#AlertaVenezuela is leading the way in identifying, exposing, and explaining disinformation within the context of one of the Western Hemisphere’s largest crises in recent history, where the fight for control of the information space will continue to pose a challenge for the region.
Maduro regime blames returning Venezuelans and foreign governments for COVID-19
With South America as a growing epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Maduro regime has doubled down on his politization of the disease, accusing the governments of Colombia and Brazil of intentionally infecting Venezuelans who are returning from those countries to their home country. Nicolás Maduro himself has also claimed, without evidence, that a new and deadlier strain of the virus had been introduced to the country.
After the first coronavirus cases appeared in Latin America in March 2020, the governments of Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, and Colombia adopted measures to curb the spread of the virus. As these countries’ economies slowed, people began to stay home, causing demand to crater and, in turn, many Venezuelan migrants who depended on the informal economy to lose their primary source of income and housing. Between May 14 and June 4, over 70,000 Venezuelans returned to their home country via the Colombian border. Of all the countries in the region, Colombia received the highest number of Venezuelans migrants (1.8 million migrants out of an estimated total of 5 million) since 2015, but it is possible that some Venezuelans returning from other South American countries also returned to Venezuela via Colombia.
When the first wave of Venezuelans returned by land amid the pandemic in April, the Maduro regime pushed the narrative that Venezuela offered better conditions for the migrants than other countries, such as Peru, Colombia, and Brazil. Recently, however, Maduro changed the narrative and started blaming returning Venezuelans for the COVID-19 cases in the country.
On May 24, Maduro claimed that Venezuelan migrants “running from Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru” were the main sources of infections. Maduro also accused Colombian President Iván Duque of “contaminating” buses that transported Venezuelans and of sending “COVID-19 infected” migrants back to Venezuela. The Maduro-backed broadcaster TelesurTV aired and amplified Maduro’s claims.
On June 7, Maduro further claimed that a new and “deadlier” strain of the virus supposedly imported from Colombia had spread in the Venezuelan state of Zulia. Maduro said his security forces had supposedly created a “successful security ring” in Zulia as well as in the other bordering states of Táchira and Amazonas, claiming the ring had limited not only Colombia’s plan to infect Venezuela but also Brazil’s similar plan. Venezuelan fact-checking website EsPaja.com concluded there is not enough information in local or international scientific research to prove that a new COVID-19 strain had appeared. Similarly, there is no evidence that Colombia and Brazil had deliberately imported the virus into Venezuela.
The latest claim against Colombia appeared after Maduro’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Jorge Arreaza replied to Duque on June 8-9. Duque denounced Maduro, saying he had restricted access to Venezuelans at two border checkpoints. Arreaza replied to Duque on Twitter, claiming that the Colombian government was not supporting Venezuelans in the country, a claim that was backed by media reports. Arreaza did not deny Duque’s claims that Venezuela had restricted access to its own citizens.
Arreaza also mentioned the number of imported cases in Venezuela from Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador. Venezuelan independent outlet Runrun.es, however, had already reported that the Maduro regime has been deliberately miscounting those who have had “contact with a traveler” under the two categories (“local transmission” or “imported case”) the World Health Organization (WHO) uses in its counts. WHO considers cases related to “contact with a traveler” to be “locally” transmitted instead of “imported,” but, according to Runrun.es, the Maduro regime had been misleadingly counting contrary to WHO’s classifications – those who had had “contact with a traveler” were being counted as “imported,” thereby inflating the number of imported cases to support its claim that other countries were deliberately infecting Venezuela.
As of June 15, Venezuela had officially registered 3,062 cases and 26 deaths caused by COVID-19. Venezuelan scientists and experts have claimed that the regime is not reporting all cases. The regime does not update numbers every day, as most countries do, and the country has significantly fewer cases than neighboring Colombia, which by June 16 had recorded 53,211 cases and 1,808 deaths.
Talk of the Country
In the Media
On June 16, news agency AP published “Venezuela court orders takeover of 2 major political parties.” The article highlighted the Maduro Supreme Court’s suspension and subsequent replacement of the board of directors of Acción Democrática and Primero Justicia, “two influential political parties” opposed to the Maduro regime. Juan Guaidó, who is recognized by over 50 countries as interim president of Venezuela, commented to AP that the Maduro Supreme Court ruling was an attempt to divide a coalition opposed to the Maduro regime prior to the expected 2020 parliamentary elections. AP reported that Maduro’s Supreme Court considered the decision to be part of a “necessary restructuring process” for the opposition parties. AP further elaborated that Acción Democrática was formed in the 1930s and is “among Venezuela’s four most powerful opposition parties,” while Primero Justicia is the party of “influential politician” Julio Borges, Guaidó’s presidential envoy for foreign affairs.
In Venezuela on June 15, independent website Caracas Chronicles published “The battle for Alex Saab’s extradition begins.” The article describes the June 12 detention of Alex Saab, who the U.S. Department of Justice indicted for money laundering and could request his extradition, in Cape Verde. According to Caracas Chronicles, Saab is one of Maduro’s “middlemen” who had enough power in Venezuela “to sue, harass, and force journalists from website Armando.Info into exile.” Caracas Chronicles analyzed the Maduro regime response that “for the first time ever admits to having a relationship with Alex Saab.” Caracas Chronicles also showed that the Maduro regime had identified Saab as a Venezuelan citizen and diplomat but also stated that “he has not lived in Venezuela for five years in a row” and is not “Venezuelan by birth,” which is required “in order to be a diplomat.”
On Social Media
The hashtag #SinSalarioNoHayGasolina (“Without salary, there is no gasoline”) trended on Twitter on June 11, pushed by labor union accounts protesting the Maduro regime’s management of Venezuela’s state oil company (PDVSA, in Spanish). The accounts comparedMaduro with the Trump administration, claiming both “privatized, starved, and repressed” their people. The alliance of workers in Aragua promoted the Twitter campaign, claiming that the Maduro regime “will privatize the state by helping the mafias.”
Lo importante de la captura de Saab no es sólo el duro golpe que se le propina a la tiranía, sino que con él cae toda la información sobre contactos, negocios, cuentas y nombres de otros personajes que sirven a Maduro para mantenerse en el poder. Muchos nervios en Miraflores!”
“The importance of Saab’s detention is not only a hard blow to tyranny, but with his detention, we also lose information about contacts, businesses, accounts, and names of other people who serve Maduro and help keep him in power. A lot of tension in Miraflores!”– Luisa Ortega Díaz, Venezuela’s National Attorney who is living in exile, on Twitter on June 14, 2020.
Venezuela denounces the arbitrary and illegal detention of Venezuelan citizen, Alex Nain Saab, by Interpol, when he was in transit at the Republic of Cape Verde, an addition to the aggression, blockade and harassment of the U.S. against our country.”
– Arreaza, Maduro’s minister of foreign affairs, on Twitter on June 13.
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