July 9, 2017
Written by Stephanie Nolen
This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail.
Juan Coronel was so thin that his kneecaps jutted out like tent poles in his sweatpants. He was 39 when I met him a few weeks ago, with reddish-brown hair that clung to his scalp like a baby’s and deep hollows below his cheekbones. His voice was soft and raspy, and he seemed dazed at his own fragility. “I need to go and look for medicine,” he said, “but I’m having trouble getting around.”
I had not seen a person who looked like Mr. Coronel – a person dying of untreated AIDS – since I covered the pandemic in Africa at its height more than a decade ago. In fact, there is nowhere in the world today where people are dying of AIDS at the pace and in the sheer numbers that they are in Venezuela: Even the poorest African countries today have HIV treatment programs. They still don’t reach everyone, and people are still dying, or getting treatment only after they become very ill – they may come to look as Mr. Coronel did when I met him. But in other countries, they are the exception. Today, in Venezuela, his case is the rule.
Back when I was covering the African epidemic, Venezuela was invoked with admiration: This country has had free, public treatment for HIV since 1999. Its AIDS program was a model for countries throughout the developing world. Venezuela’s socialist government imported affordable generic drugs from India, challenged the patent monopolies of Western pharmaceutical companies and targeted marginalized communities, including sex workers, gay men and transgender people for free condom distribution – while most other countries were still grappling with the shame of HIV.