This happened as the country grapples with a new deadly surge in virus cases, leaving hospitals overrun with the Brazilian variant, and Maduro peddles misinformation in the form of miracle cures. His callousness in delaying a WHO vaccine rollout was certainly appalling; it was by no means unprecedented.
Emergencies lay bare the priorities of those in power. And covid isn’t the first emergency where the Venezuelan regime has put political optics and interests ahead of the overwhelming humanitarian needs of its own people.
In fact, it’s been like that all along, going back to Hugo Chávez’s first year in power, 1999.
As Christmas approached that year and the world fretted about the millennium bug, Chávez was out on the stump campaigning ahead of a referendum to ratify his new constitution. That new constitution had been an obsession for him, and its creation consumed much of his first year in office. The referendum to ratify the text was scheduled for Dec. 15.
The forecast called for rain along the north coast. In fact, it had been soggy for weeks on the Caribbean hillsides of Vargas, a suburb north of Caracas. Anyone who has traveled to Venezuela knows the place, as the area is home to the country’s gateway airport. The hills are covered in shanties. The dirt on the steep mountainsides was soaked through; the land was already water-logged. These sprawling squatter settlements made over the previous 50 years were one of the most visible signs of the old regime’s social failures. To build their houses, people there gradually cut down the trees that used to hold the hillside together.
Then, on the day of the referendum, it rained really hard.
The hills gave way in a catastrophic string of mudslides that instantly washed thousands of homes in strong currents of fast-moving mud. Entire communities were wiped off the map, almost of all of them poor settlements where the people Chávez championed actually lived. It was a night of horrors, and the final death toll, presumed to be in five figures, has never been fully worked out.
This was so long ago that it fell to the Clinton administration to offer its response, and they did. On Dec. 18, USAID/OFDA dispatched a Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) on “to help coordinate response activities and to perform damage and needs assessments.” On Christmas eve — just six days later — the administration received approval for $20 million for post-disaster assistance to Venezuela as part of a large Defense Department bill.
It was the first big crisis of the Chávez era, worse for having come with the government visibly distracted, focused as it was on the referendum. Like a portent in a Greek tragedy, the Chávez constitution was ratified by the people amid a national tragedy.
Most telling is what happened next. Venezuela’s defense minister, overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster, appealed for international help. The U.S. Agency for International Development quickly offered to send aid to help the thousands who had suddenly been left homeless by the floods. Roads had washed out all up and down the coast, making it hard to mobilize relief to the victims. The U.S. military had the capacity to build temporary bridges quickly.
But when Chávez grasped that uniformed U.S. soldiers would have to come ashore to deliver the aid, he balked. Without giving much by way of explanation, he ordered the American relief to turn back. This caused huge dismay in Washington, presaging as it did a much worse relationship. But it was nothing like the dismay felt by the victims of the Vargas tragedy, who suffered the consequences of the botched emergency response for years to come.
It was a moment, during those early years of the revolution, that gave us just a glimpse, a peek at the authoritarian project at chavismo’s core. Back then, only cranks and far-right obsessives went around warning that Chávez was an heir, by way of Havana, to the Soviet approach of statecraft. That any move that seemed to cede any degree of power or legitimacy to the Americans would always be rejected, no matter what its cost to the population.
But it’s been 22 years. We know them much better now. Maduro’s decision to block Venezuelans’ early access to vaccines surprised none of us. Not one bit. After all, Chávez hand-picked him to carry on governing the way he would have.