A person carries a poster denouncing the lack of supplies for dialysis in Venezuela in the protest "We do not want to die" on February 8, 2018 in Caracas.
Venezuela is experiencing a serious human rights crisis, with massive violations of fundamental rights including the right to health, resulting from the lack of essential medicines, medical treatments, diagnostic systems and a deterioration in the hospital infrastructure.
The last official Epidemiological Bulletin, dated December 20161 and published some months later, has been removed from the Ministry of Health website2. Since then, Venezuela has maintained an "epidemiologic silence"; that is, no official figures on public health issues have been made public3.
Suppressing official figures has been of little avail to the government given the ever more starkly evident reality. According to civil society organizations and medical associations, the shortage of medicines in the country stands at between 80% and 90%7; more than 50% of hospitals are in a state of collapse8; and the number of medical personnel in public health centres, which account for 90% of the facilities providing health services, has also fallen by 50%9.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in collaboration with the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) highlighted in a recent report that between 2016 and 2014 malnutrition had risen by 3.9 percentage points in Venezuela compared with the preceding three years. This means that 1.3 million more people were suffering from malnutrition in 2016 10. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) warned in January 2018 of a worrying increase in child malnutrition in the country and complained about the lack of official data on the issue 11.
One of the most striking aspects of the situation is that Venezuela was not always like this12. For approximately 10 years, the country made great strides in ensuring the rights to housing, health, education and food of its people13. According to official and UN information, poverty was progressively and consistently reduced between 1997 and 201114. Between 1998 and 2011, the percentage of the population living below the poverty line decreased from 49.0% to 27.4%, and the percentage living in extreme poverty decreased from 21.0% to 7.3%15. This had a substantive impact on greater enjoyment of and access to other social rights, as several UN agencies with offices in the country acknowledged16.
However, in 2013 poverty levels increased to 32.1% and extreme poverty rose to 9.8%. In other words, since 2013 Venezuela has been experiencing a process of regression as regards social indicators17. Following a sharp decline in the price of oil on the international market (96% of Venezuela's exports are dependent on the hydrocarbon sector), and certain public policies implemented at both the micro and macro levels, Venezuela began to experience a serious and complex economic crisis with inflation levels calculated at over 2,600% by the end of 201718.
In terms of health, the current level of government investment in the public health system is not known19. Between 1998 and 2010 Venezuela almost doubled the proportion of its GDP earmarked for health and investment grew from the very low level of 1.4% to 2.3%. However, for a number of years this very limited increase in funding has stalled and in 2014 it plummeted to 1.5%20.
For the year 2014, the last date for which data was recorded, Venezuela came second from last in the list of countries for investment in the public health sector in Latin America and the Caribbean; the only country to spend less was Haiti21.
In recent years, civil society 23 and international organizations have repeatedly called on the government to request and accept international assistance24, given the state's inability to cope with the crisis.
In August 2016, Ban Ki-Moon, former UN Secretary-General, referred to the Venezuelan situation as a humanitarian crisis because of the lack of the basics such as food, water, health care and clothing25, and offered the country UN support26. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al-Hussein, has expressed concern on numerous occasions about the dramatic decline in the enjoyment of economic and social rights, and has offered the support of his office in facing the challenges27. Although at the beginning of 2017 the Venezuelan government made a brief announcement asking for international help from UN agencies in the country, no more information was forthcoming on the nature or scope of the assistance requested28. In its most recent report on Venezuela the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), called on the state to guarantee the right to health by mobilizing the necessary resources available, "including those of international cooperation"29.
In addition to these human rights bodies, representatives of different countries, for example the President of Colombia30, have offered to provide assistance to Venezuela. However, both the Venezuelan President and many government ministers31 have made public statements denying that there is a crisis and rejecting the international cooperation offered as "an imperialist attack" and a tactic on the part of opposition parties to intervene in the politics of the country. 32
At the end of 2017 the Health Minister reiterated the official position, stating "none of us will kneel before the empire" and rejecting so-called humanitarian aid33. In January 2018, President Nicolás Maduro stated once again that the only intention behind the offer of international aid was to facilitate a US 34 invasion of the country to seize Venezuela's oil and wealth35. Various human rights organizations have characterized the current situation as a "complex humanitarian emergency" in view of the severe collapse of the formal economy, social conflict, the inability of the authorities to address the deterioration and dismantling of the health and food systems and the large migratory flows to other countries in the region36.
Although Venezuela is experiencing a serious and complex financial situation, with spectacular levels of inflation and stagnation, this does not absolve the state from fulfilling its obligation to ensure the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health and to implement all the measures necessary to guarantee this37, including requesting international cooperation. Financial restrictions do not excuse states from fulfilling their fundamental obligations and must not affect the minimum content of economic, social and cultural rights, as established by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), the body responsible for interpreting the provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).
Part of the minimum content that Venezuela must fulfil is ensuring the provision to all its population of essential medicines, according to the list of the WHO's Action Programme on Essential Drugs38. This is a non-derogable obligation under international law. Venezuela has an obligation to ensure that essential medicines are available and accessible to all its citizens, both in terms of physical and economic availability, culturally appropriate and of good quality39.
In addition, the Committee on ESCR has established that reproductive, maternal (prenatal and postnatal) and child health care equates to the above (a minimum and non-derogable obligation)40, and that where a country cannot guarantee these basic obligations, it must demonstrate that every effort has been made to comply with this duty both using existing resources within the state as well as those available from the international community through international assistance and cooperation41. By refusing this aid, Venezuela is breaching its international obligations.
Amnesty International has received information consistent with the allegations made by human rights organizations in Venezuela that the public health services are unable in virtually all cases to provide prescribed medication and that patients are obliged to obtain this through their own means. The statements obtained indicate that the lack of medicines in pharmacies means that most people are forced to resort to the black market, where, on the rare occasions medicines can be found, people often have to travel great distances to acquire them, pay disproportionately high prices and have no guarantee of their quality.