American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies and American University Washington College of Law’s (WCL) Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law co-presented a panel entitled “Conflict and Crisis in Venezuela: Human Rights and International Responses” on Monday, October 23rd, 2017. The panel was moderated by Michael McCarthy, and the speakers included Maria Corina Muskus Toro, Geoff Ramsey, and Carla Bustillos.
Mr. McCarthy, an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs, opened the session by offering a primer on the current situation in Venezuela. He explained that, under Nicolás Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian government, political conflict has reached previously unseen levels, resulting in a severe economic depression and a regression away from the liberal social values that once seemed to be emerging in the South American nation. This internal political instability is spilling out of Venezuela, putting stress on Brazil and Colombia, and making Venezuela more heavily represented than any other nation with respect to citizens seeking asylum in the United States.
Mr. McCarthy then called upon Ms. Muskus, a Romulo Gallegos Fellow with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, to share her insights. She framed the crisis as a total failure of Venezuela’s public health system and focused primarily on its negative impact on women and children. She explained that, although the Venezuelan constitution contains a healthcare mandate, hospitals are unable to operate at full capacity as they are experiencing shortages of 70% on their basic supplies. In 2016, seven hundred Venezuelan women died in childbirth, up from three hundred the year prior, and the infant mortality rate spiked to over 11,000–higher than that in Syria.
Women with HIV or breast cancer have even more difficulty accessing care. Venezuela’s Ministry of Health is no longer providing treatments for cancer or HIV/AIDS, rendering 73% of HIV-positive patients unable to access their anti-retrovirals. HIV-positive mothers are all but forced to pass the disease to their children now that only 11% of babies born to carrier mothers are being tested for HIV. It is nearly impossible for these women to come by baby formula. Some hospitals do not even have food, water, or electricity, and there is a bed shortage in maternity wards and an incubator shortage for babies. Meanwhile, six Venezuelan women die of breast cancer every day because they often have to wait up to two years to gain access to life-saving surgeries. Maduro’s government, however, is downplaying this massive health crisis because they do not want interventionary help.
Mr. Ramsey, the Washington Office on Latin America associate for Venezuela, spoke next, highlighting the various forms of pressure that the international community has endeavored to place on Venezuela. He detailed how the Organization of American States has made efforts to push Venezuela out of the body, and how any United Nations Security Council resolutions against Venezuela would likely be vetoed by Russia or China despite multiple forceful condemnations from the Human Rights Council. His primary focus was on sanctions, a charge the United States is leading with the recent addition of Canada. He expressed concern that sanctions have not historically been a successful predictor of behavioral change, but that the U.S. might find more success as more countries emerge in favor of sanctioning and with more targeted sanctions tied to clear and concrete actions by the Venezuelan government.
Ms. Bustillos, the founding director of Visión Democrática and a Venezuelan-American herself, further clarified the corruption within the Venezuelan government that is contributing to this crisis. The National Assembly is held by the opposition and is pushing for a presidential referendum to oust Maduro, and Supreme Tribunal justices are trying to close out the Assembly’s power. Effectively, this is as though the United States Congress was trying to impeach a president of a different party and the Supreme Court, aligned largely with the president, was working to eliminate Congress all together.
The panel provided deep insight into the horrors of the crisis in Venezuela and inspired hope that a solution could come about, if not in the near future, then someday. Ideally, the opposition power in the National Assembly would be able to exert some power and call a presidential referendum to force Maduro out of the government. Barring that, the best hope for a marked change in Venezuela is a targeted sanctions regime implemented either by an intergovernmental organization like the United Nations or the Order of American States or by the United States alongside several other nations.