IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

As COVID-19 spread in Venezuela, the new elites kept partying. I had to get my mom to safety.

Even before the coronavirus, Venezuela's hospitals lacked running water, protective equipment and even power. Every Venezuelan deserves better.
Mariana Atencio's mother was among the last people to leave Venezuela before the pandemic caused the government to shut down the airports.
Mariana Atencio's mother was among the last people to leave Venezuela before the pandemic caused the government to shut down the airports.Courtesy Mariana Atencio

Global pandemic. Those two words set my whole family in a frenzy. As the world’s borders shut down, my biggest fear wasn’t for my own health: it was for the life of my 66-year-old mami, living alone in Venezuela, our home country of 26 million people, where unofficial estimates indicate the number of intensive care beds is less than 100.

And while being worried for the health of an elderly relative is perhaps one of the most common feelings at the moment, the trauma of losing my papi to the seasonal flu in Venezuela just two years ago intensified that worry into a panic.

When he got ill there in 2018, there were power outages in some of the country's intensive care units, doctors were telling me how to get basic medicines on the black market and many hospitals just didn’t have gloves, masks or even running water. We lost my dad in just 3 weeks — and all of that was before the novel coronavirus.

“I won’t let this happen again,” I said to myself this March. My siblings and I had to get Mami out of Venezuela.

The country has been on the brink for a while.

The International Monetary Fund estimated that Venezuela’s inflation rate would hit 10 million percent by the end of last year. Since the drop in oil prices — the country’s main source of revenue — began in February of this year, the crisis has spun out of control, its effects getting worse by the day. Lines for gas are now so long that some doctors have to ride their bikes to get to the emergency room. In a video circulating on twitter, a doctor pleaded with the military to help them get gas. “We’ve been in line for up to two days,” he says. “We’re the soldiers now.”

Little is known about the actual spread of the coronavirus in Venezuela; the government claims there are only 357 cases nationwide as of May 5, though the United Nations describes it as one of the countries most vulnerable to the disease due to the lack of sanitation and its collapsed health care system. Critics question those figures — especially since, according to the opposition leader and National Assembly President Juan Guaidó, the country only performs 100 COVID-19 tests per day. (Neighboring Colombia is doing 17,000 tests a day.)

What’s worse, the ongoing humanitarian crisis is compounded by a shamelessly corrupt new revolutionary elite that didn’t think the virus had anything to do with them.

In an Instagram post from March 21, Jesus Amoroso — the son of dictator Nicolas Maduro’s top anti-corruption official — posed in front of a luxury SUV while giving the finger. The caption read: “If I have it… If I don’t… suck it, gossipers.” He then posted a video rapping: “I’m enjoying it ‘cause I can.” In 2017, his father Elvis Amoroso was sanctioned by the U.S. Department of the Treasury for alleged corruption and undermining democracy.

Amoroso Jr.’s post was a response to news reports which revealed he hosted an island party on the white sand beaches of Los Roques, an archipelago off the coast of Venezuela (where George H.W. Bush once famously fished) on the same week when I was trying to get my mom out. By then, news of the pandemic and what it could do to the country’s depleted health system were widely known. People watched online as the offspring of Venezuela’s rulers cheered bikini-clad women — with cigarettes, luxury handbags and cellphones in hand — twerking on the beach to house music.

There were drugs, specifically psychedelic 2C-B drugs or pink cocaine, known as “tusi” (which is also a local nickname for high level Venezuelan models and prostitutes, some flown in from Europe, then a pandemic hot spot, for the festivities). Famous reggaeton artists Zion, Justin Quiles, Noriel, Nakary and Kevvo were also seen on the tiny island with Amoroso (although Zion later said they were only there to shoot a music video). The virus, of course, was there, too.

Maduro recently admitted that around 20 cases of COVID-19 emerged after the island party, and that the revelers even infected some of the local population of 1,500, who are dependent on tourism. There’s only one outpatient clinic in Los Roques that can hold a maximum of 20 people; contagion there would be catastrophic. He said the government was forced to bring those sickened by the virus to the mainland.

It wouldn’t be the last party. The island posse then flew to Caracas and continued the spree. Videos showed an international DJ, “Cuky” (who is originally from Morocco), in front of a mixing board on a balcony with the backdrop of the Avila mountains. Apparently, 18 people were arrested, including the DJ, who has since closed her Instagram account.

And yet it didn’t end there. Nine people were arrested April 23 in Caracas, after a third so-called #CoronavirusParty hosted by yet other figures of the new bourgeoisie. Beauty queens from the Miss Venezuela and Miss Earth Venezuela pageants were among the invitees of the latest event. (The organizations behind both put out press releases barring them from competition and taking their crowns, respectively.)

To Venezuelans, none of this is surprising. For years, Maduro and his inner circle have amassed enormous wealth while Venezuela just became one of five countries most at risk from famine, according to the latest report from the World Food Programme.

Ironically, the country’s geographical isolation may have actually curbed the spread of the virus, since such few flights were already coming in and out of the country to begin with. But, when, not if, it does spread, it’ll be due to the negligence and corruption of those in the highest echelons of power.

The U.S. government charged Maduro and some of his senior government officials on March 26 with drug trafficking and conspiring with terrorists. But if President Donald Trump will make a wider move on Venezuela remains to be seen.

With a refugee crisis, a crumbled health system, ongoing power outages and a hunger-stricken population, Venezuela had become a failed narcostate that could destabilize the whole region ... and then along came the coronavirus.

My family and I became determined to get my mother out of there and to safety.

After dozens of frantic phone calls, a friend was able to secure a spot for Mami on a chartered flight to Grenada, a small island-nation in the Caribbean, on Mar. 17. From there she’d be able to fly to Miami, where my sister and I live.

Midflight, however, the Maduro government issued a nationwide shutdown of the entire airspace, including private aircrafts. We breathed sighs of relief upon learning that her plane was already flying over international waters — but it meant the pilot couldn’t go back home.

She was probably among the last people to leave Venezuela during the pandemic. When she finally made it to the United States, we worried she could have gotten infected on the flight over — and surprised by the fact that no health inspection was conducted upon her entry (or anyone else’s in that last commercial flight) into the U.S. Thankfully, she didn’t have any symptoms.

As I finally spotted her outside the airport terminal, I felt the tears rolling down my cheeks. It was a bittersweet reunion, though. We still don’t know what will become of our cousins, our aunts and uncles, our childhood amigos or millions of other people who lack the most basic sanitation and medical care. We got Mami out, but everyone else is still suffering in a ticking time bomb scenario managed by a few corrupt individuals who can’t go one weekend without a party.

My dad already died from one virus. We still have time to save people from this one. The #CoronavirusParty of insolence and corruption must stop. Now.