For Venezuelans, State-Enforced Self-Isolation Is Nothing New
Nicolás Maduro’s undemocratic regime has cut Venezuela off from the outside world for years, destroying the economy and depleting the health care system.
If one were to ask people around the world today, “Would you be willing to follow strict social distancing guidelines for a year if we were not living through a pandemic?” the obvious answer would be no.
All across the world, life as we know it has become paralyzed to save the lives of millions. Venezuela is no exception, but it has been experiencing this situation for years now. In Venezuela’s case, however, the cause is not a pathogen, but a dictator.
The regime of President Nicolás Maduro has progressively subjected Venezuela to increasingly irrational and undemocratic governance, forcing its citizens into an extreme form of social distancing in their livelihoods by denying them the rights to assembly and protest, and depriving them of access to education, travel, and the trade networks that people in other nations often take for granted.
By forcibly isolating Venezuelans, Maduro’s policies—which have led to a collapsed economy and a depleted health care system—are designed to suppress Venezuelans’ freedoms in order to allow his regime to hold onto power. This has led to a mass emigration of approximately 17 percent of the country’s population. At least 5 million people have left the country—an exodus second in scope only to the Syrian refugee crisis. It is estimated that around 1 million children have been left behind, separating families across continents.
In 2014, citizens took to the streets to protest a tragedy in the making. Many Venezuelans were arrested for political reasons, including Leopoldo López, the leader of my party, Voluntad Popular. I was charged in the same case as him, which forced me to go underground for 108 days and then into exile, keeping me apart from my family, my party, and my people.
The leadership of our party was persecuted. Some were imprisoned, others exiled, forced into hiding, or driven to seek asylum in foreign embassies. We have had to reinvent ourselves over the past six years. Our meetings, even with local leaders, are now virtual. This experience has also become the new normal for other political parties and the National Assembly; according to an assembly report, more than 30 deputies have been exiled and five are currently in detention.
The regime’s persecution has not limited itself to the opposition leadership but has also spread across the entire society. Journalists, judges, students, and even front-line responders have been persecuted for merely expressing their rightful opinion. In fact, in Venezuela there are currently more than 300 political prisoners who are subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment and prohibited from seeing the sun or speaking with their families.
My colleagues and I have been forced to work remotely for years. Indeed, political actors in our movement have had to come together to lead a fight without looking each other in the eyes. In a country with the worst Internet connections in the region and where severe power outages are commonplace, we’re able to communicate intermittently only through Zoom, Skype, and other online tools for group communications. We have had to make complex decisions virtually, including the decision to swear in Juan Guaidó as interim president of Venezuela in 2019.
The forcible isolation of Venezuelans by an undemocratic regime has also produced visible effects in the economic sphere. Policies including illegal expropriations that violate private property laws have paralyzed the economy. Oil production plummeted from 3.2 million barrels per day in 2008 to less than 700,000 per day in 2020. Shortages of goods and services are increasing. Between 2013 and 2019, Venezuela’s gross domestic product fell by half—a reduction worse than those suffered by the United States and Spain during the Great Depression and the Spanish Civil War, respectively.
For many, staying at home has been the only available option for a while, given the shortage of jobs in the country. Private companies have almost disappeared. This level of economic destruction has thus far remained unseen in the countries currently affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
Venezuela’s isolation and economic collapse has also manifested itself in the education system. At the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year, the dropout rate was 87 percent. Parents do not send their children to school because they cannot feed them—many frequently faint in class—or because the schools have closed down. The crisis has resulted in a massive exodus of teachers. One teacher reported having survived on water and sugar for two days before collapsing.
The country has been held incommunicado. The airline sector in Venezuela contracted by 75 percent from 2013 to 2019, further isolating Venezuelans from the world. Domestically, despite having the world’s largest proven oil reserves, Maduro’s government has almost completely shut down all of the existing refineries in Venezuela. Nevertheless, the regime continues to send subsidized oil to Cuba.
The country’s health system was rapidly deteriorating, even before the pandemic. And Venezuela has the highest homicide rate on the continent, with 60 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. In our country, fear establishes a permanent curfew.
In short, isolation in Venezuela has only increased during this pandemic. We currently face two plagues: the Maduro dictatorship and the coronavirus. Both must be fought urgently and simultaneously. Overcoming them will only be possible with robust international financial cooperation and assistance, and this will only be feasible if the country establishes a national emergency government that implements a plan that leads to a credible and verifiable democratic transition.
The international community must reaffirm its commitment to support Venezuela’s people in this fight to end the devastating and undemocratic isolation that has led to poverty and tragedy.
In Venezuela, normalcy will not return when the pandemic is contained; it will only come with freedom.