in 2021, at least 6 million Venezuelans had left the country.

Meanwhile, the global economic effects, as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, have increased inequality and poverty, and reduced access to basic services such as health, education and food. These services were already inefficient before the health crisis, when the price of oil began to fall in 2008 and Chavez's revolutionary policies alienated foreign investors. The impact on the health care system was aggravated by exchange control, which caused a shortage of the foreign exchange needed to import equipment, food and medicine. In 2021, according to the report of the Independent International Fact Finding Mission on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, the country still faces challenges due to a fragile administration of oil revenues that has led the Venezuelan economy to a serious problem of shortage of foreign currency and to a situation in which it was impossible, with the prevailing exchange rate regime, to simultaneously meet external payment obligations and imports required to maintain economic normality.

This leaves a reduced budget for public infrastructure and essential services such as health, public transportation and food security. On the other hand, the veto on diesel imports imposed by the United States prevents the arrival of imported diesel to the country. Added to this, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced the availability of resources such as fuel. Oil prices collapsed at the beginning of the pandemic, posing a risk to Venezuela’s economy as oil is the country's main export. The low prices have impacted the production of oil in Venezuela and therefore the amount of fuel available for the use of transport used to transport food to the local markets.

Furthermore, before the pandemic, Human Rights Watch (HRW) continued to receive complaints from people and organisations to which humanitarian assistance and financial support was denied for political reasons, such as criticism of the government’s policies. Protests related to socioeconomic rights have continued, mainly to demand access to basic and reliable services. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has documented some cases of protests where human rights violations were caused by security forces or armed groups called “Colectivos”. This demonstrates the scale and nature of political repression towards people of Venezuela.

What is the humanitarian impact?

The impact of the crisis in Venezuela is being felt across multiple sectors, including education, digital access, health, labour, and access to opportunities for youth. The deteriorated system of public education, marked by the lack of resources earmarked for infrastructure, services and teachers’ salaries, has left many teachers deeply vulnerable. While in 2001, a university professor would earn 2,456 USD per month, in the year 2022 that would be 11 USD per month, according to the Survey of the Observatory of Universities in 2021. As a consequence of this decline, many teachers have migrated to other countries, leaving behind thousands of students who also face other challenges, including lack of financial means to access transport.

Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the digital gap, which plays an important role when talking about inequality and access to education. According to the Speedtest Global Index survey 2022 which compares internet speed data on a global scale, Venezuela ranks 153th out of 182 countries in the world. In 2018, only 62% of the population had access to the internet due to economic reasons such as expensive telephone and internet rates, which increased in February 2020. Only 44% of Venezuelan students have access to educational content online.

Another similar example can be seen in the health sector. In 2021, the Medical Federation of Venezuela reported that around 40 000 doctors have left the country in recent years. This situation occurs due to the lack of financial support for the government and the excess of work and bad conditions in the health sector. Cheaper imports due to the elimination of tariffs encouraged the proliferation of distributors of medicines and medical supplies, which deepened corruption in the sector. The organisation Transparencia Venezuela in its 2020 report "Health in Venezuela. When corruption is the virus" describes a shortage of medicines and medical supplies, the lack and inoperability of essential equipment, and the general deterioration of hospital infrastructure. The report also covers the alleged participation of high-ranking officials of the Ministry of Health that would have acted in complicity to obtain million-dollar contracts for importing, manufacturing and transporting medicines, materials or medical equipment.

Education, labour and health inefficiencies affect the youth of Venezuela who cannot visualise a safe future, professional growth or financial stability in their country. This lack of opportunities makes them more likely to migrate or dedicate themselves to other activities related to smuggling or organised crime. This not only alters the capacity of the country to grow but also means a delay in the accomplishment of CYIS’s Sustainable Youth Goals for Venezuela. In particular, the following goals are at risk: goal 2 “Ensuring Good & Inclusive Governance”, goal 8 “Promote Sustainable Economic Growth”, goal 11 “Rule of Law”, goal 12 “Access to Resources”, goal 13 “Ensure Healthy Lives”, and goal 14 “Inclusive & Equitable Quality Education”.

Government transition for a better Venezuela?

Despite pressure imposed by Western countries through sanctions, the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and continuing domestic political protests, Nicolas Maduro remains in power in Venezuela. The reason for this is that the national opposition needs to develop common political goals and obtain the leadership of various sectors of the opposition (including political parties such as G4, Democratic Alliance, Abstentionists, Chavismo Dissidents) to present a strong proposal of government alternatives and plans for transition. The possible authorities of a democratic transition, such as those mentioned above, must balance various political imperatives. This includes responding to those who suffered abuses and human rights violations, bringing justice to people affected by government forces, and convincing citizens that it is possible to achieve justice and that repressive measures will no longer be required.

Democratic transitions are not easy and most of them take years to accomplish. When this process in Venezuela becomes tangible, transitional justices will require rejecting calls for mass judgements of former officials, and instead establishing transparent judgements to determine the truth about human rights violations, acknowledging and indemnifying victims, and cultivating a “collective memorial” of the excesses from an authoritarian era. There is no easy formula to manage these affairs, but the key aspects must be: recognizing the victims, creating concrete measures to prevent future violations and avoiding a cycle of revenge.

Scope for advancement and regional opportunities

President Nicolás Maduro and Juan Guaidó (who is president of the National Assembly of Venezuela since 2019 and partially recognized as Interim President of Venezuela by most Western countries) began discussions in 2021 about the transition of power and the future government of Venezuela. These negotiations took place in Mexico under the auspices of the Norwegian government, but the process is now paralysed due to the lack of trust between the parties. At the moment, it is expected that further meetings will be held once the Opposition and Maduro recommence negotiations in Mexico as established in the memorandum of understanding between the parties in 2021. The negotiations hope to obtain an electoral schedule for elections with international observation, the lifting of sanctions against Venezuela and the restoration of the right to Venezuelan assets frozen abroad, with the intention of being able to improve the Venezuelan capacity to provide basic societal services, such as those described in this article.

Meanwhile, at the regional level there is scope to strengthen access to food and health equipment, vaccines and resources to fight the pandemic. This aid could count on the support of the United Nations system and civil society in the humanitarian field, as well as regional blocs such as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) for the reactivation of the "SAN CELAC PLAN" aimed at guaranteeing security, food, adequate nutrition and eradication of hunger in the region. This plan could be extended and implemented for humanitarian reasons to specific situations in Venezuela and in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. A further element could be the use of international cooperation within the region to let Venezuela access COVID-19 vaccines through bilateral donations and with the support of the Panamerican Health Organization.

It is clear that there is a great need for a government capable of ensuring, respecting and protecting the most essential human rights for the population in Venezuela. During a democratic transition, the actions to achieve a peaceful coexistence must go beyond revenge. It is more important to achieve an agreement about the principles and procedures to protect justice and recognize past victims, as well as assure consolidation of power and restructure government functions in all sectors.


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