Venezuela, located on the northern most part of South America, is a nation riddled with a history of authoritarianism. Acting as the descendant of Hugo Chavez, President Nicolas Maduro has sent Venezuela further into the trenches of repressive authoritarianism. The country is currently relying on oil as its main source of vitality; poverty and shortages in food and medical supplies are rampant. Even though Venezuela’s current condition is recognized by the international community, the extent of suffering within the nation has been smothered by the increasingly authoritarian regime. However, on April 10, 2020, a New York Times article was published that investigated the horrendous health conditions within Venezuela (Turkewitz & Herrera 2020). This investigation found a sky-rocketing percentage of deaths during birth of mothers and their babies—statistics that are being hidden from the outside. This article not only revealed the extent of poverty within the country, but it also brought a current crisis to the world’s attention.
A mother-to-be in Venezuela endures conditions that are seemingly impossible to survive. The New York Times article illuminated this by following one woman during her birthing process. After her water broke, she was denied from four hospitals because they lacked the necessary supplies, and after taking several bus rides and sleeping on benches (while in labor) to reach her fifth hospital where she was finally admitted, her baby did not survive the birth. Although this woman’s story is heartbreaking, she is just one of many. Many women give birth on the street or in the hospital lobby after being repeatedly rejected. If a woman in Venezuela is lucky enough to make it into a hospital, the chances of her and her baby surviving are low. The country lacks the necessary sterile tools and equipment needed to support the newborns and their mothers. In 2016, maternal deaths rose by 65% and infant mortality rose by 30% in one year—this was the last statistic reported, and the individual who reported that data was fired (Turkewitz & Herrera 2020).
The last straw
Venezuela’s authoritarian regime is not only hiding these tragedies occurring on a daily basis, but the administration is encouraging women to continue having as many children as possible. During a jaw-dropping speech given last month, Nicolas Maduro stated, “Every woman is to have six children!…For the good of the country!” (Daniels 2020). The speech not only angered Venezuelan women as they feel they are only being used for their reproductive capabilities, but it also further emphasized the regime’s efforts to cover up the soaring percentage of mother and infant deaths. This speech was ironically delivered at an event promoting the newest women’s healthcare plan, but there is little to no information backing this ‘new’ policy, leading many to believe it does not exist (Daniels 2020).
Maduro has blamed the supply shortage on oil sanctions coming from the US (Turkewitz & Herrera 2020). However, there is evidence that Maduro prioritizes importing oil and food instead of medicine, calculating “that pregnant women and sick people don’t protest—but that hungry people do” (Turkewitz & Herrera 2020). This is sickening to think about, but it’s the reality of a tightly authoritarian regime: Maduro is so laser-focused on winning political support that he is willing to risk human lives. This negligence towards healthcare needs, particularly of women, and the absence of tools has put an incredible strain on the doctors themselves. Many doctors have quit their jobs in order to help care for their own families, and the doctors who remain working make an average of $10 a month, a salary that’s impossible to live on (Turkewitz & Herrera 2020). The Red Cross and UNICEF are both present in the country (Turkewitz & Herrera 2020), but their donations are scarce and the regime attempts to limit the presence of human rights monitoring agencies (“Venezuela: Chávez’s” 2013).
A ‘perfect’ authoritarian example
Both the left-wing Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro’s regimes are based on eroding human rights and giving “the government free rein to intimidate, censor, and prosecute Venezuelans who criticized the president” (“Venezuela: Chávez’s” 2013). The current health crisis in Venezuela, however, further emphasizes the extent of authoritarian control Maduro has over the country. Maduro censors statistics that reveal the human rights violations as a result of the poor healthcare system. He has manipulated women’s reproductive rights through verbal propaganda in order to ‘benefit’ the nation. He neglects medical needs of his citizens in order to suppress protesters by pleasing them with greater food allocations. The regime has also been described as kleptocratic as the economy has suffered due to the “mismanagement” of the oil industry and refusal to invest in other forms of revenue (“Today’s Venezuela” 2019).
A personalist regime can also adequately describe this country due to Maduro’s all-powerful stance and his weakening of institutions to put power in his own hands (Drogus & Orvis 2018). However, once elections are brought into the picture, one term holistically describes this regime: competitive authoritarianism. Venezuela fits this mold proposed by Levitsky and Way perfectly, and the severe repression of its people and democratic institutions is tearing the country apart piece by piece (2010). ‘Democratic’ institutions are undermined by the abuse of power from Maduro, and an uneven playing field is undoubtedly present (Levitsky & Way 2010). In the most recent election of 2018, Maduro won another term but there is large speculation of fraud in the election. Several opposition candidates were “banned from standing” or even jailed for campaigning (“Venezuela election” 2018). Maduro’s reign in Venezuela accurately represents a competitive authoritarian regime, and the repression that we are aware of is just the tip of the iceberg.
Venezuela’s authoritarian regime has greatly weakened the state, and with the release of the New York Times article, the world has now gained an insight into the atrocities committed against the citizens. Oil revenue and suppression of political opposition is being held as higher priorities over the well-being of Venezuelans, particularly the pregnant women who are being urged to continue to populate the country. Because of the economic crisis and dictatorial leadership, over 50 countries including the US are recognizing Juan Guaido (head of the National Assembly) as president with hopes that this will delegitimize Maduro (“Today’s Venezuela” 2019). There is one question that remains, however, pertaining to the current situation of rising mother-child deaths: how will Maduro respond to the crisis given the now international attention it is receiving? Will real policy be made? Only time will tell, but it is naïve to expect considerable action from this country’s leadership.
Photo at the top of the page: Venezuelan women wearing masks during the current pandemic, image retrieved from Pixabay