By Ana Julia Niño Gamboa
With local and foreign media aligned with its narrative, the Maduro regime blocks the Guaidó-COVAX-PAHO initiative, discrediting AstraZeneca and extolling new Russian experiments in a disinformation boomerang turned against it.
The reaction of the Nicolás Maduro government to the possibility of providing Venezuela with at least 1.4 to 2.4 million doses of the British vaccine AstraZeneca (AZ) through the COVAX program, argued on scientific grounds, is a version that few believe. This lack of credibility is the adverse effect of the doses of disinformation and the socialization of suspicion regularly encouraged from Miraflores presidential palace.
Our analysis, conducted on six official sources and six media outlets from March 19 to 31, 2021, shows the web of political interests that the vaccine issue constitutes for the Nicolás Maduro government. It seems that Venezuela’s entry into the COVAX program is of interest solely if it is perceived as a victory for Chavismo, underplaying the fact that it is an international partnership seeking to guarantee vaccines in an equitable manner, endorsed by the World Health Organization (WHO), the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), with the support of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). This attitude also undermines the importance of the agreement from Venezuela’s Technical Health Roundtable (Mesa Técnica de Salud) and the negotiations with the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to release the funds to pay outstanding debts and the vaccines, since the only objective should be to favor citizens through a massive vaccination rollout. Unfortunately, for Chavismo, the success of such proposal is to let the internal enemy get some breathing air, embodied in this case by Juan Guaidó.
Doubt increases because, far from timely and accurate information, the government uses high doses of propaganda to ‘russify’ the vaccine issue. To this end, it has launched a campaign to position on Twitter the rather ironic hashtag #SputnikVContraCovid (#SpuntnikVAgainstCovid [tweet in Spanish, embedded infographic in English]), because the delay in sending the vaccine to Venezuela has its origin in Moscow. Furthermore, it is suspicious that, while Maduro bans entry to AZ, he simultaneously announces that the Russian EpicVacCorona will be brought in and that its arrival is saluted the following day. At the same time, Russia is requesting admission for Sputnik V into the COVAX program. In view of this, a reasonable doubt arises as to whether Nicolás Maduro is making time to ultimately favor Russia, even if that means putting at risk the already vulnerable population subjected to a protracted vaccination delay. As noted above, the boomerang of mistrust turns back to the government, as another side effect of its systematic disinformation policy.
By reviewing the official information, we expected to find risk communication (WHO, 2018, p. 44), scientific specifications, and options for promptly obtaining vaccines in the country. Instead, we found a lot of pro-Russia propaganda and the hackneyed rhetoric of the US blockade.
In this study, we intend to gather the information available in official sources on the controversial decision from the government of Nicolás Maduro to deny access to the British vaccine AstraZeneca in Venezuela, claiming scientific reasons. Additionally, we present the media overview by means of context. The reason for this criterion is that this event cannot be viewed in isolation for several political reasons explained by the behavior of Venezuela’s ruler. These include the agenda of interests shared by Moscow and Caracas.
Our study primarily focuses is on six official websites and Twitter accounts of relevant ministries and the Office of the Vice President. We added to this exploration the account of the Russian embassy in Venezuela, as well as six national and foreign media with news on the issue under analysis. The period of this research is from March 19 to 31, 2021.
Table No. 1 Government sources
|URL // TWITTER HANDLE
|OFFICE OF THE VICE PRESIDENT
|vicepresidencia.gob.ve // @ViceVenezuela
|FOREIGN AFFAIRS MINISTRY
|mppre.gob.ve // @CancilleriaVE
|MINISTRY OF ECONOMY AND FINANCE
|MINISTRY OF HEALTH
|RUSSIAN EMBASSY IN VENEZUELA
|MINISTRY OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
Table No. 2 Media reviewed
|CORREO DEL ORINOCO
|VENEZOLANA DE TELEVISIÓN
This is a research from a qualitative, documentary perspective, and our corpus focuses on the official national Executive sites and the news items published by the national and foreign media selected. The government tendency to make announcements on Twitter compels us to review the accounts of some government spokespersons. In this case, we have included that of the Russian embassy in Venezuela.
The reading of sources was conducted online. We were able to obtain some data from the above websites. However, it was necessary to use the Google search engine and sometimes we have resorted to its advanced search tool. Our instrument of information gathering and data construction relies on content analysis.
With this report, we intend to document the central issues mentioned above, how they are approached by the government spokespersons and media. We are also interested in showing the coverage given by the media selected, all of which are aligned with the official narrative.
On February 11, 2021, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) announced the creation of a National Technical Roundtable for access to the COVAX program, which gathered the Ministry of Health and advisors from the 2015 National Assembly [Legislative], accompanied by PAHO and UNICEF. Among the agreements reached is the establishment of a single vaccination rollout under the responsibility of the Ministry of Health, which has the support of the scientific community and the Academia.
Following this agreement, the possibility of partnerships to ease political tensions and thereby prioritize addressing the coronavirus crisis arose. Additionally, there were also favorable signals for Venezuela to join COVAX, which already claimed to have between 1.4 and 2.4 million doses of AZ. The financial aspect had an answer March 19, 2021, when the 2015 Assembly approved authorizing Juan Guaidó to request at the U.S. Treasury Department’s OFAC the release of USD 30,309,040 to ensure Venezuela’s access to COVAX vaccines. Despite the good news, the issue is politically thorny. First, it entails that Maduro’s government will not gain access to handling the funds but that those resources would go directly to a revolving fund in charge of receiving payments for the rollout; secondly, it implies acknowledging the administrative role of opposition figures long labeled as internal enemies, which would be politically construed as an achievement for the team headed by Guaidó.
At the same time, there was discussion about the adverse effects that the administration of the AZ had had. Consequently, its use was suspended in several countries until the issue is sufficiently clarified. At this point, the WHO supported the continued use of the vaccine, since its efficacy rate was greater than the side effects occurred. In any case, this event provided the necessary loophole for the government to delay access to the vaccine. On grounds of these side effects, Chavismo has refused to receive the AZ doses, despite the fact that the claims have already been scientifically refuted and the drug is supported even by governments ideologically akin to Chavismo that have authorized the vaccine and administer it without problems, such as Argentina, Bolivia, and Iran.
Certainly, the unfavorable reports regarding the AZ and the suspension of its administration give rise to reasonable doubt. In this sense, the first reaction of the government is understandable. Following this, an informative and educational campaign would be expected in order to manage the expectations of citizens who feel being deprived of their right to health. However, Nicolás Maduro devotes his information policy to cause more uncertainty: He is hell-bent on the narrative regarding the alleged ravages of the British vaccine, further claims the supposed handouts that saving the lives of Venezuelans mean for his government, then goes on to offer oil for vaccines or to promote the country as a test field for Cuban drugs. In addition, he commits to test and buy Russia’s EpicVacCorona, with only one Phase III clinical study and which, apart from Russia as the sponsor country, only has been authorized in Turkmenistan.
Special mention should be made of the efforts to boost the aforementioned Twitter hashtag in favor of Sputnik V, although Russia has not completed the delivery of the 10 million vaccines. We insist, 90 days after signing the contract, barely 250,000 vaccines have been received. Then, reasonable doubt reverts to the government. Why does it insist on promoting a partnership with Russia without the promised drug? It is particularly striking that it extols this ally, especially if we compare it with the deliveries made to Argentina since December 2020, for over 4.5 million Sputnik V vaccines.
This matter reveals Chavismo‘s insistence on its warmongering narrative, which explains its unconditional alliance with Russian interests in the face of the threat that the United States has always posed. Although no government’s actions are innocent in these times of vaccine diplomacy, it should not mean putting the lives of more Venezuelans at risk. The expectation of receiving more vaccines, including AZ doses, rises in the midst of an alarming spike in coronavirus and its strains. Unfortunately, it seems that the interests of the government of Nicolás Maduro are far from humanitarian concerns and the urgency of Venezuelan families.
The review we have conducted yields the following:
i) Twitter is the social media of choice for high-ranking officials in Venezuela to disseminate their information policy issues. Spokespersons use the “retweet in support” ploy, so that the message posted by one is replicated by others and even by aligned media. It happens very often that what is stated by the spokespersons is not echoed in the corresponding websites and, when there is any reference, it is limited to reproducing the content of the tweet. In this review, we noticed that the dates showing a surge in tweets on this issue were March 24, when the ban on the entry of the AstraZeneca vaccine was announced; March 28, when Maduro announced his oil-for-vaccines plan; March 29, when Vice President Delcy Rodríguez informs about her online meeting with the WHO and the PAHO regarding vaccine procurement methods, a new shipment of Sputnik V is received, it is announced that Russian drug EpicVacCorona will be tested in Venezuela; and on March 30, when the arrival of the drug is saluted and additionally the bot-supported propaganda machine is activated to position the hashtag #SputnikVContraCovid.
ii) The statements object of our analysis were issued by Nicolás Maduro, Delcy Rodríguez in her dual capacity as Vice President and Minister of Economy and Finance, Jorge Arreaza as Foreign Affairs Minister and, on a few occasions, by the Minister of Science and Technology or the Minister of Health.
iii) The news gives preeminence to the presence of Russian vaccines, to the blockade imposed by US measures, which – it is claimed – prevents the government from accessing resources and purchasing vaccines. In addition, the information hints at court actions and start of proceedings regarding Juan Guaidó; it also shows continuing display of data against the AZ.
iv) Regarding coverage by foreign media, particularly that published by Russian agency Sputnik News in two pieces with the same date from Caracas: A reproduction of what was announced by official spokespersons on the denial of entry into the country for AZ (03/24/2021). Meanwhile, in its international section, it reports AZ’s 79% acknowledged effectiveness for symptomatic COVID-19 (03/22/2021), and publishes a piece titled “Venezuela will receive AstraZeneca vaccines produced in South Korea”. The contents of this news item refer to statements made by PAHO Emergency Department Director Ciro Ugarte, clarifying that these are not the ones singled out for causing adverse effects. On 03/30/2021, with a difference of hours, it reports the interest of Venezuela in authorizing EpicVacCorona and the delivery of 1,000 doses on the same day, coinciding with the visit to Caracas of the Vice Prime Minister of Russia. For its part on 03/26/2021, RT (Russia Today) reports on “three keys to understand what lies beneath the controversy over AstraZeneca’s vaccines in Venezuela”. The tone of the information follows the narrative of Venezuelan government. Respectively, on 03/29/2021 and 03/30/2021, articles of the above Russian media outlet include Maduro’s statements on his oil-for-vaccines plan and the beginning of the EpicVacCorona tests.
v) The coverage of the national media shows the following: On two formally public media, a) the state-owned channel Venezolana de Televisión echoes statements from Nicolás Maduro and also displays the contents of the tweets by government spokespersons, without providing context or further elaborating on the news. It is noteworthy that, between March 16 and 31, 2021, the channel releases at least one daily piece regarding the AZ vaccine. Nothing is mentioned about the non-existence of a mass vaccination rollout in Venezuela; b) Correo del Orinoco did not release any news item of its own. Instead, on 24/03/2021, it reproduced a piece from VTV, “Venezuela will only allow COVID-19 vaccines certified by the country’s health authorities”; on 03/26/2021 it copies a text from the website of Misión Verdad (a collective of pro-government columnists) titled “COVAX and AstraZeneca: Instruments for an operation of humanitarian extortion”; and on 03/30/2021 it reproduces an article from RT referring to the change of name of the AZ vaccine.
Private pro-government newspaper Últimas Noticias released on 20/03/2021 a report titled “First and last: The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine’s rap sheet”, a piece exposing several interests which do not make the British vaccine look good. However, regarding the government’s decision, it limits itself to say that it is Solomonic, not in a news, but rather an opinion piece. On 03/23/2021, it reproduces an item from Agence France Presse (AFP) according to which the PAHO is “optimistic” (in quotation marks) about Venezuela’s access to COVAX vaccines; on 03/24/2021, it refers to Maduro’s efforts for the PAHO to intercede in favor of releasing funds for vaccines; and on 03/27/2021, it reports on Delcy Rodríguez’s online meeting with the WHO and the PAHO. On the other hand, multi-state channel Telesur mirrors to an extent the dynamics of VTV and reports content from Agencia Venezolana de Noticias (AVN). Neither of these two media outlets notes the absence of a mass vaccination rollout in the country.
Venezuela is not capable of developing a vaccine. However, the government of Nicolás Maduro is interested in profiting politically and economically by promoting some drugs to the detriment of others, regardless of the fact that this means making Venezuelans’ ability to face the COVID-19 more precarious. This seems to be the premise with the greatest strength when it comes to handling information in the case under analysis.
We have insisted in this research that there is room for reasonable doubt in view of instances of adverse effects of the British vaccine. For this reason, we have focused on reviewing official sources and government-aligned media and on inquiring about the presence or absence of the informative technique of risk communication, based on information about the extent of confidence expressed by those who know (experts), those responsible for making decisions (authorities) and those affected (people). To this end, it is essential to explain honestly what is known and to acknowledge what is uncertain. In this case, the government claimed that it made the decision to ban access to AZ, already secured by the COVAX program on the advice of a presidential scientific commission, one whose members are unknown, from which not a single explanatory document has been released and which, furthermore, would be the same that approved the use of certain “miracle drops” named Carvativir.
The activity of the government web sites, of the public media reviewed, and of the private media aligned with the government narrative continues to show its outstanding debt in terms of accurate and timely information. Even more seriously, these sources and media are allied for proselytizing in favor of the Moscow administration, thereby acting as propaganda agents. None of the media reviewed made the slightest complaint about the slow delivery of Sputnik V; nor was there any mention of the evident absence of a mass vaccination rollout. All these issues trigger uncertainty and distrust: They are part of the side effects of the disinformation systematically encouraged by the government itself.