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Innovation in Times of Blockade

VA columnist Jessica Dos Santos delivers the first of a series of columns showcasing scientific advances in Venezuela amidst US sanctions.
Jessica Dos Santos innovation
Some scientific breakthroughs may lead to tremendous advances for the Venezuelan people. (Venezuelanalysis)

A few weeks ago, after nearly five years away from the public sector, I accepted an offer to co-produce and run a podcast for the Ministry of Science and Technology.

I admit that I was curious to find out the latest about the work dynamics in the State sector. When I left, not only were we going through the toughest times in economic, political and social terms, but there didn’t seem to be any realistic way out.

In this particular ministry, lunch, transportation and some kind of medical attention are often assured, as well as improved incomes, even if in the form of “bonuses” and not wages. There is a visible concern about holding on to qualified staff in a public sector decimated by years of crisis. The situation may vary in other state institutions, and most of the rank-and-file staff still have to get by in very tough conditions.

At the same time, Science and Technology Minister Gabriela Jiménez has built a good reputation (far from easy in present times) as a serious and knowledgeable person in her field.

What put an end to any lingering doubts was my passion for these subjects: science, technology, culture, education and women. Not just that, what did the picture look like amidst this non-stop US-led economic warfare?

If you ask me, these are some of the most political subjects you can find. But they should, at the same time, be the least affected by partisan biases. Whether it’s due to naivete or patriotism, I still believe that the right, center and left should be equally happy when a group of Venezuelan scientists or artists achieve a breakthrough or win any kind of recognition.

My challenge was then to find a compelling communicational angle, especially now on the eve of a presidential election, where all sorts of communications become swamped by propaganda in the worst sense of the term.

I confess that, in these first few weeks, I’ve been completely in awe of what I’ve discovered. And so, dear readers, in this column and subsequent ones I’ll be sharing some of these inspiring and little-known stories.

In a mere six episodes we’ve recorded, I’ve come to know of Venezuelans doing what we’ve all been forced to: finding ways to survive, being creative, coming together, building solidarity amidst all the obstacles caused by sanctions, questionable government policies or the lack of will of the private sector.

But what fascinates me the most are the implications these advances may have, the benefits they can generate for our people and the entire country. For example, there’s a group of marine biologists that have built an alliance with fishermen so that by combining theory and practice they can revert the effects of climate change and trigger the return of the elusive tuna.

Another case I’ve gotten to know in detail involves experimental biologists working with a biotech firm to create a microorganism-based agricultural inoculum that can lead to bigger crop yields at lower costs. This could have massive benefits for campesinos in terms of freeing them from the dependence on the technological packages supplied by the likes of Monsanto and Bayer, a key factor in the rise of production costs in recent times.

There are no innovations more important than others, but there is no doubt that healthcare has been a heavily affected sector in Venezuela. Everyone who has had to deal with a sick relative knows about the odyssey to find adequate care in local hospitals and the huge expenses to secure the required medicines.

In talking to several officials from the health sector, I realized that it’s no exaggeration to say that sanctions affect any and all aspects of our daily lives. There were endless tales about the obstacle courses to import chemical reagents or equipment.

One of the most serious cases was the shortage of tungsten filaments that were acquired in 2019 to service microscopes. However, Thermo Fisher Scientific, in spite of having signed a contract, simply refused to ship the parts after having forced several officials to sign documents pledging not to use them for “bioterrorism” purposes. 

This field was so devastated that in September 2022, UN Special Rapporteur Alena Douhan denounced how the restrictions on spare part imports severely hampered the diagnostic equipment in use, which hurt the most fundamental human rights. 

For thousands of people, these delays are the difference between life and death. The estimate is that 40,000 people died between 2017 and 2018 as a result of these criminal coercive measures. The Venezuelan state was no longer able to continue with the (free) treatment of 80,000 HIV patients, 16,000 cancer patients and more than 4 million suffering from diabetes and hypertension. There was no way to secure insulin and heart medicines.

Simultaneously, there was also a brain drain, both through the dire economic conditions and an overwhelming propaganda campaign. The result was most research projects grinding to a halt, a situation that is now changing little by little.

That’s why some of these stories fill me with hope as I see people who are deeply committed, pushing forward even with little funding for research. A couple of years ago, amidst the pandemic, mixed teams of scientists and technicians managed to reactivate hundreds of key machines, especially incubators, that were out of service waiting for imports that never arrived.

And the episode I’m preparing right now is incredible too: doctors have developed a fetal surgery program that is the leading one in Latin America. With efforts and techniques made in Venezuela, they have managed to tackle genetic malformations such as spina bifida in fetuses under 24 weeks in a much less intrusive way. 

There is also a team doing magical stuff with stem cells. The applications in cases of serious burns or fractures are truly revolutionary.

These news, which do not mean ignoring the existing difficulties, hardly feature in the media or on social networks. For some it’s easier to resign themselves that global warming is destroying the eastern seas, that we have no money to import fertilizers and equipment, instead of showing what is being done about it.

Or even worse, some political groups will say that there is nothing to be done, lest one “collaborate” with the “regime,” because what the country needs is “change.” Never mind if this change involves more suffering for everyone or, even worse, a foreign intervention.

Venezuela is a blockaded country, and sometimes a small step can feel like a marathon in normal circumstances. And believing in the common good, in finding solutions for problems that affect everyone, is what will drive us forward.

In summary, doing the podcast was a good idea. I’ve been reminded of everything we’re capable of, I’ve recovered the enthusiasm that some are so hell-bent on stealing from us. Venezuela is alive and kicking.

Jessica Dos Santos is a Venezuelan university professor, journalist and writer whose work has appeared in outlets such as RT, Épale CCS magazine and Investig’Action. She is the author of the book “Caracas en Alpargatas” (2018). She’s won the Aníbal Nazoa Journalism Prize in 2014 and received honorable mentions in the Simón Bolívar National Journalism prize in 2016 and 2018.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.

Translated by Venezuelanalysis.