Cataclysm: COVID-19 in Brazil

As the number of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) cases continue to grow in the United States (U.S.), another epicenter has been growing in South America. As the sixth most populous country in the world, Brazil has experienced an uptick in COVID-19 cases and deaths alongside an array of national controversies that make the response efforts considerably more difficult. This blog addresses Brazil’s growing importance in the COVID-19 discussion and how it impacts human rights issues concerning indigenous peoples, environmental degradation, favela communities, and good governance.

As of late-June, more than 1.3 million Brazilians have been diagnosed with COVID-19, while over 55,000 have died from the virus. Brazil’s most populated state, São Paulo, is currently the country’s epicenter with nearly 250,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. The northeastern state of Ceará has the country’s second-largest number of confirmed cases (100,000+), while Pará in the northwest is nearing 100,000 confirmed cases. Additionally, the iconic city of Rio de Janeiro has over 105,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Unfortunately, Amazonas has to the highest COVID-19 death rate of any state with 67 deaths per 100,000 cases, compared to Bahia’s 11 deaths per 100,000 cases, which highlights the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on indigenous communities that have been systematically killed, displaced, and denied access to health care and other preventative services that could help fight the spread of the virus.

Indigenous Peoples of Brazil

As the largest Brazilian state in the Amazon region, Amazonas is known for its indigenous communities who often live in isolated villages and have poor access to health care. In the city of Manaus, which has a population of 2 million+ and is only accessible by aircraft or boat, many recent respiratory-related deaths have resulted in quick burial in mass graves, which has likely led to a severe underestimate the pandemic’s toll on the local population. In the remote community of Betania, the Tikuna tribe has five government medical workers that accommodate an approximate 4,000 inhabitants, but they are not treating the sick due to lack of protective equipment and COVID-19 testing supplies. One considerable threat are the indigenous community members who are not quarantining and are, instead, traveling in and out of town for work.

These unprecedented events compound the colonial legacy that has threatened Brazil’s indigenous peoples for centuries. Centuries ago, indigenous tribes throughout the Amazon were decimated by diseases brought by Europeans. In a way, history is repeating itself because the Brazilian government’s ineffectual response to the crisis have allowed COVID-19 to ravage the surviving indigenous communities and put them on the brink of genocide. Aside from the tribes who have contact with the modern world, the Brazilian Amazon inhabits 103 uncontacted tribes who have virtually no knowledge or resources to protect them from the threat of COVID-19. Signing this petition will help urge Brazilian officials to protect the surviving indigenous communities throughout the Amazon.

Deforestation in the Amazon

Since COVID-19 has reached these Amazonian communities, deforestation in the region has also proliferated. The Amazon is the largest rainforest in the world and is important to the global ecosystem because it absorbs approximately 5% of the world’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Thus, protecting the Amazon is pivotal for stalling the effects of climate change. However, for years, the Amazon has been ravaged to accommodate the agricultural industry as well as illegal loggers and drug traffickers. As a result, indigenous leaders fear that the COVID-19 pandemic will be used to exacerbate the destruction these industries have already caused.

During the month of April, deforestation in Brazil increased by nearly 64% which resulted in more than 150 square miles of rainforest destruction. In response, 3,000+ Brazilian soldiers were deployed to the region to prevent illegal logging and other criminal activities that contribute to deforestation. Some worry that such activity in the rainforest will lead to outsiders giving indigenous communities infectious diseases, namely COVID-19. Brazil’s Secretariat of Indigenous Health (SESAI) has made efforts to distribute N95 masks, gloves, and goggles to the region, but activists warn that the only way to protect uncontacted tribes is by keeping illegal loggers and miners out of these areas. Despite the Brazilian government establishing three military bases to prevent illegal actors from permeating the region, they are only expected to be present for 30 days. This is because Brazil’s main environmental enforcement agency, Ibama, is expected to take over these efforts but are currently understaffed and underbudgeted.

Favelas in the Age of Social Distancing

More than 11 million Brazilians live in favelas which are shantytowns outside of urban centers. Already hit hard by gun violence, unsanitary conditions, and militaristic police presence, people living in Brazil’s favelas struggle to adhere to social distancing measures. Research has found that people living favela-like conditions spend roughly 50% more time per day with others than people in less-impoverished areas. Often, favelas are composed of two or three rooms with five or six people sharing these spaces. As such, favela conditions enable the spread of COVID-19, and with precious little assistance from the government, Brazil’s most impoverished communities are left to fend for themselves.

With little government help, residents of Paraisopolis in Sao Paulo (population: 100,000) have offered a community-based solution. Due to donations and volunteer work, residents have responded to COVID-19 by organizing distribution of free meals, ambulatory services, and neighborhood watch persons. They even designated one building the quarantine house and repurposed closed schools in self-isolation centers. In Rio, members of the gang City of God drive through the local favelas, blaring a recorded message ordering people to stay home. Other gangs have become knowledgeable about COVID-19 in order to deliver essential goods to favela residents and have even gone as far to enforce social distancing measures by preventing restaurants from putting tables out. These forms of gang vigilantism in Brazil’s favelas demonstrate the lack of government support and tension with local police.

Small grave onlooking a favela.
At the bottom of this block destined to the burials of COVID-19, is the favela of the Vila Nova Cachoeirinha housing complex. Source: Léu Britto, Creative Commons.

Trump of the Tropics

These criticisms are largely attributed to the leadership of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro who notoriously dismissed COVID-19 as a “little flu”. Aside from personally ignoring social distancing measures, Bolsonaro has organized large rallies in an effort to confront local governors who have locked down their regions. Recently, after ignoring federal regulation that require wearing a face mask in all public places, a judge ruled that Bolsonaro (and any public official) is not exempt from this policy and should expect a 2,000-reais ($387) fine like anyone else. Bolsonaro even fired his Health Minister, Luiz Mandetta, in April after he supported social distancing measures. His successor has since promoted a reopening of the economy and unproven medical treatments for COVID-19.

Known by many as the “Trump of the Tropics,” Bolsonaro has successfully maintained a strong coalition of supporters such as the agriculture community, evangelical Christians, and the military. Unlike the U.S., Brazil is an emerging economy with a weak social safety net that makes it difficult for government officials to convince people to stay at home. Health care access and the conditions to work from home are also quite limited. Recent cell phone tracking data has revealed that 45-60% of Brazilians are not complying with social distancing measures, likely due to the fact that they have to choose between feeding their families and being exposed to the virus. As such, it is assumed Bolsonaro’s defiance of a public health approach to COVID-19 is an effort to appeal to his core supporters. Bolsonaro has also slashed regulations and enforcement of land grabbing, which exacerbates the deforestation crisis currently impacting the Amazon.

Human Rights in Brazil

As demonstrated, Brazil has an array of chronic human rights problems that have been compounded by the arrival of COVID-19. In 2016, a constitutional amendment was passed that limited public expenditures in Brazil for the next 20 years. As a result, we are now witnessing how these austerity measures have affected access to housing, food, water, and sanitation when Brazilians need it the most, particularly within the most vulnerable groups – women, children, Afro-Brazilians, indigenous peoples, rural communities, and informally-settled persons.

Much like the U.S., Brazil’s COVID-19 response has mostly been subnational social distancing measures and an emergency basic income to placate the masses. However, these efforts are clearly inadequate considering Brazil’s COVID-19 cases are surging alongside another potential Zika outbreak. As a result, Brazil has effectively become the most prominent COVID-19 case study in the Global South, a nation plagued by a deadly virus and an array of human rights issues. Human rights experts suggest fiscal stimulus and social protection packages would only be the beginning of a COVID-19 response because many of these concerns are the consequence of marketization and privatization of public goods and services. As such, the COVID-19 pandemic serves as an opportunity to reverse the market-based ideology that has failed so many countries, especially the Land of the Palms.

Please sign the petition to help urge Brazilian officials to protect the surviving indigenous communities throughout the Amazon.

Why Are Chilean Civilians Protesting?

Chile is a Spanish-speaking country located to the west of Argentina in South America. Its ribbon-like shape allows it to be a part of many different climates, from the Atacama Desert to the North to the snowy Alpine climate to the South. According to the BBC Country Profile, Chile’s population amounts to about 17.9 million people, with 6.7 million people living in Santiago, its capital city.

An image of the map of Chile.
Top 10 Hardest Working Countries of the World. Source: Workspirited, Creative Commons

Chile is a free country. The Freedom in the World 2019 Profile rates Chile as Free with a score of 94 out of 100. According to the report, Chile’s Freedom Rating, Political Rights, and Civil Liberties are rated as most free due to its growing civil rights efforts that emerged after its transition to a democracy in 1990. So, why are there high-scale protests currently spanning the country? High costs and economic inequality are largely to blame.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Chile’s income inequality is ranked 3rd in the world, only behind Costa Rica and South Africa (for reference, the United States is ranked sixth).

These statistics explain why the youth in Chile are currently protesting rising transport fares. In early October, “the government announced that the metro rush hour prices would rise by 30 pesos ($0.04).” These slight rises to the metro fare were met with backlash from many school children, who responded by jumping over metro turnstiles or even destroying them while chanting the phrase “Evade, and not pay, is another way of fighting.” These protests even spread to supermarkets and petrol stations where fires raged the streets during the night. It was due to these protests that the president, Sabastian Piñera, decided to declare a state of emergency while also issuing curfews in select locations. Last used after the 2010 earthquake, the state of emergency suspends free movement and assembly with the main purpose of maintaining public order. With this employed, “the military is [tasked] to guard the streets, with generals appointed in every region where the state of emergency is valid.” Piñera claimed that Chile was “at war against a powerful enemy, who is willing to use violence without any limits” while characterized these events as a problem concerning rebels rather than the government. Although it may seem that calling a state of emergency may be justified, since these unorganized protests involved setting fire to many metro stations, attacking Chile’s largest private electricity company, and throwing stones at the police, it did not bode well for Chile’s president whose policies have allowed him to appeal to businesses and investors while staying disconnected from the Chilean people.

A stack of gold round coins, stacked like an exponential graph
Gold Round Coins. Source: Pexels, Creative Commons

Economic inequality has been a major problem in many societies around the world with about “80 [of the] richest people on the planet now own[ing] as much as the bottom half of the world’s population” today. This problem has been so profound that even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has declared income inequality as a central challenge of this century. And, as seen in Chile, outrage over these policies have spurred many to protest the subsequent injustices and push it as a central issue in political discourse.

Inequality, especially in terms of income and wealth, has significant influence on human rights. Without access to money or a stable income, many are restricted in access to healthcare, education, food, and other commodities and services that every person should be able to access. The lack of access to these goods violates the 25th Article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.” Due to the ubiquity of poverty worldwide, this demonstrates that much of the world still has a long way to go until universal human rights are achieved. Inequality also distances the poor from proper services, such as some form of education, proper shelter, and access to water, which creates conflict between disadvantaged and affluent communities. By denying these universal human rights, countries are willing to perpetuate (extreme) inequality, which restricts access to fundamental needs that ensure equitable and sustainable living conditions.

According to an article posted by the Center for Economic and Social Rights, focus on economic inequality remains silent despite its major ramifications on the lives of people across the world. The article questions why the human rights community is relatively silent on an issue that challenges what human rights stands for in the first place and how the community can advance policies such as fiscal reforms, wage protections and social protection floors. While it is true these reforms and actions may help bridge the gap between the rich and poor, some of the larger scale benefits these programs can fund are financial literacy and incentives for self-governance.

A Chilean Flag
Chile | Democracy Now! Source: Democracy Now, Creative Commons

Looking at Chile specifically, the “richest 1 percent of the population earns 33 percent of the nation’s wealth.” This comes with the fact that 50% of laborers earn less than 400,000 pesos a month (about $550). Although Chile is recognized as a stable, peaceful, and wealthy country, those international impressions stand on very weak pillars, especially when looking at economic inequality across the board. These protests have also been peaceful, with many involving more than 5 percent of Chile’s population. According to Stephanie Diaz, a sports teacher living in a working-class neighborhood in Santiago, in an interview with Vox, “This protest is not about 30 pesos, but 30 years. It’s 30 years since the return to democracy, but we have preserved a constitution made under the dictatorship.” Chile’s 1980 constitution, which preceded a military dictatorship, made goods and materials, even those considered as public goods, privatized. As a result, this raised the value and cost to produce and distribute such resources. Furthermore, privatization has influenced Chile to have the highest university tuitions in the world which has, alone, indebted approximately 4.5 million people in the workforce.

According to Vox, Chile’s president’s approval rating had dipped below 14 percent, a historic number when looking at the amount of people who are livid and fighting peacefully for change. Such disapproval comes as Chile plays host to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in November, where President Donald Trump and China’s Xi Jinping will be visiting to negotiate a trade deal, and the UN Climate Change Conference occurring in December. A solution proposed by Shivani Ekkanath in an opinion piece of the Borgen Magazine lays along the lines of cracking down on bureaucracy, fixing the misallocation of funds, ending corruption, etc. in order to lift the economic burden of poverty and other kinks in the economic system.

Based on what has occurred in Chile thus far, it appears the rise in metro prices by 30 pesos was simply the tip of the iceberg. Growing economic inequality combined with more business-friendly practices has caused more workers and everyday Chileans to suffer and be unable to work toward a promising future for themselves and their families. And, as seen when with economic inequality, the growing gap between the rich and poor simply brings into light how it is both a cause and a consequence of violations of human rights such as access to care, education, and housing. Current protests like these help us understand that even countries regarded as stable are not always what they seem unless one looks at the lives of everyday people. Thus, we must focus on social and economic stability by employing a human rights perspective through the view of the common Chilean rather than a perspective at a state-wide level. Chile is an excellent example of people fighting for fairness in society peacefully, where progressive fiscal reforms should be utilized and promoted, rather than solely looking to appeal businesses.

The Rainforest is Burning: Fires in the Amazon

Trees in a swamp in the Amazon rain forest.
Swamp in Amazon rainforest. Source: Ivan Mlinaric, Creative Commons

On August 19, 2019, the sky of São Paulo, Brazil was turned black from smoke, bringing an abrupt awareness to a serious problem in the Amazon: it’s burning.  During the first eight months of this year, upwards of 74,000 fires were found burning in Brazil, most of which were in the Amazon and/or on agricultural land.  This was an 84% increase in the number of fires found during the same period in 2018, and the highest number found at one time in Brazil since 2010.  In August, the G7 (Group of Seven) held a summit to discuss issue related to climate change, biodiversity, and the oceans, where the countries involved agreed to give support and $20 million in response to the devastation in the Amazon.  Brazil’s President, Jair Bolsonaro, refused this offer, claiming that the country’s sovereignty was being the threatened. 

Why is this happening? 

There are a few different factors that have been attributed to causing the fires.  One is that some number of fires is normal, especially during this time of year, as it is a dry season.  Most of the fires are not naturally occurring, though.  Brazilian journalist Silio Boccanera says that many of the local people feel comfortable setting fires as they wish, as the government has not made efforts to prevent it. 

President Bolsonaro supports the deforestation of the Amazon because he sees it as place for development.  Because of this, his administration has not framed the preservation of the rainforest as being particularly important, making groups who want to clear land for farming do exactly that.  Boccanera believes that this, in combination with the expected fires of the dry season, has been the main cause.    

According to Mikaela Weisse from the World Resources Institute, cattle grazers and soybean growers are the main two groups who are clearing the rainforest due to economic interests.  Mining, timber, and development firms are also growing in the area as a result of Bolsonaro’s position on the rainforest.  Confirmation of the fact that humans have caused most of the fires comes from satellite photos showing “special pattern where we see a lot of fire hot-spots clustered around roads, agriculture and pasture areas that have already been cleared.” 

The Impact of the Fires on the Environment  

The increase of fires has had (and will continue to have) a serious impact on the natural world.  So far, 228 megatons of carbon dioxide have been released due to the fireswhich absorbs heat and contributes to climate change. 

There is also great reason to be concerned for the long-term well-being of the Amazon itself.  As a tropical rainforest, it has high levels of humidity and is not fire-adapted, meaning its vegetation does not have the special traits that the plants of drier climates have developed in order to survive or even thrive when fire is present.  According to Yadvinder Malhi, Professor of Ecosystem Science at the University of Oxford, it takes around 20 to 40 years to regenerate after a fire (assuming it has the chance to regenerate before a new fire begins).  However, any fires that do occur leave the surviving trees more vulnerable to drought and new fires than they were before.  Multiple fires every few years mean more long-term, permanent damage, potentially shifting large parts of the Amazon to a “degraded shrubby state.” 

As of August, 80% of the Amazon remained intact, but Malhi is concerned about how the combination of deforestation and climate change will impact the situation.  Due to the reduced rainfall leading to a drier climate, fires would be more likely to spread.  As Malhi points out: “If 30-40% of the Amazon was cleared, then there would be a danger of changing the forest’s entire climate,” which is hard to think about.  He does, however, also say that we are at an early stage in the situation, and that there is still enough to work to save the rainforest. 

Clearing Up Some Misinformation 

One claim that has been seen numerous social media sites is that the Amazon rainforest produces 20% of Earth’s oxygen.  According the BBC’s Reality Check, academics believe that the number is actually less than 10%.  Professor Malhi points out that a large part percentage of oxygen is produced by plankton and that, of the oxygen that is produced by plants on land, only 16% is produced by the Amazon.   

Even if the Amazon produced a full 20% of oxygen, this is still a misleading claim, because the Amazon absorbs close to the same amount of oxygen as it produces, “effectively making the total produced net-zero.”  The plants of the rainforest must reabsorb about half of the oxygen they produce to perform respiration and grow, and the soil, animals, and microbes also use some of it. 

This is not to suggest that saving the Amazon rainforest is not an important issue (because it certainly is)rather, it is to clear up some misinformation.  People have been known to point to misinformation as an argument against the importance of an issue, so it is important to address it when it is being spread.   

An area of the Amazon rain forest where trees have been cut down and burned.
Slash and burn agriculture in the Amazon. Source: Matt Zimmerman, Creative Commons

The Impact of Fires and Deforestation on Indigenous Peoples 

The deforestation of the Amazon has a severe negative impact on the indigenous people of Brazil.  Indigenous tribes rely on the rainforest in nearly every part of their lives, from food to clothes to medicine.  It is also an important part of their identity as a people.  Jonathan Mozower from Survival International says, “It’s hard to overstate the importance of these forests for indigenous peoples.”  The fires that are burning in the Amazon are eating away at the resources that are the foundation of their livelihoods.   

According to Mozower, this is “the worst moment for the indigenous people of the Amazon” since the military dictatorship that lasted until the 1980s.  In just a single week in August, there were 68 fires found and registered in indigenous territories and conservation areas. 

The indigenous people of the area are also being harmed by the fires’ impact on the rainforest’s biodiversity.  The Amazon rainforest contains the most diverse range of living things in the world.  For example, it is home to over 3,000 species of fish, and there are hundreds more that have not yet been discovered.  The diversity of the forest is what allows the life there to thrive, with different species depending on one another, such as fish helping to spread the seeds of trees.  The loss of some species leads to the loss of others, causing the rate of biodiversity loss to increase over time. 

As the Amazon loses more and more biodiversity, the indigenous people who live there lose more of their resources. 

This Is a Human Rights Issue 

According to Article 25 of the United Nations’ (UN) Universal Declaration for Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family.  This is also affirmed by Article 7 of the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (DRIP) states that “Indigenous individuals have the rights to life, physical and mental integrity, liberty and security of person.”  

DRIP also addresses many aspects of the land and resources that indigenous peoples depend on (like in the Amazon rainforest).  Article 8 states that “States shall provide effective mechanisms for prevention of, and redress for actions that deprive them of their integrity as distinct peoples, or of cultural values or ethnic identities and any action that tries or succeeds at taking away their land or resources.  Article 26 identifies indigenous peoples’ rights to the lands and resources they have traditionally possessed, to own, use, develop, and control these lands and resources, and to have “legal recognition and protection to these lands, territories and resources” by the states they live in.  Article 29 states that “Indigenous peoples have the right to conservation and protection of the environment and the productive capacity of their lands or territories and resources.  Articles 30 says that governments should consult the indigenous people who live in the area before using their territories. 

The impacts of the fires and deforestation of the Amazon impede indigenous people’s access to these rights and must be dealt with. 

What Can We Do? 

When faced with the facts of the situation in Amazon, it is easy to feel hopeless about the future.  Here are some things that you can personally do to help. 

Donations 

One option is to donate to organizations aimed at fighting the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest and supporting the people who are impacted by it.  Survival International takes donations in order to fund their efforts to pressure the Brazilian government to keep loggers out of the rainforest in support of the Awá people.  The International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs aims specifically to help makes sure that the voices of indigenous people are heard. 

Rainforest Safe Products 

You can also try to only by products that are deemed “rainforest safe”.  Products that are “Rainforest Alliance Certified” come from “farms that passed audits and met standards for sustainability”.  Some goods that might have the seal for this certification include coffee, bananas, and chocolate.  Products that are made with wood can be “Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)” certified, meaning the wood used did not come from illegal logging and deforestation. 

Sustainable Living 

Another great option is to try to live a more sustainable life overall.  One of the best things that you can do is adopt a plant-based (vegan) diet or at least cut down on your consumption of animal products.  As it was previously mentioned, one of the biggest reasons for the clearing of the Amazon is cattle grazing and the farming of soybeans (which are mostly used to feed livestock).  According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Brazil is world’s largest beef exporter, “providing close to 20 percent of total global beef exports.  In 2017, the United States was the sixth largest importer of Brazilian beef, buying $295 million dollars’ worth According to the USDA Economic Research Service, the United States imported 140.9 million pounds Brazilian beef in 2019.   

Cutting down on the consumption of animal products is also a great way to live more sustainably, as 42% of the United States’ agricultural greenhouse gas emissions are from animal agriculture and “livestock accounts for between 14.5 percent and 18 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions” worldwide. 

It main seem difficult, but it is possible for to make a difference as ordinary people. 

Venezuela: On the Brink of Collapse

a picture of a man walking in front of a burning car during a Venezuelan protest
Venezuela riot San Cristobal protest. Source: ビッグアップジャパン, Creative Commons.

Venezuela is not free. The Freedom in the World 2017 Profile rates their overall freedom status as Not Free with an aggregate score of 30/100. The most recent anti-government protests have persisted for eight weeks with a rising death toll of at least 60 as of Monday 29 May, as the far too often and routine clashes between protesters and police continue. Violence has heightened in recent days as the opposition marches for its four key demands:

  1. removal of the Supreme Court justices who issued the ruling on March 29th;
  2. general elections in 2017 (rather than 2018);
  3. creation of a “humanitarian channel” to allow the import of medication to counter severe shortages; and
  4. release of all the “political prisoners”

Both the government and opposition accuse each other of sending armed groups to sow violence during demonstrations. President Maduro has even gone as far as to accuse the opposition of terrorism. Food and medicine shortages plague the citizens of Venezuela as they struggle to fight for their own freedom and basic human rights. Many sources say the country is on the brink of collapse.

Consistent political tension has existed in the country since the death of former leader of the United Socialist Party (PSUV) Hugo Chaves in 2013, when President Nicolas Maduro came to power. The election left the country split into Chavistas (followers of the socialist policies of the late President Chaves) and those who wish to see an end to the PSUV’s 18 years in power. Opposition members claim the PSUV has eroded Venezuela’s democratic institutions and mismanaged its economy. In turn, Chavistas point the finger at the opposition for being elitists, who exploit poor Venezuelans for personal financial gain. Additionally, Chavistas allege that opposition leaders are in the pay of the United States, with whom Venezuela has had strained relations in recent years.

In early 2014, Venezuelan government began to respond to anti-government protests with brutal force. Security forces used excessive force against unarmed protesters and bystanders. These forces tolerated and even, at times, collaborated directly with armed pro-government gangs that violently assaulted protesters. Those detained and held incommunicado on military bases for at least 48 hours before appearing before a judge. In some cases, detainees were subject to severe beating, electric shocks or burns, and forced to squat or kneel for hours.

Maduro, in July 2015, deployed over 80,000 members of security forces in “Operation People’s Liberation” (OLP) to confront “rising security concerns”. Following raids in low-income and immigrant communities by both police and military forces resulted in public accusations of abuse, including extrajudicial killings, mass arbitrary detentions, maltreatment of detainees, forced evictions, the destruction of homes, and arbitrary deportations. The following February, Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz announced that 245 people had been killed in OLP raids during 2015 in “incidents in which ‘members of various security forces participated’”. Government cited that “those killed died during ‘confrontations’ with armed criminals,” despite witness accounts in at least 20 cases that do not include any sort of confrontation.

a Venezeulan policeman at a protest
Policemen from the Bolivarian National Police watching protesters in Maracaibo. Source: Global Panorama, Creative Commons.

Human Rights Watch World Report on Venezuela (HRW) reveals tensions have only increased as arbitrary prosecution of political opponents has become more frequent and forceful. Leopoldo Lopez, an opposition leader, is serving a 13-year sentence in military prison for his alleged role in inciting violence during a demonstration in Caracas in February 2014, despite the lack of any credible evidence linking him to a crime. Several others arrested arbitrarily in connection to anti-government protests in 2014, remain detained or under house arrest while awaiting trial. The Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) detained dozens of individuals in 2016, citing they were planning, fomenting, or participating in violent anti-government actions, although many were, in fact, peaceful protests. Many detainees claim they were tortured or abused in custody. Detainees also report they were unable to speak with their families or attorneys for hours and/or days after their detaining. In many cases, much like Lopez’s, prosecutors failed to produces any plausible evidence associating charged persons with the crimes of which they were accused. Courts consider the possession of political materials, including pamphlets calling for the release of political prisoners, credible evidence in some cases.

HRW suggests Venezuela’s national distress heightened as “severe shortages of medicines and medical supplies make it extremely difficult for Venezuelans to obtain essential medical care. In August 2016, a network of medical residents from public hospitals countrywide reported severe shortages of medicines in 76% of surveyed hospitals as compared to 67% the year before. Researchers found that infant and maternal mortality rates in 2016 were significantly higher than in previous years. Severe food shortages have made it extraordinarily problematic for many people to obtain adequate nutrition. Civil society groups and two Venezuelan universities conducted a survey in 2015 in which “87 percent of interviewees nationwide—most from low-income households—said they had difficulty purchasing food” and “[t]welve percent were eating two or fewer meals a day”.

The UN Human Rights Council scrutinized Venezuela’s human rights record in November 2016. Numerous states “urged Venezuela to cooperate with UN special procedures by addressing arbitrary detention, lack of judicial independence, and shortages of medicine and food; releasing persons detained for political reasons; respecting freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly; and ensuring that human rights defenders can conduct their work without reprisals”. Unfortunately, Venezuela has actively voted against the scrutiny of human rights violations as a member of the UN Human Rights Council, and has opposed resolutions associated with human rights abuses in North Korea, Syria, Belarus, and Iran.

a picture of a Venezuelan protester
Venezuelan protest. Source: ビッグアップジャパン, Creative Commons.

The Venezuelan government has downplayed the severity of the country’s current state of crisis. Efforts to alleviate shortages have not been successful and have limited efforts to obtain available international humanitarian assistance. Measures taken by the Venezuelan government to restrict international funding of non-governmental organizations, along with unsubstantiated accusations by government officials and supporters that human rights defenders are seeking to undermine Venezuelan democracy, creates a hostile environment that restricts civil society groups from effectively promoting human rights. In early 2016, Maduro issued “a presidential decree that—in addition to declaring a ‘state of exception’ and granting himself the power to suspend rights—instructed the Foreign Affairs Ministry to suspend all agreements providing foreign funding to individuals or organizations when ‘it is presumed’ that such agreements ‘are used for political purposes or to destabilize the Republic’” (Venezuela, 2017). Maduro received two extensions to the state of exception – in September and in November.

A surprise announcement by the Venezuelan Supreme Court on March 29, 2017 was a key catalyst in sparking the current anti-government protest. The announcement disclosed that the Court would take over the powers of the opposition-controlled National Assembly–a ruling the opposition claimed would undermine the country’s separation of powers and push Venezuela one-step closer to a one-man, dictatorial rule under Maduro. The Court argued that the National Assembly had disregarded previous Court rulings and was therefore in contempt. Three days later, the Court reversed its ruling. This reversal, unfortunately, did not bring any relief to the overwhelming distrust of the Court by opposition members.

In early May 2017, discussion of creating a new constitution began as Maduro sought to make a move following the earlier days of the prolonged protest. The president has taken steps, including signing a document establishing the terms for electing the member of a “constituent assembly”, tasked with the drafting of a new constitution.

Citizens of Venezuela persist in their efforts to demand access to basic human rights and civil liberties. Doctors rallied in the ongoing protest to address their own frustration with the current crisis. Over a thousand health care workers and opposition sympathizers marched towards the health ministry in Caracas. Police fired tear gas to drive them back, in scenes all too familiar after weeks of unrest. One protester, a 50-year old surgeon, says, “One is always afraid to come out, but we will carry on doing it until there is a change”. Despite a belief that the opposition party is plotting a coup against him, President Maduro has called for a “march for peace”. Venezuelans and the world await his plans to bring peace to fruition.

 

 

Works Cited

Freedom in the World 2017: Venezuela Profile. (2017). Retrieved May 2017, from Freedom House:https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2017/venezuela (2017). Venezuela. New York, NY: Human Rights Watch.

Venezuela Crisis: What is Behind the Turmoil. (2017, May 4). Retrieved from BBC News: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-36319877

Venezuela Leader Launches Constitution Overhaul. (2017, May 23). Retrieved May 2017, from TRT World: http://www.trtworld.com/americas/venezuela-leader-launches-constitution-overhaul-363182

Venezuela Protests Continue with Rally bt Health Care Workers. (2017, May 22). Retrieved from TRT World: http://www.trtworld.com/americas/venezuela-protests-continue-with-rally-by-health-care-workers-362416

Venezuela Protests Continue with Rally by HealthCare Workers. (2017, May 22). Retrieved May 2017,from TRT World:                                                                                        http://www.trtworld.com/americas/venezuela-protests-continue-with-rally-by-health-care-workers-362416