The Venezuelan Humanitarian Crisis the Media Is Missing

A largely empty Makro supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela in 2017 ( Image )

A largely empty Makro supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela in 2017 (Image)


The power struggle for the presidency in Venezuela has brought international attention to the South American country’s political turmoil. Sitting President Nicolás Maduro has been challenged by opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who declared himself interim president of the country. The contest for political power has been heightened by violent protests across the country, as well as the international community chiming in with their own thoughts on the matter. The United States and Canada, which view Maduro’s reelection as the result of dubious and falsified electoral results, have led the global movement advocating for Guaidó’s positioning in office. Other Latin American countries, including Brazil and Colombia, support Guaidó as well. The international media has not shied away from harking back to Cold War rhetoric, as Russia, China, Cuba, and Iran are among the countries most publicly lending their support to President Maduro. Russia has even gone as far as warning the United States not to intervene in the region.

The complicated political dynamic has shored up all-encompassing discourse concerning the Venezuelan military, the United Nations Security Council, Cold War dynamics, and more. And rightfully so. After all, Venezuela has one of the largest oil reserves in the world. Considering the country’s recent history, especially the death of Hugo Chávez and Maduro’s subsequent rise to power, it is worthwhile to make sense of how the nation fell into such dire economic and political turmoil. The current benchmark of attentive reporting on and scrutiny towards Venezuela should have been surpassed long before now. The country has been suffering from an enormous humanitarian crisis that has largely flown under the radar of mainstream media for years. With the exception of humanitarian-focused groups like the Human Rights Watch, reporting on Venezuela has been unsuccessful in garnering attention (save for a few articles on political dynamics). Despite years of humanitarian disaster, only now have political upheaval, regional stability, and security questions brought this oil-rich country into the limelight.

Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis has affected nearly every aspect of daily life in the country. Since Maduro first came to power in 2013, the country has faced severe shortages of medicines, medical supplies, and foodstuffs. Maduro’s strong-arm approach to arresting and torturing protesters and raids of low-income areas have also raised red flags from human rights groups.

In June 2016, reports estimated that over 80 percent of Venezuelan public hospitals lack basic and essential medicines, and infant mortality reached 21 deaths per 1,000 live births. Rates like this have not been seen in Venezuela since the 1990s. The Human Rights Watch cited “unhygienic conditions and medical shortages in hospital delivery wards” as likely factors in rising infant mortality rates. Doctors have been asking patients to provide medicines and supplies (including gauze, antiseptics, needles, and more) themselves.

The Venezuelan Health Observatory has also reported shortages of antimalarial drugs, which may be connected to the rising number of malaria cases in Venezuela. Whereas other countries in the region have reported decreasing rates of malaria contraction, Venezuela is projected to deal with more than one million cases in 2019. Numbers like these have not been seen in Venezuela since the early 20th century. But it doesn’t stop there; vaccine shortages for polio, diphtheria, tetanus, hepatitis B, and others have also been reported.

Access to food remains another point of major concern for Venezuelans, who face an annual inflation rate of 1,000,000 percent, in the midst of poorly stocked stores. A 2017 survey on living conditions in Venezuela detailed such extreme food insecurity that nine out of ten people reported being unable to afford their daily food. Six out of ten individuals acknowledged having gone to bed hungry because they could not afford food. 64 percent of those surveyed reported losing weight in 2017 (about 25 pounds on average) as a consequence of the appalling lack of access to basic necessities for survival.

The threats to human rights and access to fundamental services have forced nearly three million Venezuelans to flee the country since 2014. The majority of migrants have gone to neighboring Colombia, while others have traveled elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere to Panama, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and the United States. Colombia’s open borders and acceptance of nearly 4,000 Venezuelans a day has made headlines itself. In a global order seemingly affixed on border security, Colombia’s openness is an outlier. Colombians’ willingness to accept their Venezuelan neighbors stems from a historical connection, when Venezuela’s peace and prosperity was a safe haven for Colombians fleeing the intense violence in their own country. Colombian President Iván Duque has tried to encourage international support for countries burdened by the flow of migrants from Venezuela.

Sadly the situation in Venezuela loosely mirrors that of Yemen, where one of the world’s most monumental and historic humanitarian crises is currently playing out. The disaster in Yemen only truly gained national media traction when the political ramifications (for one, the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia after Jamal Khashoggi’s murder) were magnified. Human rights groups and some activist columnists had been trying to educate the world on the situation in Yemen for years, as the same has been happening in Venezuela. Our argument is simply this: political repercussions should not be the only reason a country makes headlines. Infant mortality rates in Venezuela rising to levels unseen in over thirty years should be more than enough to turn heads. Unfortunately, according to the media’s current modus operandi, humanitarian crises are uncovered when the correlating political consequences are relevant in international politics. Large-scale humanitarian problems like infant mortality, fleeing refugees, and dwindling access to basic medicine belong in the headlines of stories on Venezuela’s current state, not buried beneath the politics.