When health and human rights collide in Venezuela

Feliciano Reyna, health rights advocate in Venezuela, was awarded the Martin Ennals award for his work in Geneva on 16 February 2023 (Geneva Solutions/Michelle Langrand)

Propelled to the frontline of the fight for health rights in Venezuela by personal tragedy, Feliciano Reyna speaks of the humanitarian crisis the country still faces.

In the 1990s, the HIV/Aids pandemic was wreaking havoc worldwide. Countries where treatment was scarce were hit hard, and Venezuela was one of them. The NGO Acción Solidaria was created around that time to bring HIV treatment to Venezuela from the United States, Canada and Europe. Its founder, Feliciano Reyna, was in Geneva this week to receive the prestigious Martin Ennals award – alongside two other defenders from Chad and Kashmir – for his nearly three decades of work to promote health rights.

Reyna’s fight didn’t start until relatively late in his life, after personal circumstances threw the former architect off his initial path. Living and travelling between New York City and Caracas in the 1980s and 1990s, Reyna lost colleagues and friends to HIV/Aids. He began learning about the disease and helping out in any way he could. Then he lost three of his four best friends followed by his partner, Rafael, in 1994.

“When Rafa passed away, I thought ‘I've been in this for years, it doesn't make sense that I'm not more directly involved’,” he says.

Reyna smiles softly as he speaks. Reminiscing about precious yet painful memories seems to wake feelings of nostalgia. These are quickly overtaken by gratitude that it led him to leave the private sector for something that “moves him”. Today, he is married and carries on the fight for health rights in Venezuela.

Spiralling into humanitarian chaos

Soon after founding Acción Solidaria, Reyna broadened his focus to other health issues, such as cancer or haemophilia, and to advocate for people’s right to health. He witnessed how Venezuela’s health system was deteriorating, with hospitals decaying, and medical equipment and overall treatment simply lacking. As the petrostate’s economy started to crumble, poverty levels soared, there were shortages in food and other basic necessities and the health system took yet another blow.

In 2014, widespread protests against inflation and the lack of basic services was met with a brutal crackdown. Over the following years, more than seven million Venezuelans would flee their country either due to the repression or the economic crisis.

As health and political rights collided, Reyna was propelled into a much wider fight for human rights. Along with other organisations, he started documenting human rights violations and producing reports to inform UN human rights institutions in Geneva.

“A wide array of rights were being affected and so, we said, we have to find a different definition of what is going on. Without any experience whatsoever, we looked for concepts of humanitarian situations, and we came to this well devised concept of complex humanitarian emergency,” he says.

In June 2016, Reyna and other campaigners wrote to the former UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, rejecting the UN’s approach to Venezuela. “How was it possible that it was not referring to the Venezuelan situation as one of humanitarian needs?” he recalls. Reyna remembers Ban Ki-moon recognising a month later in a newspaper article that Venezuela was facing a humanitarian crisis.

Despite not receiving a direct reply from the UN chief, Reyna viewed this as a sign that their advocacy had perhaps worked.

Advocating for international cooperation

Reyna became a Geneva regular, travelling every year to engage with the human rights system only for a few days at a time. He lobbied for the Human Rights Council to take an interest in the situation in Venezuela and even met with former UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet in 2019 to push for a commission of inquiry on Venezuela. A fact-finding mission was created instead, to investigate violations committed since 2014.

A doctor by trade, Bachelet had been especially touched by the state of Venezuela’s health system when she visited the country earlier that year. Her first report on Venezuela, Reyna said, “was very strong”. Over the course of her mandate, she toned down her discourse about Venezuela and the language in her reports became softer.

“At times, her reports had sort of ambiguous language that would not state strongly enough how rights were being affected by certain governmental decisions and conduct,” Reyna said.

At the same time, Bachelet was negotiating to be allowed to open an office in Venezuela. She had signed a memorandum of understanding with president Nicolás Maduro. NGOs have criticised the UN human rights office for its lack of transparency regarding its work in Venezuela. It still isn't clear where plans to open a full-fledged office stand.

It is now up to Bachelet’s successor Volker Türk to take over discussions with Venezuela. Reyna, who had met Türk on previous occasions when he was working under secretary general António Guterres, says he seems to have “a genuine interest and concern for Venezuela”.

Turk visited Venezuela at the end of January, when he met with Maduro and called for the release of political prisoners.

“We will see,” Reyna says.

Reyna also joined other aid groups to convince Venezuela’s government to allow the World Food Programme into the country to assess the level of food insecurity. When WFP found and revealed that one third of the population was suffering from food insecurity and that any shock could push the rest over the edge, the government, which had asked the agency to keep the findings quiet, initially closed the door, Reyna said. It eventually came around.

The language of human rights, a safe haven

Reyna weighs every one of his words. His work in Geneva has already caused him trouble in the past. “Every time we would fly into Venezuela, we would be followed at the airport, or photographed, very openly. We were made to feel that we were being surveilled,” he says.

In 2020, his office was raided by security forces when one of his staff members was caught reselling medical drugs. Eight of Reyna’s colleagues were arrested that day.

While he still speaks out against abuses, Reyna says he tries to stick to the facts and avoid any superlatives. He calls it the “human rights language”, which he can rely on from UN reports.

“You're not in an environment where you can just speak your mind because it has consequences,” he says.

Reyna says he hasn’t faced personal intimidation in a while, but there are broader attempts to clamp down on civil society. A draft law on ONGs was presented last month, which according to Reyna is “clearly aimed at controlling civil society organisations”.

The move came as a surprise to Reyna. However small, steps have been taken by Maduro indicating a willingness to loosen his grip on Venezuela’s institutions. The ICC’s prosecutor Karim Khan visited the country last year as part of its investigation into possible crimes against humanity allegedly committed by Venezuelan officials since 2017 and said that Maduro had agreed for the ICC to open an office in Caracas.

A government delegation and the opposition signed an agreement in Mexico in November for a UN-managed fund to be created to provide food, health and education to poor populations in Venezuela.

For Reyna, these are all part of a multifaceted response to the complex crisis. Other more sceptical observers see this as Maduro’s way of buying time while getting the US to ease up on sanctions.

Reyna, who’s met with Maduro to speak about the humanitarian situation in the country, says he seems to acknowledge the need for dialogue, unlike other more radical elements of the government coalition.

Asked about whether sanctions are the solution or the problem, Reyna observes that economic sanctions have exacerbated the humanitarian crisis.

“They have hurt people and not produced the intended political effect,” he says, recalling when the US extended sanctions to apply to diesel.

“What that did was to prevent transportation of goods within the country at a lower cost. It affected the public transportation, power generation in hospitals,”

The arrival of leftist presidents Gustavo Petro and Lula da Silva to power in the region sparks some “cautious optimism” for Reyna. “It doesn't mean forgetting about human rights violations, some of which may amount to crimes against humanity. I think that that has to remain central, but doesn't prevent these leaders from engaging politically with Maduro, and contributing to making him and his government coalition understand that a solution to the political conflict is in everyone’s best interest,” he observes.

At the same time, Reyna fears that heightened geopolitical tensions between Russia and western powers could lead to human rights issues being “kept in a drawer” as countries prioritise the need for an alternative to Russian oil and gas.

Venezuela’s humanitarian response, which has remained strongly underfunded in the last few years, could also be pushed further down the list as crises worsen across the globe.

The Human Rights Council’s fact-finding mission, whose mandate runs until 2024, remains crucial, according to Reyna, to shed a spotlight on ongoing challenges, especially with elections coming up in 2024 and 2025.

“We hope that what is happening in Venezuela keeps on showing up here. Fortunately, we have regular reports, because one of the things that we fear is that the situation continues to be dire for the majority, but there are some improvements here and there, and those who are suffering are forgotten. That’s the worst thing that could happen,” he says.

“The scrutiny that we get from here is very important,” he added. “The government pays attention to what happens here. It wants to have a more legitimate image.”

The group of experts will present their latest findings at the UN rights body’s next session in two weeks.