25 de septiembre de 2020
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From plot vs. China to Colombian virus, Venezuela's COVID tales abound

By Gonzalo Dominguez Loeda

Caracas, Aug 4 (efe-epa).- In Venezuela, where everything is susceptible to being used as some sort of political tool, Covid-19 has been no exception. Within the Nicolas Maduro administration, there was no hesitation in calling it a plot against China with government supporters creating a new xenophobic narrative that it's really a "Colombian virus," an attempt to counter the opposition's claim - following that of US President Donald Trump - that it's a "Chinese virus."

Venezuela is a country that seems to be a new chessboard for the old Cold War and so accusations are rife from both sides of the political spectrum.

The names Russia, China and the US - all of which are omnipresent when Latin America is considered - are multiplying in Venezuela to refer to a virus and a disease that has nothing to do with politics, a disease that infects and kills regardless of one's ideological stance.

These are just some of the narratives that are circulating in Venezuela regarding Covid-19:

1.- A weapon against China

Going back to late February is like trying to enter an earlier age of mankind when one's memory starts to blur. However, going back to the start of the pandemic is necessary to see the roots of the Venezuelan government's narrative regarding the coronavirus.

First it was the media outlets of the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) that fed the conspiracy theories.

From the opinion columns of those media outlets, it didn't take long for the paranoia to spread throughout the government and reach Maduro himself, who at the end of February claimed that "There's a lot of analysis worldwide that shows that the coronavirus could be a strain created for biological warfare against China."

"There are already many elements that see that ... and we have to raise our voices, call attention to it and sound the alarm, warn that the coronavirus must not be used as a weapon against China, and now against the people of the world in general," the president said in the alarmist tone he often adopts.

If one subsitutes the preposition "from" for "against," this hypothesis begins to coincide with other conspiracy theories that have emerged from the most remote corners of the extreme right on the Internet along with those of the flat-Earthers, 5G schizoids and other spreaders of hoaxes in general.

For these parties, Covid-19 is a virus created in Chinese labs and released on purpose to attack the world community.

2.- Returning citizens

The conspiracy theories against China were spreading before the coronavirus had gotten much beyond China's borders. When it did, the discourse changed radically.

In Venezuela, people looked with fear upon a virus that could sow terror in a country with a health system that itself was already in intensive care, but people were also aware that the country was almost completely isolated from the rest of the world.

The lack of international travelers and contact with the rest of the world delayed the arrival of the virus, but the government also took radical measures to keep it out such as closing the country's airports, along with land and sea access points. The only way for Covid-19 to get into the country was via returning Venezuelan citizens.

Just as some five million Venezuelans fled the country seeking a better economic and political situation elsewhere, thousands of them have returned to their homeland, most of them on foot, thus opening the door to the virus across the 2,200-kilometer (1,365 miles) border with Colombia, a porous frontier that has continued to provide assorted headaches to both countries.

Just like a pendulum, in Venezuela's good years and Colombia's bad years it was Caracas that suffered from the situation along the border, but now that the pendulum has swung the other way, it's Bogota that is suffering.

Across that border, officially speaking, more than 70,000 Venezuelan migrants have reentered their country, some of them having trekked thousands of kilometers on foot, sleeping outdoors and joining together with other countrymen without taking any biosafety measures, thus allowing the virus to spread among them.

Maduro has put the focus on them and the responsibility on Colombia for allowing them to get over the border into Venezuela and bring the virus into the country.

3.- An old internal enemy, a new xenophobia

Venezuela, as a haven for migrants during the 20th century, took in millions of Italians, Portuguese, Spaniards, Germans, Colombians, Haitians, Peruvians and Ecuadorians.

Just like everywhere, the color of their skin and their social class was fundamental in determining the welcome they received and, in terms of numbers and the types of jobs they obtained, Colombians ended up being the main targets of xenophobia among their Venezuelan hosts.

Even today, one hears old xenophobic arguments against the Colombians. Venezuelans accuse their neighbors of importing new forms of violence and criminality and bringing in assorted types of lower class jobs, including a widespread informal economy and such semi-services as "moto-taxis."

Now that the reality has shifted, the accusations have changed and more and more Colombians are accusing the Venezuelans who have emigrated to Colombia of the same thing the Venezuelans accused them of when they had no other option than to flee their homeland.

Riding that populist wave of rejection of those who are different, Maduro has dubbed the coronavirus the "Colombian virus."

Curiously, Maduro has suffered more than anyone from that xenophobia and, because of his mother's origins, some sectors of the opposition have tried to label him Colombian, not only because the Constitution prohibits anyone born outside the country from becoming president but also because the word "Colombian" can be used almost as an insult in Venezuela.

And, in fact, in recent online sessions of the opposition-controlled parliament, several lawmakers have referred to Maduro as "the Colombian" without anyone censuring them in any way.

4.- The opposition's Chinese virus

Historian and columnist Elias Pino Iturrieta has identified the growing opposition extremism as "Venezuelan Trumpism."

And with Donald Trump incessantly calling Covid-19 the "Chinese virus," his acolytes in Venezuela have hustled to imitate him without asking many questions at all about the similarities between that moniker and that of "Colombian virus."

The concept has become so popular that it has provided the headline for op-ed pieces and has gone viral on Twitter, where many Venezuelan apologists for the US president have used no other name to refer to the pandemic that has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the world.

This Venezuela Trumpism has gained so much resonance that the Chinese Embassy in Caracas has felt compelled to respond on the social networks, saying: "At this crucial time in the fight against Covid-19, we suggest that certain persons also take the 'political virus' seriously. There are already very sick with it."

The virus has become a political weapon, a tool to inflame the confrontation between - and widen the abyss separating - Venezuelans. Regardless of the pain it brings and the death it causes.

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