democraciaAbierta: Opinion

Quarantine in Venezuela: the war against society by other means

The response of the Chavista state to Covid-19 goes no further than repeating its authoritarian patterns of behaviour that were in place before the pandemic. Português, Espanol

Rafael Uzcátegui
8 April 2020, 12.00am
March 30, 2020, Venezuela, Caracas: Nicolas Maduro (C), current president of Venezuela, gives a speech on the development of the coronavirus crisis.
Photo: Zurimar Campos/Prensa Miraflores/dpa

I hope at this moment that there is no need to point out that we a facing an emergency that has paralysed the world, overwhelming even developed health care systems, compromising national budgets and generating widespread fear due to the uncertainty about Covid-19.

In the Venezuelan case, Nicolas Maduro and his government have responded. I do not intend to comment on the health aspects of that response here(that is, in terms of its effectiveness and of prevention, preparation, containment and treatment), but will focus exclusively on its political dimension.

The first thing to point out is that in the face of COVID-19, with the exception of the quarantine and the request for funding from the IMF, the government is not taking any extraordinary measures, that is, decisions that it has not implemented before.

The government does not seem to understand the seriousness of the situation. It is not calling on all sectors of society to respond to the disease, through a national government. Instead it is repeating the same behaviour that was evident before the pandemic: its capacity for military action, its territorial control through the FAES and the "collectives", repression of public dissent, an imbalance between the attention given to Caracas and the rest of the regions, the lack of information and the enforcement of a narrative spread through hegemonic communication channels. – all these are the same. All under leadership linked to the PSUV.

An example of the prioritization of political considerations over technical ones has been the absence of Health Minister Carlos Alvarado from the official spokesperson's office. This omission is not accidental. It is part of a governance model that has underestimated knowledge, prioritizing instead political loyalty and military obedience. However, common sense and the importance of a crisis such as this one should mean bringing together, the greatest amount of expertise we can from across all sectors of society.

Following on from the above, it is possible that the Quarantine -again, leaving aside its health value – is really the ideal model of domination for Chavism once it gained power, the high point of its strategy to separate people from each other and neutralize their capacity to act autonomously. .

The loss of public spaces, where people meet and become citizens and enjoy time together, and the fact that they are all isolated in the private space of the home is the culmination of a process of oppression based on stopping people from acting collectively.

This is why the response to Coronavirus is the continuation of the Chavista state's war against society by other means. And that is also why the government does not ask its people to support a concerted response to the epidemic. The declaration of a quarantine under a democracy, however imperfect it may be, is not the same as under a dictatorial government that uses everything in its power to stay in office.

Current circumstances mean that our two tools of resistance to authoritarianism, social mobilization and the attention of the international community, are no longer available to us.

Current circumstances mean that our two tools of resistance to authoritarianism, social mobilization and the attention of the international community, are no longer available to us.

In case we haven't noticed, the current circumstances inhibit what were our two tools of resistance to authoritarianism: social mobilization and the attention of the international community. Criticism is made difficult by the limitations on verifying facts and the constant threat of total isolation due to the collapse - or censorship - of social networks.

In the “social quarantine” there are actors who will be strengthened further. The first of them is the Armed Forces, both in terms of their control of the country and in relation to the current management and delivery of resources. The second is the paramilitary organizations, the "Colectivos," which are carrying out patrol and surveillance work in different parts of the country and which, after the end of the state of alarm which is always declared by Maduro, whenever something like this happens, will find themselves in a more advantageous situation regarding the exercise of power, than before March 5, when "patient zero" is supposed to have arrived in Venezuela. A third sector who will benefit will be Maduro's own people who are in dispute with other factions of Chavismo, and, finally, those part of the economy that have links or agreements with Miraflores.

If current initiatives prioritize invisibility over containment itself, it is probable that we will never know the true impact of the Coronavirus in our country: the number of tests done, the number of people affected and, finally, the number of deaths. The different official spokespersons will repeat that the measures taken 1) sufficient and 2) on time, so they can insist that in Venezuela the impact of Covid-19 was less than in other countries or similar to the regional average.

For the worst-case scenarios, the government has already been building a narrative to hold the international financial sanctions and what it calls its domestic allies accountable.

For the worst-case scenarios, the government has already been building a narrative to hold the international financial sanctions and what it calls its domestic allies accountable. This is one of the reasons why they are announcing publicly that they trying to get money from the IMF. Unless the crisis is of so terrible that it gets out of hand, a scenario as undesirable as it is unlikely in my view, Maduro's authority may be strengthened and some of the measures that now look exceptional may become normalized as the weeks progress.

As a Venezuelan in voluntary isolation, my profound hope is that the measures taken by the authorities will be as effective as possible in containing the disease. Whether that is the case remains to be seen. But if there is one thing we are sure of, it is that the countries that managed to agree on and articulate a plan that brings the diversity of society together, despite the urgency and the lack of clarity about the virus itself, are not only going to have better results, but will emerge stronger as a nation from the crisis.

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Join us for this free live discussion at 5pm UK time (12pm EDT), Thursday 17 June.

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