For Venezuelan academics, speaking out is risky business Government attacks some, snares many in red tape By Lizzie Wade



hen Ángel Sarmiento discovered that eight patients had died of an unidentified fever in less than 2 weeks in Maracay, the capital of Aragua state in Venezuela, he did what he was supposed to do: sound the alarm. In a press conference on 11 September, the president of Aragua’s College of Physicians revealed the spate of deaths and declared, “We don’t know what we’re facing.” But instead of applauding Sarmiento, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro accused the physician in a televised speech on 17 September of fomenting “psychological terrorism” and instructed his attorney general to open a case against him. Sarmiento fled the country a few days later. The episode continues to reverberate in Venezuela, where intellectuals consider it a signal of the central government’s disdain for science and the medical establishment. “What they want is to silence all of us,” says Feder Álvarez, a pediatrician and secretary of Aragua’s College of Physicians. “They’re not just persecuting Ángel. They’re persecuting the medical community.” Scientists, too, feel beleaguered. Objectivity and critical thinking—key values of science—“are very much at odds with the prevailing winds” in Venezuela, says Ricardo Hausmann, a Venezuelan economist who teaches at Harvard University. Last month, Hausmann found himself accused by Maduro, again on national television, of conspiring against the government after publishing a

syndicated op-ed about the country’s dire economic straits titled “Should Venezuela Default?” Hausmann worries that if he were to return to Venezuela, he could face months or years in prison, even before standing trial. Within the country, scientists must cope with byzantine rules. The central government wants “control over every step” of an experiment, says a university-based molecular biologist who requested anonymity. For ecological fieldwork, collecting areas must be strictly specified in advance. For experiments of any sort, researchers must fill out forms every 6 months articulating the progress they’ve made toward predetermined goals, with little flexibility to follow new threads, the biologist laments. Whenever scientists want to sequence nonhuman DNA, they must apply for permission from the country’s environment ministry in the form of a contract for access to genetic resources. The government says that the requirement protects Venezuela’s biodiversity and indigenous knowledge from capitalist exploitation. “Out of 11 contracts I’ve applied for, they’ve granted two,” the biologist says. Because phylogenetics and other evolutionary studies require sequencing many related organisms, such studies are little more than pipe dreams for scientists at Venezuelan universities. “I have to decide,” the biologist says, “am I willing to spend my entire life filling out forms, asking permission, waiting for years, and in the end still be subject to the latent threat of fines or imprisonment if I access genetic resources I didn’t originally ask per-


mission for?” Sequencing human DNA is simpler, however, requiring no official permission. That opens the way to certain kinds of medical diagnostics and other tests—and may also make it easier for the central government to maintain a forensic database, the biologist says. Some observers trace the persecution of scientists to the populist government’s distrust of intellectuals. “The authority that comes from knowledge tends to be stubborn and irreverent, so [in Maduro’s eyes] it’s better that it’s crushed,” Hausmann says. Since Sarmiento left the country, the Aragua outbreak has come into sharper focus. Last month, three doctors affiliated with the Central University of Venezuela announced that the unidentified fever is chikungunya, a mosquito-borne disease that is spreading in the Americas. “There is no mystery here,” says Gustavo Villasmil, health minister of the state of Miranda. Weeks ago, he says, an independent lab confirmed that six of the first eight patients who succumbed to the fever tested positive for chikungunya. Because the disease has a mortality rate of about one in 1000, those fatalities are likely the “tip of the iceberg” of a widespread outbreak in Venezuela, says Julio Castro, health minister of the municipality of Sucre. “We’re hoping there will come a moment when the central government understands that there’s no sense in denying the situation,” Villasmil says. Hausmann is pessimistic: “They don’t perceive [the epidemic] as a problem of public health. They perceive it as a problem of public opinion.” As of 14 October, chikungunya infections and deaths were not being reported in the federal health ministry’s weekly epidemiological bulletin. Villasmil, a member of the political opposition who has stated boldly and publicly that Venezuela is in the throes of a chikungunya epidemic, says he can’t help looking over his shoulder. “Here, you can never really calm down,” he says. “That’s the problem with police states.” ■ 17 OCTOBER 2014 • VOL 346 ISSUE 6207

Published by AAAS


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Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro took to the airwaves last month to accuse a physician of “psychological terrorism.”

Scientific Community. For Venezuelan academics, speaking out is risky business.

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