As Latin America emerges as a global epicenter for COVID-19, Venezuela’s political uncertainty, crumbling health care system, and widespread food insecurity leave the country particularly susceptible to the pandemic. Yet the urgent threat of the virus could force cooperation between the country’s competing governing bodies, particularly on health and humanitarian issues. Our Keith Mines outlines the pandemic’s toll on Latin America, Venezuela’s response to COVID-19 so far, and what opportunities exist for ending the country’s political impasse.
Hello, I’m Keith Mines, director for Latin America at the U.S. Institute of Peace, where we’ve been analyzing the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on violent conflict around the world.
In this short video, I’ll answer three questions about what I think are some key dynamics of COVID-19 in Latin America with a focus on Venezuela.
How is the pandemic broadly affecting Latin America?
The COVID crisis has hit Latin America later than much of the world, but cases are still on the increase and enough countries are uniquely vulnerable that it is now being referred to as the new global epicenter. The hemisphere is especially susceptible to the health challenges of COVID because of the prevalence of the informal economic sector (as much as 55% in some countries), generally weak public health systems, and high levels of urbanization. To date, there are over 2.5 million cases and 120,000 deaths. Four countries in the hemisphere are in the global top ten, in fact: Brazil, with the second-highest number of deaths, and Peru, from a modest population base, is sixth, with Chile and Mexico also hard hit. And the numbers are still increasing and may be under-reported. The crisis in Latin America will throw many people back into poverty, in some cases extreme poverty, largely due to the loss of remittances and a steep drop in household consumption.
The UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean estimates a drop of 5.3% in GDP across the hemisphere in 2020, with sixteen million people added to the sixty-seven million already in extreme poverty. This will impact the conditions for conflict as well as migration. It will also increase food insecurity, which is already affecting fifty-four million Latin Americans. Like many other regions, the hemisphere will take a very long time to recover and may not ever bounce back fully. As one international official said, “the major task we have ahead of us is to keep the health crisis from turning into a food crisis.”
The potential for increased social conflict will be high, but the crisis could also provide some unique opportunities for solving conflicts.
How will COVID-19 affect conflict in Venezuela?
In Venezuela, COVID hit late due to the country’s relative isolation, but it could yet hit hard, with a largely collapsed health system and lack of sanitation. Some ninety-one percent of the country is already in poverty and one-third of Venezuelans are food insecure, figures which will increase rapidly as COVID combines with shortages of gas and the collapse of the country’s agricultural sector.
Added to this, the COVID crisis is causing a loss of livelihood for hundreds of thousands of migrants who are resident in neighboring countries and may now return home. This will add additional tension in a country already under profound social and economic pressure.
Despite these basic challenges, many civil society leaders are calling for a truce between the country’s competing governing bodies. Such a truce could build on a three-way agreement signed by the regime, the Guaidó interim government, and the Pan American Health Organization in April that allowed for increased cooperation on detecting and fighting COVID. The two sides need each other in any agreement; the interim government controls much of the country’s assets and has a positive relationship with the international community, while the regime controls the security forces and Venezuela’s infrastructure.
This basic agreement, the first the opposition and government have signed in years, could open the door to expanded cooperation on health and COVID, which could then lead to broader cooperation on a range of other essential humanitarian issues.
Some wondered if this cooperation could lead to a breakthrough on the political negotiating front as well, which holds the key to any long-term improvements in the health and well-being of Venezuelans. But many in civil society are concerned that this could amount to overreach that would jeopardize or delay any humanitarian cooperation.
I definitely understand that perspective, and can see that perhaps the political and humanitarian talks need to remain on two completely separate tracks. But the two sides urgently need to find the right formula to return to the table and do the hard but essential work on a political pact that will end the current impasse. This won’t wait on for an improvement on the humanitarian situation or for COVID to subside. All of this will require establishing new, creative and dynamic processes to tackle both the political conflict and the humanitarian crisis. The UN and other international players may be needed to provide a venue for these processes to play out.
Beyond Venezuela, let’s look at our final question: How should the region respond?
In a broader sense, the COVID crisis has exposed weaknesses in the hemisphere’s socio-economic systems that could now be addressed as part of a new governance model intended to stave off future conflict. Low levels of taxation and corruption have led to weak public health systems and weak public education systems and perpetuated high levels of income inequality. This was impacting even many of the hemisphere’s more prosperous societies before COVID. Perhaps this is the time to go bold and develop a model that blends high levels of social spending with productive and integrated economies. Venezuela, as the country most in need of a new model to produce basic stability, would be in a unique position to develop such a blended system.
Through all of this, the importance of an active role by civil society is clear and it should be a part of the crafting of any solutions. Meanwhile basic democratic rights—to protest, choose leaders in free and fair elections, and maintain freedoms of expression and voice—will need to be upheld in order to channel conflict and disruption in a peaceful direction.
Thank you for watching, and for following this series on social media with the hashtag COVID and Conflict. Please check out our website, USIP.org, for more resources.