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Venezuela’s Blackouts Go Beyond Electricity

Mac Margolis

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Like most of their compatriots, Venezuelan physicians are forced to plan their days around power failures, which thanks to the collapsing infrastructure strike regularly, often without warning.

Yet the country’s health professionals have had to work in the dark in more ways than one. The last time the Ministry of Health published its monthly epidemiological bulletin was in 2016. Even as contagions spread, “There’s no official national mechanism to collect and catalog data on outbreaks,” infectious disease pathologist Alberto Paniz-Mondolfi, a member of the Venezuelan National Academy of Medicine, told me. “It’s like fighting a battle blind.”

And so it goes across Venezuela, where an information eclipse has hobbled first responders to the gathering national emergency and worsened the plight of 29 million people caught in a crisis careening toward a humanitarian catastrophe.

Grim images and media accounts have highlighted lethal illnesses, food scarcities, near-epidemic violence and economic disarray. Yet after years of bureaucratic neglect, willful obscurity, or a toxic combination of both, the scope and scale of these dire dysfunctions are a mystery. Even conscientious civil servants flail in the shadows. Meanwhile, partisans cavil and authorities spin conspiracies. 

Oh, there’s no dearth of impressive numbers. Yet official data is partial, sometimes unreliable and always late. Consider the size of Venezuela’s economic black hole. The central government last published fiscal balances in 2013, and consolidated public sector accounts, including those of the state oil company PDVSA, in 2011, according to Francisco Rodriguez, of Torino Capital, LLC. The country’s latest filing of a general economic assessment, a contractual requirement under Article IV of the International Monetary Fund: 2004.

Inflation? Venezuela hasn’t released an official number since December 2015, and ever since it’s been monetary roulette. The price of a cup of coffee is up by six figures since last April, according to Bloomberg’s café con leche index, while Torino Capital reckoned a cornmeal arepa pastry cost 300,000 percent more by the end of 2018. The opposition-controlled National Assembly is less circumspect, putting overall inflation last year at 1.7 million percent.  They have nothing on the IMF, which recently pegged consumer prices rising at 10 million percent.

Keeping track of crime is another actuarial adventure. The Venezuelan Observatory of Public Safety, a government oversight body, offers no graphics or statistical tally for criminal violence, just a single paragraph on its webpage describing homicide as “reproachable behavior.” And good luck finding comprehensive crime stats on the Interior, Justice and Peace Ministry’s forensic division website.  

“The government has declined to publish authoritative homicide statistics over the last decade,” said Robert Muggah, a public safety scholar with the Igarape Institute in Brazil. That leaves detailed sleuthing to journalists, independent researchers and advocacy groups. Sorting the numbers is another challenge. One of the pioneers in deciphering crime is the Venezuelan Violence Observatory (OVV), a private think tank and advocacy center which pores over available data and mines independent sources. While government forensics pointed to a sharp fall in the homicide rate last year, to 33 per 100,000 inhabitants, OVV reported a slight decrease in the rate of “violent deaths” to 81 per 100,000 residents. The problem is that the observatory’s “violent deaths” figure folds in fatalities from confrontations with police (“resisting authority”) and deaths “under investigation,” a composite number that some analysts unhelpfully conflate with homicides.

The statistical soup matters because no country can face problems it can’t see. “The bottom line is, it’s next to impossible to prevent and reduce violent crime without reliable and consistent data,” said Muggah. Flawed record-keeping also invites flawed responses. “We risk fueling social panic that can end up legitimizing hard-line policies that only increase institutional violence,” said Keymer Avila, a crime scholar at the Central University of Venezuela’s Institute of Criminal Science.

Fortunately, many Venezuelans are responding to the murk with innovation, enterprise and networking bordering on spycraft. “We essentially try to leverage personal contacts in government, relationships that were built at a time when government was much more open to researchers,” University of Pennsylvania political scientist Dorothy Kronick, who has studied Venezuelan crime, told me. “My relationships were with the health ministry, which in the past published quality data. But there’s a huge delay. We’re just now getting 2015 data, which is not much use when you’re reporting a fast-moving story like Venezuela.”

To come up with a reliable trade balance, Torino Capital tracks tanker traffic from Venezuela and examines the balance sheets of 31 of the nation’s trade partners, representing 84 percent of foreign trade. And how to figure the local bond liabilities that Nicolas Maduro’s government obscures? Just work backward from the public roll of non-resident investors, who last year held some $57 billion, or 81 percent, of Venezuelan bonded debt, Rodriguez said. To complete the company’s most recent Red Book review of Venezuela’s economy, Rodriguez’s five-member ground team had to decamp from their darkened office suite in Caracas to a hotel with its own generator through the blackouts.

The stakes are considerable. “It’s very, very rare to analyze a country like Venezuela, which stopped publishing vital data years ago,” said Rodriguez. “That’s happened only in cases of war or invasion. The problem is, in lieu of information, we make assumptions about data and resort to estimates, and simulated data is not real data. You end up modeling on assumptions, not facts on the ground.”

Leave it to Venezuela’s overtaxed health community to come up with one of the most creative responses to the information gap. Faced with escalating infectious diseases, renewed outbreaks of old ailments and a breakdown in epidemiological reporting, a group of physicians designed a citizen surveillance system. Called Epi-Veritas (a Latinate acronym for true epidemiology), the system, set to be launched in the coming weeks, marshals medical doctors and researchers, hospitals and neighborhood clinics, and ordinary citizens from schoolteachers to community workers. Each volunteer records daily observations of patients — clinical exams and diagnoses for professionals, fever and generic symptoms for lay workers — and feeds the reports into an online platform. There, an algorithm designed to parse the raw data according to clinical protocols alerts physicians to suspected illnesses: say, fever, red eyes and rashes for Zika virus, or severe joint pain plus fever associated with chikungunya, another mosquito-borne disease.

This initiative not only seeks to shine light on a crisis-induced blind spot, but also to upgrade Venezuela’s analog scouting system to a digital tool for real-time epidemiology. “There has been no investment in public health for years. We still record cases by hand and then someone punches the data into a computer,” says Paniz-Mondolfi. “We are trying to build a citizen-driven resource to keep up with vital public health information that the government has abandoned.” Even as state socialism has left the country in the dark, a handful of private citizens are doing what they can to plug Venezuela into the 21st century.

To contact the author of this story: Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”

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