The Venezuelan Disaster

French television has a recent documentary, “Dancing with the Dead” which captures the terrible collapse of that country. It begins by looking at popular religion in a cemetery, where people worship dead thieves. One follower of the group says “They weren’t like today’s thugs.” When people become sentimental for the criminals of the past, you know that things aren’t going well. Within the cemetery the graves are trashed by grave robbers looking for gold, rings and body parts that they can sell. Even the former president’s casket has been raided. For me, the moving scene was one in which a long-suffering priest performed a funeral for a homicide victim, while knowing that the people he buries will soon be dug up.

Still, the scene that I’ll most remember was when two ambulance attendant brought a thief to the hospital who had been shot in the hand. The hospital employees asked the ambulance medics if they wanted the hospital to treat his wound, with a touch of amazement or frustration in their tone. One would think that was an obvious question. But then they told the ambulance drivers that the hospital didn’t have the resources for this treatment, and that they should take him somewhere else, because he could lose his hand if they didn’t act quickly. The ambulance attendants asked rather plaintively where they should take him, but didn’t seem to receive an answer before they drove off into the night.

One point that you can’t miss viewing the video is how painfully thin many of the poor are. This film is highly recommended, but be forewarned that it does have disturbing images.

If you are interested in Latin America, you might want to read my book on the HIV epidemic in the region, or the history of military terror in Brazil.

Shawn Smallman, 2019

The Venezuelan migration crisis

Christine Armario has an outstanding article “I’ll walk in my broken shoes: Mom, daughter flee Venezuela,” which was just published by the Associated Press. In general, I try to avoid just sharing a link on this blog, because this isn’t a news aggregation site. Still, this article conveys the reality of what many Venezuelans are experiencing, as they escape a nation defined by starvation and hardship. Despite the fact that an immense amount has been written about this crisis, there is nothing like the human experience to grasp a process so immense it is difficult to fathom. As refugees flood into Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and other states, Venezuela’s social collapse is having a political and social impact upon the entire region. In Brazil, I believe that it has pushed voters towards the political right, and is one factor that helps to explain the rise of Jair Bosonaro, who will likely be Brazil’s next president. The failure of the Worker’s Party to explicitly condemn Venezuela’s leadership has handed their opponents a powerful tool to damage their credibility. But all these political factors fade into the background when faced with the story of one desperate mother’s effort to bring her daughter to safety.

Shawn Smallman, 2018

Venezuela and Zimbabwe

“Food Insecurity in Zimbabwe,” By Mangwanani (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Last weekend 7.6 million Venezuelans voted to reject a new Constituent Assembly called for by President Nicolas Maduro. Desperate to prevent the Assembly from taking place, the opposition’s leadership have also called for a mass strike this Thursday, and may appoint their own Supreme Court. The Venezuelan military is deeply tied to the current regime through corruption, including profits from controlling the distribution of food. All of Venezuela has been in an economic and social free fall, which has profoundly undermined the health care system. In this context, perhaps it is unsurprising that over 98 percent of the people who voted rejected President Maduro’s call for a Constituent Assembly, and called instead for free and transparent elections.

Corruption in the Venezuelan Military

By Sparkve (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons. Please note the territory in red, which belongs to Guyana but is claimed by Venezuela. In 2015 Exxon discovered oil in this region.
Topographic map of Venezuela. By Sparkve (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons. Please note the territory in red, which belongs to Guyana but is claimed by Venezuela. In 2015 Exxon discovered oil in this region.
Years ago I published an article on the history of military corruption in Brazil. In many ways, this was a more challenging topic to investigate than my dissertation work on military terror. In Brazil the military has long defined its role as being the “nation’s savior,” which it has used to justify its intervention in civilian affairs. At the same time, officers have publicly denounced the corruption of civilian politicians. Nonetheless, the armed forces themselves suffered from corruption, which even became so severe as to undermine their capability during military operations, such as during the 1912 campaign against a millenarian movement in southern Brazil. At first such corruption was typically confined to procurement. During President Vargas’s Estado Novo in the 1930s, however, the military became deeply involved in economic development. And the more engaged in economic affairs it grew, the more corruption spread within it. This corruption took place not only to benefit particular generals, but also to create networks of patronage on behalf of military factions. By the 1950s, the shared economic interests of civilians and generals permitted military factions to evolve into true political parties that had allies outside the institution. …

Zika in Venezuela

In few countries is the current political, economic and social situation worse than in Venezuela. This is especially dispiriting given that the country faces an outbreak of the Zika virus at the same time that medicines and basic supplies are in short supply. The Institute for Tropical Medicine has been broken into 11 times in 2 months. The offices were cleaned out so completely that the institute was left without any microscopes or key equipment. The situation in Venezuela’s hospitals is catastrophic. The situation has grown so bad that international organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, are now trying to draw the world’s attention to the breakdown in the nation’s public health system. Given that the nation is failing to adequately prevent and treat other mosquito-born illnesses -such as dengue- Venezuela may be on the edge of repeating the disaster that has passed over Brazil. What is frustrating is that this disaster would be needless, because basic public health measures -eliminating mosquito breeding grounds, spraying, screens on windows, mosquito nets, and insect repellent- could do much to limit the damage. Venezuela also faces severe shortages in such common items, including those necessary for family planning, such as condoms. Couples will need these to delay pregnancies until after the epidemic has peaked. Health officials know what to do. Given the countless billions that the country has given away over the last decade, or which cannot be accounted for, it would be a tragedy if there was not a massive effort to stop Zika on the grounds that the country lacked funds. Still, there are grave doubts about even the validity of the health data that the Venezuelan government is sharing. One health group is providing information that suggests that 150 times more people have been infected by Zika in Venezuela than the government has stated.

Shawn Smallman, 2016


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