Crisis in Venezuela
The Arrests of Venezuelan HIV Humanitarian Aid Workers Sparks International Response
by Chip Alfred
It was the sound that was heard around the world. Authorities slapping handcuffs on the wrists on five innocent humanitarian aid workers and hauling them off into custody. On January 12, 2021, members of the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence raided the offices of Azul Positivo, an HIV/AIDS Service Organization in Maracaibo, a city in Venezuela’s Zulia state, one of the areas hardest hit by HIV. After questioning directors of the organization at their headquarters for a period of six hours, without a legal order, the officials proceeded to arrest five staffers, including Azul Positivo’s president. The five men, who were not allowed any outside contact during the process, were taken into custody, and are facing charges related to the Computer Crime Law, the Law against Organized Crime, and the Financing of Terrorism, according to Amnesty International. As a result, Azul Positivo temporarily shut down operations.
Reaction was swift condemning the persecution of these humanitarian workers. James Story, the U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela, called for the men’s release. Winnie Byanyima, UNAIDS Executive Director, concurred, “I call on the Venezuelan authorities to release from police custody the five humanitarians working for the nongovernmental organization Azul Positivo, and to return essential equipment seized at the time of their arrest.” On February 10, the five men were released from physical detention, but the charges have been upheld and they must report to authorities every thirty days.
This is not the first time an incident like this occurred in Venezuela. On February 15, 2019, according to The Venezuelan Network of Positive People, the headquarters of the MAVID Foundation was the subject of an arbitrary raid by state security forces, identified as members of the Scientific, Penal and Criminal Investigation Service Corps (CICPC). The MAVID Foundation is a non-government organization (NGO) that provides advocacy, education, and distributes medication for people living with HIV in the Venezuelan state of Carabobo. Officials entered the organization’s headquarters after business hours and forced the locks off the doors and security bars. In the raid, officials confiscated antiretrovirals and other pharmaceuticals for medical treatment, and containers of infant formula. They also seized C-section kits and packets of the antiretroviral zidovudine, required by public hospitals for childbirth by women living with HIV. Three people including MAVID’s vice-president were arrested and detained for seven hours. With the help of lawyers and numerous calls from national and international human rights organizations, they were released.
For a closer look at the challenges facing organizations with humanitarian missions in Venezuela, A&U sat down with Jesús Aguais, Executive Director of AID FOR AIDS (AFA). AFA provides free medication to people with HIV in developing countries that don’t have access to treatment, prevention education, case management, healing, and advocacy to those with HIV and those affected by the epidemic both internationally and in the U.S. Aguais, a Venezuelan native, founded AFA, which is headquartered in New York City, with its largest field office in Venezuela.
The current crisis in Venezuela, according to Aguais, began in 2013 after Nicolás Maduro took over as president of the country, with his hands deep in the pockets of drug cartels and organized crime. “It’s a country kidnapped by criminals,” Aguais says. It’s also the country with the highest hyperinflation in the world, and the minimum monthly wage is about $2. The U.S. is among more than fifty countries that recognize Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s legitimate leader rather than Maduro. Guaidó invoked the constitution to assume a rival presidency, saying Maduro’s 2018 re-election was fraudulent. Maduro alleges that Guaidó is a puppet of the United States, and he has refused aid from the U.S.
Amid all of this political and economic turmoil, it’s the people of Venezuela who are suffering the most. According to a 2019-2020 study conducted by the National Survey of Living Conditions at Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas, 96% of Venezuelans live in poverty and 70% live in extreme poverty. With most people not knowing where their next meal will come from, many are desperately seeking refuge. Since 2014, about five million Venezuelans have fled the country seeking food, work, and a better life. “People are walking without shoes from Caracas to Bogota, which is like walking from New York to Atlanta, or they walk from Caracas to Lima, which is like walking from New York City to L.A.,” says Aguais. “It’s an inhuman walk. They go over mountains, where they have died. They have to cross very dangerous roads, leaving Venezuela as a way of survival.” Child malnutrition has reached crisis levels. Diseases such as measles, diphtheria, and malaria, which were once eradicated, are now spreading, and even spilling over national boundaries as Venezuelans migrate. To sum it up, he says, “Venezuela is one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world.”
“Soon after Maduro took power, we were seeing the Venezuelan healthcare system collapse.” For people living with HIV, Venezuela became a country without access to treatment, and the government was not providing ARVs for HIV patients. “Public hospital became a place where you needed to bring your syringes, you needed to bring your own medicine to be treated.” All of this was happening against the backdrop of COVID-19, which has dealt a powerful blow to countries like neighboring Brazil, with nearly 12 million cases and the second-highest death toll in the world, claiming the lives of over 287,000 people. As of March 18, 2021, according to Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering, Venezuela had a cumulative total of just 147,577 cases from the beginning of the pandemic with only 1,459 deaths.
Opposition critics claim Venezuela’s COVID case numbers and deaths may be under-reported, while testing numbers may not only be exaggerated, but the reliance on rapid blood antibody tests from China rather than the gold-standard nasal swab exams could be missing countless individuals infected with the virus. With less than one percent of the nation’s population reported to have received even one shot of a COVID vaccine, this country’s hospital system is ill-prepared for a new COVID outbreak. A recent government survey of the country’s forty-seven hospitals dedicated to treating COVID-19 patients found that just 57% have regular water supply, and 43% have insufficient or no PPE kits for medical professionals. ICU beds and medical personnel are also in short supply.
AFA has been collecting and distributing unused and unexpired ARVs to people living with HIV across the world including Venezuela for twenty-five years. AFA also provides and distributes infant formula in thirteen states of Venezuela to mothers who cannot or should not breastfeed. But this country in crisis needs more. In March of 2016, AFA received an urgent call from The National Network of Positive People. “They said, ‘We are calculating that by July of 2016, there won’t be any ARVs for anybody in Venezuela.’” That includes approximately 70,000 people enrolled in the National AIDS Program. For Aguais, that set off alarms. He helped to organize a satellite meeting as part of a high-level meeting to end AIDS at the U.N. in New York City. In the meeting were leaders of UNAIDS, Women with HIV in Venezuela, Civil Society Organizations, and other AIDS activists from Latin America. The message was clear: Venezuelans with HIV need help!
The meeting served as a wake-up call to AIDS activists across the globe and to UN agencies that what was happening in Venezuela was something they may not have seen before. “The Venezuelan crisis is a crisis without a war, which is very unique.” Aguais knew that the situation needed to be approached by “a collective from the international community” to not only address what was happening in Venezuela but all the migrant communities that have developed in surrounding nations. Since then, more partnerships have formed, and more international funds are supporting the humanitarian relief efforts in Venezuela. In 2018, AFA helped to secure the largest ever ARV donation from a pharma company to Venezuela in partnership with the Toronto-based International Council of Aids Service Organizations (ICASO) and other NGOs. That took care of all the ARVs needed for 2018. Now, Aguais says the funding comes from The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria. Even though free ARVs are available, thousands of Venezuelans living with HIV are joining the exodus from their country. With only one drug combination available, those with resistance to it are out of luck. Combine that with a broken healthcare system and it becomes a life-or-death decision for many.
As my conversation with Aguais continued, he shared his concerns for the health and safety of the people doing the work in his native land, especially his own staff members. “A lot of organizations are really afraid,” he says. “They can do anything they want to any organization. The people of Venezuela are exposed.” He would like to see more Americans step up and get involved. “The crisis in Venezuela is happening right next door to the U.S. It’s like your next-door neighbor has been raped and you’re allowing it to happen because you believe in privacy, or because you don’t want to know what the neighbor is. Well, this is your neighbor. Get informed, get involved.”
“How can we in the U.S. be connected to this reality that is against everything we believe in? The ones being persecuted are the ones that are providing services to their community and the ones that run free are the drug dealers and the drug cartels. This is the world upside down. Kids are dying of hunger, but you don’t see them because they die in their house. People die from simple things like hypertension. If you go to a hospital and there’s nothing for them to treat you, people die. This is not a political issue. It’s a human rights issue.”
As bleak as things may seem, Aguais says the Venezuelans he knows are incredibly resilient, and they are not waving the white flag any time soon. “They are warriors, despite the persecution. We will be able to restore the dignity of so many people who have lost their basic needs.” For my last question, I asked Aguais if he thought the five men who were arrested at Azul Positivo would go back to their jobs if their names were cleared and the charges against them were dropped. He did not hesitate for a moment with his answer. “I’m sure they will. These guys are heroes. And they are just like thousands of other Venezuelans working in NGOs, putting their lives on the line to make sure that somebody else gets what they need. They’re on the front line of a war they’re fighting for everybody with HIV.”
If you or someone you know would like to donate HIV medications or find out more about AID FOR AIDS, please visit https://aidforaids.org.
Chip Alfred is A&U’s Editor at Large, a public speaker, and a media and public relations consultant based in Philadelphia. Follow Chip on Twitter @ChipAlfred.