Venezuela will likely become the epicenter of a coronavirus outbreak, but it remains a blind spot for the Trump administration. On March 31, the U.S. government indicted Venezuela’s authoritarian president, Nicolás Maduro, on drug trafficking and money laundering charges while ignoring calls from the international community to suspend its sanctions regime during the pandemic.
It has long been clear that the Trump administration has taken a path that prioritizes the singular goal of regime change over protecting civilians during the pandemic, and mitigating the spread of the virus under the country’s faltering healthcare system. The White House has previously made clear that its intentions behind sanctioning Venezuela are to encourage regime change, and repeated that message when the charges were announced.
Attorney General William Barr expressed the hope that indicting Maduro during the pandemic will push the civilian population over the edge and cause regime change: “It’s good timing, actually. The people in Venezuela are suffering, and they need an effective government that responds to the people.”
But both the indictment and the timing of it are irrelevant in the context of a deadly pandemic. A civilian population ravaged by starvation and disease cannot unify and overthrow a dictator. And there is little room for doubt that disease will ravage Venezuela, from what we know about COVID-19 at this stage. Regime change is far from guaranteed, but one outcome is certain: civilians will still suffer horribly from coronavirus while sanctions are applied.
The economic and humanitarian crisis overseen by the Maduro government, a painful decline of nearly a decade, has allowed Venezuela to get to this point. Because Venezuela was already starved for essential medicines, disinfectants, and equipment in its hospitals, and often basic utilities such as electricity and running water, its population, around 90 percent of whom now live in poverty, is uniquely vulnerable to the ravages of the coronavirus. The country has less than 100 ICU beds in total for a population of 30 million.
The international community has also called on the United States to lift sanctions on Iran during the pandemic. While Iran and Venezuela have been on the receiving end of sanctions for being adversaries of the United States, they are completely different in terms their health systems’ abilities to cope with the virus. Iran, which had much more functional health services in place before the coronavirus outbreak, has dug bubonic plague-style mass graves that can be seen from space. The scale of the looming catastrophe in Venezuela is therefore almost beyond imagination.
With its current conditions in mind, Venezuela has the potential to be one of the biggest coronavirus time bombs. Aside from the sick and dying who will remain in Venezuela, asymptomatic individuals, or those with symptoms that have the means to seek legitimate care, will likely continue to leave the country. Between 4 million and 5 million Venezuelans have migrated in recent years, mostly to Colombia, but Colombia has closed its borders during the outbreak, as has Ecuador, another common destination for migrants.
It now seems likely that many infected individuals will probably end up in Brazil, where the severity of the pandemic has been downplayed by the federal government, and border closings left up to individual states. It remains uncertain whether the two states that border Venezuela have closed their borders yet.
At present, the Trump administration is continuing to take a warped carrot-and-stick approach to Venezuela. Simultaneously as they unveiled the new charges against Maduro, the government laid out what it referred to as a “democratic transition framework” that would force Maduro to step down from power, compel foreign forces (i.e., Russia) to leave Venezuela, and enable the formation of an interim government, presumably headed by Juan Guaidó, the opposition president acknowledged by most democracies. Only then would ordinary Venezuelans be rewarded with relief from U.S. sanctions -- the same civilians that are supposed to push Maduro out on their own.
The administration is also enabling the spread of the virus that, at home, has defied efforts at containment. Venezuelans with the means and the will to migrate will likely continue to do so, and the coronavirus may be the impetus that pushes some to make that decision. Some of them may reach the expat community in Florida, a state where measures to contain the virus have been seriously delayed, and the number of confirmed cases has begun to spike.
Washington’s political approach toward sanctions was likewise consistent when the government announced new strategies to combat the flow of illegal drugs to the United States that might originate in Venezuela and flow through the Caribbean. This is a probably a job best left to the U.S. Navy, using systems like the high-speed Littoral Combat Ship and P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft. However, it is one thing to suppress illegal trafficking of harmful drugs in the region, and quite another to pile on economic injuries to average Venezuelans.
The Trump administration can continue to reduce Venezuela’s woes to a question of ideology for the duration of the pandemic, but rhetoric without something that resembles compassionate action will change nothing. Despite assurances from officials that humanitarian provisions remain in the current sanctions, it seems unlikely that this promise will be widely delivered on in practice now, when it never has been the case before. The only reality that remains is that the biggest threat to Maduro’s hold on power now is the virus itself.
Sarah White is a research associate at the Lexington Institute. The views expressed are the author's own.