April 18, 2020
by Olivier Compagnon, Professor in Comtemporary History at the University Sorbonne Nouvelle (Institut des Hautes Études de l’Amérique latine) and member of the Centre de Recherche et de Documentation des Amériques
The first two Covid-19 cases in Venezuela were documented on March 13, 2020 and there were, according to the data made public by the Ministry of Communication and Information and picked up by Johns Hopkins University, less than 200 cases - and only 9 deaths - on April 16.
So 0.67 cases per 100 000 population, a far cry from the significantly higher numbers listed by certain countries in the region such as Colombia (6.2), Brazil (13.8) and Ecuador (46.2). Though the last sycophants of the Nicolás Maduro's regime will see in this the effectiveness of the confinement strategy put in place on March 15, highly controled by the police and armed forces since then, and of the "sentinel hospitals" plan decreed as soon as March 12 against the virus, this data doesn't really mean anything since, aside from the theory that the government could be hiding the real scope of the pandemic, the Venezuelan government is bankrupted and has neither the means to do generalized testing nor the administrative capacity to do an exhaustif daily count.
COVID-19 contaminations and deaths in Venezuela, mid-April (Source: Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, 04/16/20 print screen, 5:25pm GMT + 2)
This health crisis is indeed here during a tragic economic and social time. Since the mid-2010s that marked the end of the commodities boom and the crash of the price per barrel of crude oil produced by the OPEC (10.45 dollars in 2012, 40.68 in 2016), the Venezuelan GDP fell by more than 50 % while inflation reached stratospheric heights. The real healthcare investments that had been done during the Chávez years (1999-2013), that helped shape the relationship the most impoverished had toward healthcare thanks to the creation of local dispensaries, are now history and the public hospital system - like many other sectors - is suffering from lack of resources that came from the oil windfall, but also from economic sanctions that have weighed down the country since 2015 and that have been considerably toughened (by the United States, but also by the European Union and Canada) after Juan Guaidó's self-proclamation as president in January 2019. After all this, the health situation is deplorable, 8 available hospital beds per 10 000 population: a statistic close to India's (7) and Guatemala's (6) and way to low to hope to fight against the increased spread of SARS-CoV-2, when even countries much better equiped such as the United States (29), Italie (34) and france (65) were quickly overrun. On top of a shortage of medicine that has been recurrent for the past five or six years and an obesity that is now hitting more than a quarter of the population, unpredictable access to running water and the lack of soap make it difficult to follow even the most basic hygienic measures, despite media campaigns organized to that effect and massively broadcasted on television, internet and social media. Finally, as in many Latin American countries and the Caribbeans or even India, the huge percentage of existing informal work and lack of job security make it unrealistic to expect a strict adherance to confinement.
"Técnica para el correcto lavado de manos", Caracas, Ministerio del Poder Popular para la Salud, 2020 (source: Youtube, consulted April 16, 2020)
Admittedly, several elements help qualify the catastrophic scenario that many predict. First, Venezuela is isolated from many of its neighbors and will probably have less imported cases than elsewhere - even if a small portion of the 5 million migrants that left the country in the past several years are being forced to go home, notably from Colombia, due to a lack of means to survive in a confinement context in their host country. Secondly, and even if the general marasmus has deteriorated the health of a large portion of the population, the age pyramid is an asset against a virus that hits the older segments of the population first: while Italie has 23% of 65 year olds, France 20% and the United States 16%, they only weigh-in at 7% in Venezuela. Furthermore, private clinics continue to operate better than public hospitals and are capable of partly cushioning the blow even if they are only available to a limited portion of the population. Finally, the historic presence of cuban medical doctors who really understand the situation and whose reputed international expertise during epidemics explains why some have recently been deployed to Italie and the French Overseas Territories, as well as the promised aid by the regime's allies, China and Russia, can also be considered limiting factors of the pandemic. Nevertheless, a number of observers of which at the top of the list is the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, presided by the Chilean Michelle Bachelet, have warned of a possible humanitarian tragedy and asked for the lifting of sanctions against Caracas. Alicia Bárcena, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, went along the same lines, as well as the Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres, so that 90 tons of medical supplies were dropped off in Caracas on April 7 for the population on the initiative of several international agencies of which Unicef, the WHO and the United Nations Fund.
But the health crisis is not universally accepted. Several days after documenting the first infected cases in Venezuela, the International Monetary Fund - the one that was so generous toward Argentina's president Mauricio Macri by giving him a loan of 57 billion dollars for an outcome we all know - has refused to provide an emergency grant to Venezuela, using the excuse of existing dissent among its members on the legitimacy of Maduro's government. Shortly after, the Trump administration proposed easing the sanctions if the country would form a temporary government - with neither Maduro or Guaidó - and immediately got the backing of the European Union, before announcing on April 1st a significant deployment of US Navy ships in the Caribbean Sea. And what if, as Time magazine headlined as soon as March 20, the coronavirus could topple Nicolas Maduro's regime in Venezuela? Why not, after all, profit politcially from a health crisis if it could bring the end that had been pursued unsuccessfully for so many years?
In this situation, French diplomacy would be well advised to not yield to the siren of cynicism and to follow through with the promises of international cooperation that were expressed - it is true mainly to Africa - by the President of the Republic in his April 13 televised broadcast. After having aligned himself with Washington and the Lima group in recognizing Guaidó and hardening sanctions regardless of the humanitarian crisis that was already simmering, it would be a golden opportunity to assert a Latin-American policy of its own and take note in anticipation of the Venezuelan political transition which is surely going to occur sooner or later.
 This data comes from the 2019 Human Development Report, New York, United Nations Organization, 2019, p. 365-369. The average number of available hospital beds for 10 000 population is 35 in the Latin American region and the Caribbean.
 "La insostenible situación en Táchira con el regreso de Venezolanos", El Tiempo (Bogotá), 14 avril 2020 (looked up on April 15, 2020).
 According to data accumulated by the World Bank. See here (looked up on April 15, 2020).
 Anthony Faiola and Carol Morello, "U.S. proposes transitional government for Venezuela, without Maduro or Guaidó", The Washington Post (Washington), March 31, 2020.
 Ciara Nugent, "Could the Coronavirus topple Nicolas Maduro’s Regime in Venezuela ?", Time (New York), March 20, 2020 (read on April 15, 2020).
Olivier Compagnon is a professor in Contemporary History at the University Sorbonne Nouvelle (Institut des Hautes Études de l’Amérique latine) et member of the Centre de Recherche et de Documentation des Amériques. He recently coordinated, with Anaïs Fléchet and Gabriela Pellegrino Soares, the section "Histórias culturais transatlânticas. O intercâmbio cultural entre a Europa, a África e as Américas" in the Revista USP (São Paulo), n°123, December 2019, p. 8-103 (LIEN). He also co-directed with Julien Rebotier and Sandrine Revet, Le Venezuela au-delà du mythe. Chávez, la démocratie, le changement social Paris, Editions de l’Atelier, 2009).