At first glance, Venezuela looks like one of the world’s biggest coronavirus success stories. Amid rampant worries in the pandemic’s earliest stages that COVID-19 would overwhelm the crisis-stricken state, socialist President Nicolás Maduro locked down the country and seemingly stopped the spread. As of Monday, Venezuelan authorities had reported just more than 20,000 cases and 174 deaths, among the lowest numbers in Latin America ― a region the virus has hit harder than any other.
For months, though, there have been abundant signs that the situation is actually very dire. Doctors have reported that case numbers are far higher than the government asserts and that the country’s beleaguered health system is on the brink of collapse. Journalists have reported their own, higher figures, or shown up outside hospitals to observe the situation for themselves.
Maduro has reacted with a crackdown against anyone who may expose the state’s faults. In imprisoning doctors and journalists, he joins a roster of authoritarian leaders who have sought to cover up their own inadequacies and failing responses to the pandemic through censorship and repression.
“They don’t want anybody giving alternative numbers. They want to keep control of the message,” said Phil Gunson, a Venezuela-based researcher at the International Crisis Group, an NGO. “There hasn’t really been a comprehensive response [in Venezuela] ― all we’ve had is propaganda.”
Globally, the world’s most authoritarian governments, in Venezuela and Nicaragua, Egypt, China and elsewhere, have treated the pandemic similarly: By using it as cover to broaden and intensify their efforts to clamp down on dissent and thwart the free spread of information — and not just about the pandemic.
For authoritarian governments, the coronavirus outbreak has provided an opening to target some of the last remaining freedoms in their countries, and in Maduro’s case, it has sapped an opposition seeking to oust...