Venezuela’s health systems are crumbling – and harming women in particular

By Pia Riggirozzi, Professor of Global Politics at the University of Southampton

Venezuela sits on the world’s biggest oil reserves, but in terms of GDP growth per capita, it’s now South America’s poorest economy. It is mired the worst economic crisis in its history, with an inflation rate in the region of 500%, a volatile exchange rate, and crippling debts that have increased fivefold since 2006.

The economic crisis is inflaming a longstanding “economic war” between the government and the business sector – and a dangerous cycle of protest and repression is further polarising Venezuela’s already divided society.

In this scenario, violence of all sorts is approaching what could be a point of no return. The very ability of democracy to combine forces of transformation and resistance is at stake.

The crisis in Venezuela has also taken centre stage in regional organisations. The Union of South American Nations and the Organisation of American States are gravely concerned with the weakness of Venezuela’s democratic institutions, its culture of impunity, and the criminalisation of dissent. But they’re overlooking one of the biggest tragedies of the crisis: the crumbling of Venezuela’s health and welfare systems, which not long ago were beacons of hope. This collapse is truly dangerous and is affecting Venezuela’s women particularly badly.

Venezuela’s promise

For more than a decade, Venezuela was a focal point in the continental promise of a more direct and inclusive alternative to dominant marketised approaches to development and democracy. At the end of the 1990s, governments across South America began embarking on various “post-neoliberal” experiments – and for more than a decade, those experiments seemed to work.

Between 2000 and 2014, the region nearly halved the proportion of its people who lived in poverty, and the bottom 40% of its the population saw their incomes rise dramatically. In Venezuela, social, political and economic reforms between 1998 and 2012 helped cut poverty by a spectacular 50%, and extreme poverty by 65%.

Venezuela also became a regional health and welfare pioneer, greatly expanding the number of primary care physicians in the public sector and offering millions of poor citizens better access to healthcare than ever. Under a flagship programme titled Oil for Doctors, Venezuela subsidised oil exports to Cuba in exchange for deployments of Cuban medics and medical training programmes. The Barrio Adentro programme was set up to provide free basic medical care; Mission Miracle provides free eye care to people across the region, and other Venezuelan initiatives tackle the needs of people with disabilities across Central and South America.

But these remarkable projects all depended on revenue from Venezuela’s oil bonanza and accumulated reserves. Once the country was hit by an international oil industry downturn, the result was a string of shortages, outbreaks and widespread social deprivation – and a spiralling socio-political crisis.

Today, thousands of patients cannot receive essential medical treatments – and thousands more are on the waiting list to undergo vital surgery because doctors do not have the necessary resources. Likewise, diseases such as malaria and diphtheria – previously eliminated or controlled – are now on the rise, with disastrous results.

These assorted crises have implications for all Venezuelans, but women in particular. Their rights and choices are affected in distinctive ways, especially when it comes to reproductive rights, sexual health, and gender-based violence.

Women’s rights and dignity

Even before the economic collapse, Venezuela had one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the world. To tackle the problem, the socialist government rolled out entitlements to contraception – but the Venezuelan Pharmaceutical Federation estimates that since 2005, the country’s stocks of contraceptives have fallen by 90%. This is fuelling a rise of sexually transmitted diseases, particularly HIV, and more and more women are seeking out illegal abortions and even sterilisations.

According to Amnesty International, between 2015 and 2016 maternal mortality increased by 65% in Venezuela – wiping out recent advances and returning to the situation that prevailed 25 years ago. Among the main causes are the lack of medicines and basic medical tools and equipment, and the ever-falling number of medical personnel, many of whom are either emigrating or simply unable to work without equipment or pay.

Women find themselves in desperate situations and who fear dying in childbirth are fleeing to give birth in neighbouring Brazil and Colombia. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the overall number of arrivals in neighbouring states steadily increased to 5,000 a day as of early 2018. More than 56,000 Venezuelans crossed the borders in January alone – 40% of them were women.

The ConversationSo far, Venezuela’s South American neighbours and the regional multinational organisations have responded to the crisis principally as an economic and fundamentally a constitutional problem, justifiably worried as they are by the Maduro’s rapidly expanding authoritarianism. They have focused on isolating his government, condemning Venezuela’s farcical elections, recalling their ambassadors and even moving to suspend the country from organisations such as the Organisation of American States. But this is a humanitarian disaster, not just a democratic one. It’s time for other countries to step up and address the crisis’s disastrous effects on women, their rights, and their dignity.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A Short Commentary on the Summit of the Americas

By Ana Carolina Aranda-Jan. Ana Carolina Aranda-Jan is a Postgraduate Research Student in Politics and International Relations at University of Southampton.

U.S. loss of hegemony, Venezuela the loser, and the international presence of Latin America.

The 2015 Summit of the Americas (SOA) was an historical event in Latin American history. The Summit was first launched by U.S President Bill Clinton in 1992, as a series of meetings that brings together leaders of countries in Latin America. Historically, characterized of being led by the U.S agenda, the programme was different. This year was the first time in the over 20-year history of the SOA that Cuba was allowed to attend. It may be early to celebrate that the event brought together Cuba and the U.S however, this rapprochement could somehow distracted the purpose of the meeting: pursuing a common quest for regional solutions to its many challenges. It is important that the countries work to make this forum a space of discussion where differences and the show of who will say what and what the reactions might be, are put aside.

While the U.S. domestically beginning an interesting political moment with three strong “Latino” candidates; Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, pursuing the Oval Office in 2016, Obama travelled to Panama with a friendly face and relaxed attitude towards the meeting. By leaving the presidency in 2016, now there is nothing to lose and what happens in Panama is of relatively little importance, right? However, under the regions eyes it is undeniable that the U.S. does not lead the agenda of the summit anymore and debate about this country’s hegemony over the region has increased. 

We will have to see what happens with the U.S. and its relations in the region. Apparently, the U.S. will try to have a more active role in negotiating its economic and development policies with the countries in the region. In fact, we already started to see the first trips of different representatives of the U.S. to Cuba, for example. Let’s follow what happens with the meeting that the governor of NY is set to hold in Cuba.

Evidently the winner of the summit is Cuba. This is not because of the positive opinion of its participation at the summit but because of the presence of the U.S., giving stability to the current political and economic situation in the country.  It seems that Cuba and the U.S. are helping each other in generating stability in both countries. In contrast, the loser of the summit is Venezuela. Has anti-American discourse stopped being important? Without succeeding in lifting the decree of Venezuela as a “threat”, President Maduro’s weakness as a political leader is evidently. Moreover, there was a clear absence of unconditional support from Cuba (see Joaquin Roy).

Finally, the presidents of Mexico, Argentina and Brazil went unnoticed. They are the presentation of the counter-examples in the development models that they are pursing. Brazil and Dilma with the Petrobras scandals and the protests in the streets back home, Mexico with the kidnaping and killing of 43 students in Iguala and a security crisis; and Argentina with the Nisman case. This shows, evidently, that interesting times are coming in Latin-American.

Finally, the presence of Latin America at the international level is growing. Among different things happening in Latin America currently impacting the world, I leave just the ideas of a young Latin American politician that caused commotion in social networks this week, with a video of her participation at the first Ibero-American Youth Parliament held in Zaragoza reproaching populism from left and right-wing governments in Latin American (see Gloria Alvarez).

What recent episodes of protest and violence in Venezuela tells the region

Pía Riggirozzi, Senior Lecturer in Global Politics

For more than a decade Venezuela has been a focal point in the continental geopolitics. It was in Venezuela where, at the end of the 1990s, the fault lines of the neoliberal model spread opening new possibilities, in theory and practice, for post-neoliberal and socialist experiments across the region. And for more than a decade these experiments seemed to work. According to the World Bank (2014), despite falling growth rates, Latin America continues to successfully reduce poverty and promote shared prosperity. The proportion of the region’s 600 million people living in extreme poverty, defined as a daily income of less than US$2.50, was cut in half between 2003 and 2012 to 12.3 percent. Poverty reduction was accompanied by strong income growth of the bottom 40 percent of the population. In the case of Venezuela, a total transformation of the country’s social, political and economic system meant policies leading to a 50 per cent reduction of poverty and a 65 per cent drop in extreme poverty, from the end of 1998 to the end of 2012.

While socially this is undisputable, Venezuela entered a dangerous path of protest/repression that for the last two weeks put its troubles in the spotlight. The way that politics settles in Venezuela will affect the future of the region. This is not an exaggeration. In many ways, the Bolivarian Revolution represented a structure of opportunity for many of the new regional processes such as the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) or that of Latin America and the Caribbean (CELAC). Not to mention the Venezuelan–led Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), the project that also gathers Cuba, Dominica Republic, Antigua, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines; or blocs such as Petrocaribe, of significant relevance for many Caribbean nations. Politically these blocs still have to take the lead and, at a minimum, pronounce themselves in relation to the crisis in democratic politics in Venezuela.

Meanwhile, just as we have seen in Brazil, Chile and Argentina in recent months, the practice of democratic citizenship in a ‘post-neoliberal’ era is far from consolidated. New episodes of social mobilisation are now effectively expressing unsettled citizenship in Venezuela. This case, perhaps where political contradictions have become more exposed and strained, acts as a reminder of the political malady of the Left: social polarisation and (class) contradictions affecting ‘post-neoliberal’ political experiences in the region. In Venezuela, the attitudes between hardcore opponents and hardcore supporters of the (Chavista) government are well entrenched, with structural and ideological roots that predate the Chávez era. High poverty and inequality due to the misdistribution of oil wealth in the decades prior to Chávez created conditions for a deep class divide.

Current protests in Venezuela reflect discontent with inflation, consumer product shortages and a high crime rate. The international media has reported this at large (see here, here and here), and perhaps more fundamentally, the political tension between president Maduro and opposition leaders. These are immediate motives. Yet, don’t be misled. Violent events in recent weeks speak of subjacent causes held by a deeply polarised society, split in half not because of partisan claims – although certainly elections have strengthened polarisation by institutionalising a zero-sum, winner-take-all political culture– but because of a social fracture amongst Venezuelans who identify only weakly with each (class-anchored) side.

With no elections scheduled for two years, the worst case scenario could be that violence escalates to a point of no return. On the contrary, political settlement will require dialogue and thus toning down the mutually exclusive claims of fascism by the government referring to the opposition, and of tyranny by the opposition speaking about the government.  President Maduro gave some indication of having understood this, calling for dialogue with some sectors of the opposition in search of that elusive and contingent balance so necessary to Venezuela and the rest of the region. Addressing political and social polarisation is key in Venezuela – yet not only- as conservative forces are emerging as a real challenge to current Leftist experiments. Ultimately, it is the very ability of democracy to combine new forces of transformation and resistance which is, once again, at stake in Latin America.