Another vaccine, the same usual partners, and a reprise of the same old story: The Venezuelan regime praises the selfless Russian benefactor and cloaks such matters of public interest as procurement terms and vaccination rollout in a shroud of disinformation.
By Ana Julia Niño Gamboa
“We welcome the EpiVacCorona to Venezuela. We thank President Vladimir Putin and the Russian people for this good news for our people. Thank you for everything!” Those were the gushing words of the vice president of Nicolás Maduro’s government on March 29, 2021, when she announced that the second Russian vaccine would soon arrive. With this, the country would join Phase 3 clinical trials. Suddenly, the next day, the vaccines landed at Maiquetía Airport, which serves the capital city of Caracas.
Everything happened in April, without Venezuelans having any news on the plan for the clinical trials. Then, on May 4, 2021, the vice president appeared, this time alongside Russian Ambassador Sergei Melik-Bagdasarov, who became the first volunteer in Venezuela to be tested the vaccine on. On June 4, the signing of the agreement to import the vaccine was reported, but neither the results of the trials nor the terms of the contract are known.
These events: The announcement of the second Russian vaccine, the beginning of the trials one month later, and the signing of the agreement for importing the vaccine, would not a great deal if it were not for the government’s ‘business as usual’ practice of withholding information on matters sensitive to the public. Moreover, this is consistent with the propaganda strategy systematically deployed by the Maduro administration, especially to favor Russia, its presence, and its suspicious philanthropy under this pandemic scenario.
This announcement in March was made during Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov’s visit to Caracas. The government seized the opportunity to announce the signing of at least 12 agreements on financial, energy, commercial, military, food, health, and other areas, undoubtedly under the umbrella of the so-called Anti-Blockade Law. The main trait of this statute is government secrecy, with the worn-out excuse of evading the blockade of the U.S. Treasury Department. The news given on May 4, in which the Russian ambassador is cited as a reliable source, took place during the International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg. Of the trials initiated in May, there are no results or endorsement by scientific peers. As for the June 5 contract, there is no information on the number of doses, their cost, or dates of arrival; but there is enough propaganda and disinformation material.
In this research, we assess the information released by the government and its aligned media on the subject, bearing in mind that the announcement of the trials was made in March and that we are interested in news regarding this issue between May 4 and June 4, 2021. To this end, we reviewed 11 sources, including several government websites and five media outlets.
This research has focused on documenting a new episode in the relationship between the governments of Venezuela and Russia. In this case, we cover the arrival and transit of the second Russian COVID-19 vaccine, EpiVacCorona, developed by the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology (VECTOR). This episode is yet another proof of the practice of Nicolás Maduro’s administration in evading its constitutional duty of accountability on public matters of citizen interest.
We started from the need to document the handling of public information by government agencies. On the other hand, we tracked its propagandistic spin in favor of the Moscow government, despite its repeated failure to deliver the Sputnik V, under an agreement signed in December 2020. To this, we reviewed 11 sources distributed among government websites and public media of both nations. The period covered by this research spans from May 4 to June 4, 2021.
On this occasion, in addition to following up on the EpiVacCorona, we look into the background of the relationship between the governments of both nations, built on an evidently propagandistic narrative. According to it, there is a prevailing discourse that denounces U.S. imperialism against which both governments are united. This rhetoric tries to justify the ineffectiveness and inefficiency of the Venezuelan government, as well as to portray an alleged blockade that prevents the purchase of medicines and supplies stemming from the measures issued by the US Treasury Department as the culprit for the crisis. It also serves as an argument to circumvent the Constitution and promote the so-called Anti-Blockade Law, tailored to the opacity of an administration that denies the constitutional right to be informed.
Table 1: Media outlets
|VENEZOLANA DE TELEVISIÓN
|CORREO DEL ORINOCO
|RT (Russia Today)
Table 2: Government sources
|MINISTRY OF HEALTH
|SISTEMA PATRIA (FATHERLAND SYSTEM)
|MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS
|OFFICE OF THE VICE PRESIDENT
|MINISTRY OF ECONOMY AND FINANCE
|MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATION AND INFORMATION
The review focuses on official sources and coverage from media selected. Based on them, we try to understand what they reveal as well what they remain silent on. This design allows us to detect a pattern of behavior and treatment of public information in the hands of those in power. In addition, we take a look at the Chavista propaganda evidently in favor of Russia, even greater than the media visibility given to Chinese assistance.
This is a research from a qualitative, documentary perspective. Our corpus focuses on the data available at national Executive official sites, on the news items published by the local and foreign media selected.
The sources were read online. For this purpose, we have made use of the Google search engine, and occasionally resorted to its advanced search tool. Our information gathering and data construction model is based on content analysis, with initial categories aimed at establishing whether a media outlet has any news on the subject under investigation and, if it does, what the focus given is.
In this phase of the pandemic, marked by a significant increase in infections and deaths caused by COVID-19 and its variants, the government is hellbent on promoting its partnership with Moscow despite its delay in delivering the 10 million doses for which the government paid USD 200,000, as publicly acknowledged by Nicolás Maduro himself. This narrative persists even after the country has learned of the special lists of beneficiaries inoculated among circles of the power elite, of the delivery of Sputnik V in dribs and drabs, of the belated entry into the COVAX program, of the arrival of Chinese vaccines and of freezers to preserve the medicine.
The above is taking place in a country that must endure the only consistent governmental measure: Lockdown with no other incentive than the fear of contagion. Now, we must add one more curious fact, to say the least: The offer of Venezuelan volunteers to participate in Phase 3 of the EpiVacCorona trials.
On March 29, 2021, the early arrival of the second Russian vaccine in the country was announced. On March 30, the first doses arrived: Both events were saluted simultaneously. Government spokespersons spared no praise for Vladimir Putin, while taking the opportunity to make statements against the common enemy: United States. These March announcements were made seizing the opportunity of Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov’s visit to Caracas. Afterwards, silence reigned. No more words were heard of the second medication. Not even the permit of the Ministry of Health authorizing its use in the country can be accessed. Is it also unknown what quantity arrived, what the protocol for selecting the candidates is, how old the volunteers are, what the cost is or how it will be paid for – nothing.
This situation remained this way until May 4, when it was made public that the first volunteer for the clinical trial was the Russian Ambassador to Venezuela, Sergei Melik-Bagdasarov. It was a gesture of confidence in the drug, which was appreciated, but it was not enough for public health purposes. However, this moment was not used to inform about the vaccination rollout. It was only useful for a propaganda grimace. The outcry of the Venezuelan population, demanding again the immediate start of the massive immunization plan, was ignored by the government.
One month after being the Russian ambassador vaccinated in Venezuela, on June 4, 2021, during the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, the signing of the agreement to export the second vaccine to Venezuela was announced. It was executed by Carlos Alvarado, Minister of Health, as witnessed by Minister of Science and Technology Gabriela Giménez and Russian Minister of Industry and Trade Denis Manturov.
It is inescapable to note that the agreement was signed without the knowledge to date of any data supporting the results of the clinical trials supposedly performed in Venezuela since May 4 this year. The official statement claiming that Venezuela is “the first foreign country to start using EpiVacCorona in the mass vaccination rollout for its population” is ubiquitous. A massive rollout which, by the way, only exists in the realm of propaganda.
In addition, as usual, no information is available on the terms of the agreement with Moscow. Nothing was reported about the amount of the contract, the number of vaccines, or the date of delivery. Judging by Russia’s repeated failure to deliver the Sputnik V, under an agreement signed in December 2020, there is nothing indicating that this time the commitment will be effectively fulfilled.
The above is evidence of the Chavista system’s perverse nature. In the media, the relations between the governments of Caracas and Moscow are given priority over a real concern about the health of citizens. In addition to the chaotic status of the public health system, the rebound of the virus, and the hyperinflation, Venezuelans expect to have access to any vaccine minimizing the risk of contagion. The terrible thing is that this need and the hope for staying alive are being profited from. It seems that the political interests between both governments relegate citizens’ urgency to receive the medicine to a lower priority.
It must be stressed that the public administration is still under the constitutional duty to inform citizens. It even has the duty to manage the expectations regarding accessing the medication. The government owes the country an explanation of the situation, the challenges, and the difficulties that vaccination implies.
A government committed to its citizens would activate Risk Communication as advised by the World Health Organization. It is information based on trust, on the collaboration between those who know (healthcare specialists, scientific associations), those who decide (the government and health authorities), and those affected (the people, all citizens). The media also participate in this cooperation.
The review of government websites and reports from the media shows erratic information, with announcements only catering to propagandistic opportunism in favor of the stakeholders at play: The governments of Russia and Venezuela. This is clear in the timeline of the news regarding the second Russian vaccine.
Despite the active role of the ministers of health and of science and technology on their Twitter accounts, the website of the Ministry of Health, for instance, does not provide any data on the EpiVacCorona trials, nor does it provide information on the recently signed agreement for the import of the Russian vaccine. On the other hand, while the Ministry of Information reported on the International Economic Forum held in St. Petersburg and mentioned the issues addressed by the Venezuelan delegation, it alluded, almost as a minor topic, to the agreement on the vaccine.
The usual live coverage from Maiquetía Airport by state-owned channel Venezolana de Televisión (VTV), as well as its reproduction of tweets from Nicolás Maduro or Delcy Rodríguez, is not coupled by any further news in this regard on its website. On the other hand, on Correo del Orinoco, the vaccine does not appear as a topic of interest, at least until the signing of the agreement for its import. Instead, it published a short piece citing VTV as its source.
National Executive media outlets do not provide reliable or verifiable data when reporting. The few news items on this second Russian vaccine are framed in the promotion of binational relations. In this specific case, we obtained pieces on key dates: March 29 and 30, the first announcements and the arrival of the medicine; May 4, the Russian ambassador in Caracas as the first volunteer of the clinical trials; June 4, the announcement of the signing of the import agreement. None of the pieces provides any relevant data on this matter of public nature.
The two foreign Russian media reviewed, the Spanish-language services of Sputnik agency (Sputnik Mundo) and RT, do not provide an in-depth coverage on the issues inquired in this investigation.
Sputnik agency reports news approximately on the above dates: We note that, when giving the news regarding the signing of the procurement contract for the vaccine, Carlos Faría, Venezuelan ambassador in Moscow, was inquired at least on the number of vaccines to be supplied. The diplomatic officer’s reply was: “The figures of those [doses] are details that are being determined as we speak”. In other words, the agreement was signed; but the substantive terms thereof are unknown.
For its part, RT Spanish-language feed reproduced the tweets written by the minister of science and technology on March 30 about the vaccine and headlined a news item as follows: “Venezuela to start Russian vaccine EpiVacCorona trials”. Curiously, on May 5, it published a piece with a similar headline, “Venezuela to start clinical trials of Russian anti-COVID vaccine EpiVacCorona”. In this case, it referred to a statement by Delcy Rodríguez and to a tweet by the Russian ambassador in Venezuela.
The review of news shows that the government hardens its policy of concealing public information, affecting the citizens’ right to play a role of oversight of government affairs and evading its duty to be held accountable. In this regard, the manipulation is evident from the moment the clinical trials were first announced until the signing of contract to import the EpiVacCorona with no data on the trial results and without any accountability regarding its terms. We stand before another agreement with Russia, a partner that has failed to deliver the Sputnik V.
The state-owned media reviewed on this occasion provide evidence of the government’s information policy. Far from serving as outlets for disseminating public information, they limit themselves to replicating the messages of government spokespersons without the slightest attempt to go into details or provide truthful data. This is a constant that has been repeated during the pandemic, especially in these matters relating to its relationship with Moscow, in which propaganda is favored and public information is concealed. This undermines the constitutional right of access to information and circumvents accountability.
The orchestration of public media has been shown to erode democracy and downgrade public debate. The silence of government news media boosts informational disorder by encouraging the politics of rumor, of hoax, to position the official truth without the society, the Academia, or journalists being able to have an equivalent space serving as a democratic counterweight.
We continue to assess as unsatisfactory the management of this crisis by the authorities. It would be advisable to change the current behavior and promote the synergy proposed by Risk Communication, that is, information based on trust to eliminate or minimize the effects of disinformation.
The favorable portrayal of Russia as a selfless friend of Venezuela is understandable in a scenario aimed to open geopolitical spaces different from those of the United States. However, it is a practice that should not be at odds with the health care of citizens and the need for information required by democracy.