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If the Vatican sits down to mediate between the Venezuelan government and the opposition, it should bring to the table an objective assessment of the situation on the ground, and recognize as a point of departure the government’s responsibility for both the creation and the solution of the crisis. Any meaningful dialogue must ensure that the Maduro administration commits itself to releasing arbitrarily jailed opponents, carrying out a timely recall referendum, and allowing the opposition-led National Assembly to legislate. But it should also press the government to address the profound humanitarian crisis that Venezuela is facing.

Doctors protest in front of the state-run University City Hospital in Caracas carrying signs describing patients they have not been able to help because they lack necessary supplies, January 15, 2015. © 2016 Meridith Kohut

A new Human Rights Watch report found that in the past two years, basic medicines and medical supplies have become almost impossibly scarce. Hospitals struggle to assemble such staples as antibiotics, painkillers, rubber gloves, and gauze. Doctors are forced to ask patients to bring their own – if they can find them. Most essential medicines are unavailable at pharmacies.

Doctors and public health experts told us that the shortages have contributed to a maternal mortality rate that’s up 79 percent in the first five months of 2016 over the latest available official figures, from 2009. Infant mortality alone was up 45 percent from 2013.

Buying enough food to feed one’s family has likewise become an all-day ordeal for many Venezuelans, particularly lower or middle-income families who rely on items subject to government price controls. Long lines appear whenever such basics as flour or cooking oil appear for sale, and people often leave empty handed because supplies run out. Venezuelan doctors have told us that they were beginning to see symptoms of malnutrition in their patients, particularly children.

Many analysts say that the government’s own economic policies, combined with collapsing global oil prices, have directly contributed to the emergence and persistence of the crisis.

Regardless of the underlying causes, the Venezuelan government is obliged by international law to make every effort to restore Venezuelans’ access to adequate food and health services. President Nicolas Maduro’s government has failed to do that, and even denies that a crisis exists.

“There is no humanitarian crisis in Venezuela -- there is not,” Foreign Affairs Minister Delcy Rodríguez told the Organization of American States’ (OAS) Permanent Council in June.

To the extent that the government acknowledges the suffering caused by shortages at all, President Maduro blames an “economic war” by the political opposition, the private sector, and “foreign powers.”

This gives his government an excuse to harass and jail people who protest shortages. Doctors and nurses have been told they could be fired by their supervisors just for speaking out about the crisis. The government has threatened to bar human right organizations from accessing the funding they need to work effectively. Venezuelans arrested during organized or spontaneous protests over food scarcity told our researchers of mistreatment in detention. Some had been prosecuted in military courts in violation of their right to a fair trial.

The international community could provide emergency aid, but President Maduro blocked an effort by the opposition-led National Assembly to ask for it. Aid groups told us they have faced obstacles when they try to register to operate legally in the country and to import supplies.

In recent months, some Latin American leaders, including President Mauricio Macri of Argentina, Foreign Minister José Serra of Brazil, and President Pedro Pablo Kuczinski of Peru have started  speaking strongly about the need for President Maduro’s government to stop posturing and work more seriously to alleviate the crisis.

The Organization of American States in June invoked its Democratic Charter -- which guarantees democracy to the citizens of all member states -- in an effort to hold the Maduro administration accountable. In August, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described the situation in Venezuela as a “humanitarian crisis.” In September, members of the regional trade block Mercado Común del Sur (Mercosur) denied Venezuela its presidency, and told the Venezuelan government it has until December 1 to meet its obligations--including on human rights—or be kicked out altogether.

Despite this increase in international attention, the health and food shortages continue to devastate Venezuelans. More pressure—not less—is necessary to show that Latin America’s leaders are not turning their backs on the Venezuelan people. The OAS and the Vatican must press the Maduro government to take meaningful steps to alleviate the crisis. This includes asking for — not blocking — international aid that may, at least in the short term, relieve the suffering of Venezuelans. To save the lives of Venezuelans who are now struggling to find medication, there is no time to waste.

José Miguel Vivanco is Americas director at Human Rights Watch.


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