[This article was originally written in June 2021]
Milan, Italy. As wait to get my second shot of the Covid-19 vaccine there is a sense of optimism in the room. Conversations revolve around meeting friends, the Euro 2020 championship final, traveling abroad and a sense of relief that maybe the pandemic is coming to an end. This same week my 84-year old father suddenly succumbed to Covid back home in Venezuela where he did not have the opportunity to get vaccinated or even access to proper medical care.
The Maduro regime has been negligent in the handling of the pandemic. In over 16 months of quarantine it has not effectively prevented the spread of the virus with consistent increasing cases and deaths, even by the dubious official account, a politicized and improvised vaccination rolloutandhigh numbers of deaths among medical personnel. Most egregiously, last year my research for Human Rights Watch found that the Venezuelan government may have actually created conditions for the spread of the virus among people returning from different parts of the Americasby forcing them to quarantine in crowded and unsanitary government-run centers.
My father was born in 1937 under the dictatorship of Eleazar Lopez Contreras and his 84 years of life reflected both a period of vast changes in our nation and the constant evolution of the Venezuelan entrepreneurial spirit. An impoverished child in the forties who sold drinkable water in oil camps in Zulia and a member of the Communist party in his teens he went on to have capitalist success during the 1970s’ oil boom as result of his professional work as an accountant to big landowners and entrepreneurs in Tachira state. The Chavez regime brought with it the decimation of much of the gains he had made up to that point. The legalization of land-grabbing prompted my father to sell several of his lands and the socioeconomic turmoil of the past twenty years caused a big dip in his business. Yet, regardless of his age his sharp wit and drive led him to manoeuvre obstacles and continue to develop professionally, until now.
Many countries have prioritized vaccinating the elderly and those sick. Even witheconomic disparities and lack of priority access to vaccines, Latin American countries like Chile vaccinated their elderly months ago. However, Venezuela still lags behind these efforts. What’s worse, the regime has turned vaccination into an electoral bait excluding those that are not enrolled in government-sponsored initiatives, it has set up vaccination appointments that are nor carried out and when they are people are left with no choice but to take unverified and unapproved vaccinations like Cuba’s Abdala.
It is clear that the Maduro regime has not had Venezuelans’ health as a priority for sometime now specially that of those most vulnerable. Since 2014, the government has not effectively provided antiretroviral therapy medication for people living with HIV, forcing many to flee the country in order to access treatment. Likewise, people in mental health facilities have been neglected for years, not receiving proper medical care, nutrition and medication which has forced some centers to shutdown entirely.
Instead, the government has been doubling down on its efforts to constrict spaces for dissent including attacking NGOs that provide vital health services. Among its tactics the Maduro regime has passed legislation aimed at increasing hurdles for NGOs to carry out their activities, protect the privacy of their beneficiaries and freely assemble. It has also jailed and harassed members of NGOs including Azul Positivo, an organization which provides HIV prevention and Covid education to underserved communities in Zulia, and FundaRedes, an organization which has denounced abuses in neglected states such as Tachira, charging them with terrorism, instigation of hatred and treason.
Getting vaccinated has become a sign of better days to come, a symbolic passage to a new post-pandemic era. For many of us in the immigrant communities we are torn between the fast pace of the “back to normal” attitudes in our host communities and the stagnation and abandonment in our home countries. In Venezuela’s case, history shows that the Maduro regime does not have any intention to carry out an effective vaccination program.
Unfortunately, the inequality that has characterized Venezuelan socioeconomic dynamics for decades has been accentuated even more during the pandemic. Those who are better off are traveling to places like the United States to get vaccinated, some others are secluded in their homes only going out to get essential goods, and the rest are left to fend for themselves, leaving many with no choice but to risk the dangerous journey to seek refuge in countries across the Americas.
My father and many others did not have the opportunity to get vaccinated and their deaths could have been prevented if only the government truly cared about safeguarding the wellbeing of its citizens. The regime’s efforts to conceal the true toll of the pandemic and its neglectful response is a deliberate effort to once more avoid responsibility and condemnation. Medical personnel, survivors and family members will not forget nor cease to call out Maduro’s indifference towards the millions of Venezuelans he and his cronies are holding hostage.
Carlos Perez Rojas.