CARACAS, Venezuela — President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela has tackled the coronavirus much as he has any internal threat to his rule: by deploying his repressive security apparatus against it.
Officials in Venezuela’s government are denouncing people who may have come into contact with the coronavirus as “bioterrorists” and urging their neighbors to report them. The government is detaining and intimidating doctors and experts who question Maduro’s policies on the virus.
And it is corralling thousands of Venezuelans who are streaming home after losing jobs abroad, holding them in makeshift containment centers out of fear that they may be infected.
In commandeered hotels, disused schools and cordoned-off bus stations, the returning Venezuelans are forced into crowded rooms with limited food, water or masks and held under military guard for weeks or months for coronavirus tests or treatment with unproven medications, according to interviews with the detainees, videos they have taken on their cellphones and government documents.
“They told us we’re contaminated, that we’re guilty of infecting the country,” said Javier Aristizabal, a nurse from the capital, Caracas, who said he spent 70 days in centers after he returned from Colombia in March.
In one major city, San Cristóbal, governing party activists are marking the homes of families suspected of having the virus with plaques and threatening them with detention, residents said. In another city, Maracaibo, the police are patrolling the streets in search of Venezuelans who re-entered the country without official approval. Local opposition politicians whose constituencies register an outbreak say they are threatened with prosecution.
“This is the only country in the world where having COVID is a crime,” said Sergio Hidalgo, a Venezuelan opposition activist who said he had come down with symptoms of the disease, only to find police officers at his door and government officials accusing him of infecting the community.
As the pandemic tore through neighboring countries, overwhelming health care networks far more prepared than Venezuela’s collapsed system, Maduro took a hard-line approach, treating the coronavirus as a national security threat that could destabilize his bankrupt nation and jeopardize his grip on power.
“The pandemic clearly presents a threat to the government because it shows the precariousness of its resources,” said John Magdaleno, a Venezuelan political scientist in Caracas. “The priority is not dealing with the pandemic. It is short-term political survival.”
In his seven years in power, Maduro has overseen the collapse of Venezuela’s health care system, the destruction of the national economy, and a marked increase in the country’s international isolation.
With dwindling resources to prepare the nation’s broken hospitals or help its already impoverished population survive the crisis, Maduro has turned to bare-bones detention facilities, repression and coercion to try to stop the virus from overwhelming the country, political analysts said.
The government’s heavy-handed approach may be keeping more people at home and slowing the virus’ spread, but it is also discouraging those who may be sick from seeking help. That, in turn, is making the pandemic even harder to fight, doctors in Venezuela said.
“When people feel sick, they think they have a legal or a police problem, as if they were delinquents,” said Julio Castro, a Venezuelan doctor who advises the opposition-controlled Congress on health care. “So they prefer to hide.”
The true scope of the pandemic in Venezuela, a country that stopped releasing health statistics as basic as infant mortality years ago, is nearly impossible to determine.
But with 20 top officials reporting that they had tested positive and some doctors warning that their hospitals were near capacity, the situation may be far worse than the official tally of 288 deaths in a country of about 30 million people suggests.
Doctors and journalists who have questioned official statistics say they have been threatened. At least 12 Venezuelan doctors and nurses have been detained for making public comments on the coronavirus, according to medical unions.
Venezuelan migrants who return home after losing their jobs abroad in the wake of the pandemic are particularly targeted.
According to the Colombian government, about 95,000 Venezuelans have crossed back into their home country since March, and 42,000 are waiting their turn along the border.
Only 1,200 are allowed to return each week through the main border crossing, under Venezuelan government guidelines, forcing others to wait for months in makeshift camps. Those who use illegal trails to cross the porous land border are publicly labeled threats.
On Twitter, the armed forces of Venezuela urged the population to report so-called bioterrorists, referring to Venezuelans who had evaded government border controls and returned home.
The Times interviewed seven Venezuelans who were held in containment centers. Several said they had been crammed into rooms without beds, hot food, windows or sufficient drinking water.
“You couldn’t ask anyone for help, because the only thing you got was abuse,” said Aristizabal, the nurse, who was shuttled among several centers after he returned from visiting his mother in Colombia.
During his detention, Aristizabal said he had slept on the ground at times — on the asphalt of a bus station or on the floor of a windowless hotel room that he shared with five other people.
Some said that they had been detained with babies just a year old, with no special provisions made for the children. Others said that they had been obliged to take the medications outlined in Venezuela’s official protocol for treating anyone who has, or is suspected of having, the coronavirus, even without showing any symptoms.
The drugs listed in the government guidelines are unproven for treating the coronavirus, and could have dangerous consequences. The treatments include hydroxychloroquine, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned can cause dangerous heart rhythm abnormalities in coronavirus patients, and an anti-parasite drug called ivermectin, which the World Health Organization said should not be used to treat the illness.
Videos taken by Venezuelans in confinement centers showed unsanitary conditions. Several people said they were not getting treatment for preexisting conditions, were given a single mask for their stay and were unable to practice social distancing.
But the worst part, they said, was that they had no idea of how long they would be held.
In one video published by an opposition lawmaker, five older men and women wrapped in dirty blankets are shown crammed into a small, windowless room with dilapidated chairs and one bunk bed without mattresses in what they said was a government-run first-aid station in Caracas.
“Please take me out of here,” said one visibly distraught man. “I’m dying here. I feel worse every day.”
(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)Maduro’s crackdown on returning Venezuelan migrants contrasts with the freedom enjoyed by the country’s governing elite, who are weathering the lockdown on closed Caribbean islands, hillside mansions and lavish, invitation-only restaurants.
Top party officials who contract the coronavirus seek treatment in private clinics or at Caracas’ reliable military hospital. For a few thousand dollars, wealthy returning travelers can skip the mandatory quarantine and go straight home.
Luxury bulletproof SUVs without license plates zip through Caracas’ upmarket neighborhoods at night, while a few miles away, armed pro-government militias enforce the lockdown in the poorest communities.
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)Maduro claims that his rapid response — he locked down the country on March 17, right after the first two coronavirus cases were confirmed — has prevented the devastation endured by nearby countries.
Officially, Venezuela boasts one of the region’s lowest infection rates. Five months after the virus was detected, the number of daily deaths, according to the government, has never surpassed 12.
“You’re given care that’s unique in the world, humane care, loving, Christian,” said Maduro in a national address on Aug. 14.
But health experts say the low official figures are the result of extremely low testing rates. Accurate coronavirus tests are scarce and take weeks to process in one of the two laboratories approved by the government, according to eight doctors in three Venezuelan states interviewed for this article. The doctors did not want to reveal their names for fear of government persecution.
Most patients with COVID-19 symptoms are never tested or die before they receive their results, so they are never included in the official statistics, the doctors said.
(STORY CAN END HERE. OPTIONAL MATERIAL FOLLOWS.)In the western state of Zulia, the government said 70 people had died from COVID-19 by the second week of August. But a group of doctors who track mortality in the state said that in a single hospital — Zulia’s largest — 294 patients had died with coronavirus symptoms by then.
Days before Venezuela confirmed its first coronavirus case, the governor of Zulia, Omar Prieto, said in a public address that he ordered military counterintelligence to question a prominent doctor for alerting about potential infections.
“This is an issue of national security and this man has to be investigated,” Prieto said about the doctor, Freddy Pachano.
Zulia’s capital, Maracaibo, has since become the epicenter of Venezuela’s pandemic.
One crematory in Maracaibo went from processing its usual average of five bodies a day to 20 bodies by June, before its oven broke from overwork, according to the facility’s manager, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
Officials in Maracaibo have since opened a common grave in the municipal cemetery.
Prieto, the governor, tested positive for the coronavirus but recovered at a private clinic.
Pachano, who tried to sound the alert about the impending crisis, has fled to Colombia to avoid arrest.
“It’s not possible to take adequate measures to fight the disease if you don’t really know what is happening,” he said.