A few days ago, a text message arrived on the cellphones of some of the pensioners signed up to Sistema Patria (or Homeland System), a platform created four years ago by Nicolás Maduro’s government to distribute pension payments. On this occasion the message was not to alert recipients to a fresh deposit, but instead to inform them that they had been selected in a lottery to receive a Covid-19 vaccine shot. Under an awning in one of the main streets of Las Mercedes, an industrial zone in eastern Caracas, 500 senior citizens lined up for a Sputnik V dose on April 9 with little regard for social distancing. The initiative was overseen by the legislative assembly of this district, which is controlled by the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). All of those in attendance, the organizers confirmed, had gathered there after receiving these unexpected text messages.
In this random way, Venezuela rolled out its vaccination program for senior citizens, the section of society most vulnerable to coronavirus as the country faces a second and more severe wave of infections. There are few doses available due to the government’s delays in accessing the COVAX facility (a multilateral initiative that aims to guarantee an equitable distribution of vaccines among low- and middle-income countries). As things stand, the only vaccine that is in the pipeline is Abdala, a Cuba-designed shot that Maduro has announced Venezuela will start producing. In view of these obstacles, alarms bells have sounded over the use of Sistema Patria to distribute the few vaccines the country has managed to procure. The system provides Chavism with leverage for social and political control, the ability to monitor loyalty in elections and to distribute scant resources in a country that has shed 70% of its gross domestic product (GDP) over the past seven years and where 94% of the population live below the poverty line.
This uncertainty surrounding the vaccination program is also mirrored in Sistema Patria, a digital platform linked to the carné de la patria or homeland card, a national identity document introduced by Maduro in 2017. The government has been adding subscribers to this database by offering the carrot of bonos or financial aid for struggling citizens, which also operates as a form of lottery: some people receive the transfers, others do not and nobody knows exactly what the criteria for allocation is.
The government claims to have 18 million Venezuelans registered on Sistema Patria in a country of almost 28 million inhabitants. Practically everybody of retirement age is enrolled: Venezuela has around 4.5 million people aged 60 or over with the right to a state pension. However, the not-for-profit organization Convite, which distributes humanitarian aid among this part of the population, says that some 10% of Venezuelans are not on the platform as they lack cellphones or cell coverage, both requirements to access the system, or because they did not want to apply for a homeland card.
Luis Cabezas, Convite’s director, states that “one cannot be against the fact that vaccination has finally started, albeit with significant delays. But by using Sistema Patria as a delivery mechanism you are leaving out people without cellphones or computers, or who live in areas with no coverage or who simply didn’t want to sign up.”
Several sectors of civil society – epidemiologists, doctors, academics, NGOs, human rights activists and opponents of Maduro – have criticized linking access to vaccines to this database, which does not include the whole of Venezuela’s population. Rafael Uzcátegui, director of the not-for-profit Provea, has said that the World Health Organization (WHO) should ensure that vaccination programs are transparent and non-discriminatory. “Even in the cruelest dictatorships there is no discrimination over who should be able to receive a vaccine,” opposition leader Juan Guaidó has observed.
The vaccination of medical personnel has also been beset by delays and opacity. In the same week that senior citizens selected by Sistema Patria started to receive their shots, the police dispersed healthcare professionals waiting to receive a vaccine at Vargas Hospital in Caracas. The same scene was played out this week in La Guaira. The government has failed to present a national vaccination plan that would allow every section of the population to know when their turn is scheduled, neither have details been provided on how the rollout is progressing based on technical and epidemiological criteria. Venezuela has one of the highest fatality rates among healthcare workers in the world: 468 have died of Covid-19 over the past year.
The discriminatory nature of Sistema Patria is even more evident when salaries are taken into account. Senior citizens who are not registered on the platform receive 1.8 million bolívares per month, equivalent to slightly more than half a US dollar. Those that are registered are eligible for an extra monthly payment of three million bolívares – the so-called “bonus against the economic war” – which gives recipients a total monthly payment of just under $2.
Beatriz Sambrano, 71, decided to remain off the grid. “I’ve never wanted to sign up because it seems to me to be a mechanism for coercion. They ask you a load of questions and I don’t know what they do with that information. A few years ago, when they came to my workplace to register people, they told me that if I didn’t sign up, I wouldn’t eat,” says the engineer, who has spent her entire career working in the public sector and survives through the remittances her family sends. Her brother César, by contrast, did register but he has encountered problems receiving his payments. There have been people who have complained of identity theft within the system, or who have had their accounts blocked, or who have said the money has never arrived. People who have had issues with the system usually have to go to PSUV party workers who “scan the card and check the ID number” to get the subsidies flowing again.
The Sistema Patria is a virtual entity with no physical offices on which many Venezuelans depend for food. Through the platform, the government has been able to compile a database of socio-economic information on those who benefit from social programs. It has also been used to carry out surveys and to detect possible cases of Covid-19. A slogan from the late former president, Hugo Chávez, greets users on the homepage of the application. Once signed in, they are asked if they would like to take part in the Bicentennial Congress of the Peoples, an event run by the PSUV.
As well as senior citizens, practically all public sector workers are registered on the system. Through the platform, they randomly receive monthly or weekly bonuses provided by the government, which in many cases can represent the doubling or trebling of their salaries.
The system was used in 2019 to distribute a Christmas bonus to public sector workers in the form of petros – the cryptocurrency created by Maduro – which many could not cash in due to conversion failures in a glitch-ridden virtual wallet that is not universally accepted in shops. The government has also lured private sector workers to sign up to the system when compensation was offered to businesses after the currency conversion to the sovereign bolívar in 2018 and during the coronavirus crisis in 2020. Those who wish to pay subsidized rates for gasoline also have to be registered. There is a special registry within the platform for “tweeters of the homeland,” where social media users are remunerated for tagging or posting content favorable to the government.
In March, the platform reached universities, schools and all public sector organizations, with salaries now disbursed via this system. During the payroll for the first half of the month there were complaints from teachers and university professors that they had received less than they should have done. “This implies more centralization and greater control over a matter as sensitive as workers’ salaries,” says the economist Aaron Olmos. “And it increases the potential for faults, mistakes and errors. Sistema Patria is an entity without a visible face, which leaves the door open for the discretionary management of the system.”
English version by Rob Train.