Venezuela Affairs Unit Chargé d'Affaires Jimmy Story spoke with World Affairs Council President Charles Shapiro from Bogota, Colombia.

Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro’s claims about testing capacity and preparedness for COVID-19 are fabrications that belie how “completely unprepared” the beleaguered country is for the pandemic’s spread, a top U.S. diplomat told the World Affairs Council of Atlanta

Jimmy Story, chargé d’affaires for the U.S. State Department’s Venezuela Affairs Unit, said that if the coronavirus hits as hard as expected, it may finally undercut the last vestiges of support for the embattled leader, who was indicted last month by the U.S. Justice Department for narco-terrorism and drug trafficking.

“They are potentially weeks away from going into complete chaos,” Mr. Story said of the country. He spoke to the council from Bogota, Colombia, where the U.S. mission to Venezuela has operated since lowering the flag at the embassy in Caracas March 14 of last year. 

Initially, U.S. diplomats refused to leave, as they didn’t recognize the legitimacy of the government that had ordered them out, but the situation quickly deteriorated.  

World Affairs Council President Charles Shapiro spoke with Charge d’Affaires Jimmy Story via Zoom. View a recording of this program here, recordings of past programs here and see the WAC’s full slate of upcoming programs here.

“There were roving bands of criminals, a lot of people being killed, no electricity, no water. We could no longer have the certainty of our security,” Mr. Story said in conversation with Council President Charles Shapiro, himself a former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela. 

Venezuela’s rolling political crisis and the economic collapse, enhanced by the mismanagement and corruption of Mr. Maduro’s “criminal organization,” left its health system in shambles long before the pandemic arrived or the U.S. left, Mr. Story said. 

Citing sources from inside the country, Mr. Story said half of Venezuelan hospitals have no running water, and even more are without soap. Many are saddled with non-functioning equipment that is missing parts or lacking properly trained operators. An estimated 20,000 medical professionals are among the more than 5 million people who have fled as refugees, many to neighboring Colombia. Mr. Story estimated that Venezuela, with 29 million people still in the country, has just 84 ventilators. Gasoline shortages mean that some doctors and many patients can’t even get to hospitals. 

Mr. Story was quick to point out that hospitals were in “abysmal shape” before the U.S. enhanced sanctions on the Venezuelan government in early 2019, further crippling its oil-reliant economy.  

January 2019 was when the U.S. (and eventually 57 other countries) recognized National Assembly President Juan Guaidó as the country’s legitimate leader. But Mr. Maduro, backed by the army, for more than a year has defied calls from the international community to step down and allow the formation of an emergency government to administer fresh elections. The combination of low oil prices and a looming pandemic pose new challenges to his rule. 

Mr. Story has no doubt Mr. Maduro’s regime is underreporting the impact of COVID-19, counting fewer than 300 cases and 10 deaths so far.

“The regime is claiming that they’re the highest-testing country in the region, that they provide 25,000 tests a day,” Mr. Story said, noting that tests are being processed in a single government-sanctioned lab in Caracas. “It’s not true. It is completely false.”

Some on the call with family members working as doctors in Venezuela commented that  the Maduro regime was focused not on testing but instead on persecuting those who bring attention to new cases. 

Adding a health crisis on top of the dire economic situation will lead to further more strident agitation among Mr. Maduro’s opponents, a process Mr. Story says is already playing out on the streets in some poorer neighborhoods around Caracas. 

Mr. Maduro, meanwhile, shuttles between the army barracks where he lives and Miraflores, the presidential palace where he works. Mr. Story said despite the propaganda, Mr. Maduro has very little support among the population and that polls indicate Mr. Guaidó remains by far the most popular politician in the country, despite reports showing their po

Deep patronage networks make it hard to persuade military leaders to turn on Mr. Maduro, though many are starting to feel the same hardships as the general population, Mr. Story said. 

The problem is one of “inertia,” with Mr. Maduro’s regime bolstered by three outside nations: China, which sees a business opportunity in a country sitting on an “ocean of natural resources;” Russia, which wants to poke a finger in the eye of the U.S. in the Western Hemisphere, and Cuba, which Mr. Story went so far as to say is effectively calling the shots in the country. 

Still, Mr. Story said he remains deeply connected to Venezuela from Bogota, and from what he’s hearing, he believes he will be back in Caracas after what he sees as Mr. Maduro’s inevitable relinquishing of power before the end of this year.

“I’m going to be back at the embassy and the flag’s going to be flying high,” he said. “The arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, and the fact of the matter is, every day you’d be surprised at who within the regime is reaching out to us about how to make things better and how to get this things back on track.”

As much as he would like to see an Alexander Hamilton-type figure come in and rewrite the constitution, Mr. Story predicted the transition to new government in Venezuela may not have a heroic figure and won’t be quick or easy.   

Venezuelans will have to decide how to bring justice to the regime for extrajudicial killings by Maduro’s forces and handle outstanding criminal indictments internationally. A “truth and reconciliation” commission is one idea the U.S. has floated.

The U.S. has experience making tough choices in the name of peace when it comes to ousted dictators, he said, stressing that the U.S. in no way wants to take decisions about Venezuelans’ future out of their hands, Mr. Story said. 

“It’s going to be a very difficult and messy process that is going to take some time for the Venezuelans themselves to work through.” 

The World Affairs Council of Atlanta is hosting a wide variety of programs for members and non-members alike. View a recording of this program here, recordings of past programs here and see the WAC’s full slate of upcoming programs here.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...