Emergencies expose the priorities of those in power. And COVID-19 is not the first emergency in which the Venezuelan regime has prioritized the optics and political interests over the overwhelming humanitarian needs of its own people.
The weather forecast predicted rains throughout the north coast. In fact, the Caribbean slopes of Vargas, a northern suburb of Caracas, had soaked weeks. Anyone who has traveled to Venezuela knows this place, as it houses the airport of entry to the country. The hills are covered with substandard housing. The land on the steep slopes was muddy and puddled. These ever-expanding illegal settlements, built over the previous 50 years, were one of the most visible signs of the social failures of the old regime. To build their houses, people gradually cut down the trees that used to keep the hillside stable.
And then on the day of the referendum, it rained Really strong.
The hills gave way in a catastrophic chain of mudslides with strong mud currents that instantly washed away thousands of homes. Entire communities were wiped off the map, almost all poor localities where the people Chávez defended lived. It was a night of horror, and the final death toll, presumed to be five figures, has never been fully calculated.
This happened so long ago that it was the turn of the Bill Clinton administration to offer aid from the United States, and they did. December 18, the United States Agency for International Development and the Office for Overseas Disaster Assistance (USAID / OFDA) dispatched a Disaster Response Assistance Team (DART) to “help coordinate response activities and conduct damage and needs assessments.” On Christmas Eve – just six days later – the government received approval of $ 20 million for post-disaster assistance in Venezuela, as part of a large Defense Department bill.
This was the first major crisis of the Chávez era, made worse by having come at a time when the government was clearly distracted and focused on the referendum. As a harbinger of a Greek tragedy, Chávez’s Constitution was ratified by the people in the midst of a national tragedy.
What was most telling, however, was what happened next. Venezuela’s defense minister, overwhelmed by the magnitude of the disaster, appealed for international help. USAID was quick to offer to send aid for the thousands of people made homeless by the floods. Roads had disappeared along the entire coast, making it difficult to mobilize relief for the victims. The US military had the ability to build temporary bridges quickly.
But when Chávez realized that uniformed US soldiers would have to land on Venezuelan lands to deliver the aid, he refused. Without giving much explanation, he ordered the US relief commission to turn back. This caused great consternation in Washington, heralding — as it did indeed — a much more deteriorated relationship. However, that was nothing compared to the dismay felt by the victims of the Vargas tragedy, who suffered for years from the consequences of the failed emergency response.
It was a moment, during those first years of the revolution, that allowed us to take a small glimpse of the authoritarian project at the heart of Chavismo. Back then, only the nutters and far-right obsessives went around warning that Chávez was an heir, through Havana, of the Soviet approach to the art of government. That any measure that appears to cede some degree of power or legitimacy to Americans would always be rejected, no matter what cost that would have to the population.
But 22 years have passed. We know them much better now. Maduro’s decision to block Venezuelans from early access to vaccines does not surprise us. Not one bit. After all, Chávez personally chose him to continue governing in the same way that he would have.