(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Why the Venezuelan opposition’s high-stakes aid gamble must pay off

    There is suddenly a whole new level of anxiety in the humanitarian community over the plight of Venezuela.


    On top of longstanding concerns over chronic shortages of food and medicine reaching the country, there’s now real worry about the increasingly blatant politicisation of aid, as the internationally backed opposition movement puts efforts to bring humanitarian supplies into the country at the centre of its messaging strategy against the regime.


    Concerns of a humanitarian circus aren’t being helped by Richard Branson’s “Venezuela Aid” concert – a Live Aid-style extravaganza to be held in Cúcuta, just across the Colombian border on Friday. The concert, bringing together some of Latin Pop’s biggest stars, adds a bizarre touch to a complex political-military-humanitarian picture that, some worry, could easily descend into civil war.

    It’s clear that the opposition leaders lined up behind Juan Guaidó are using humanitarian aid chiefly as a political tool.

    It’s clear that the opposition leaders lined up behind Juan Guaidó are using humanitarian aid chiefly as a political tool – one aimed squarely at Venezuela’s military establishment for the purpose of getting them to turn on President Nicolás Maduro’s government. Guaidó, who is now recognised as interim president by most of the western hemisphere and Europe but doesn’t control the military, wants to make it crystal clear to them that if they abandon Maduro the rest of the world is ready and able to move quickly to bring desperately needed food and medicine into the country.


    The politics here are smart: Guaidó has skillfully pushed Maduro into the hugely unpopular position of having to reject help for people in desperate need. Guaidó is calculating that the move will eventually lead to a mass military defection, and there is good reason to think that – in purely political terms at least – it might well succeed.


    However, none of this is likely to assuage concerns in the humanitarian community, which is aghast at the way aid has been turned into little more than just another weapon in the bitter and longrunning struggle for power in Caracas.


    On a fundamental level, the humanitarian community can never be seen to violate its principle of political neutrality: even if the opposition tactic does prove effective (which is a long way from a given), for the aid sector to back it would set a precedent that stores up any amount of trouble for the future. The International Committee of the Red Cross has already bowed out of the border aid operation – being led by Colombia and the United States – over these concerns. This is only natural.


    But concern about the showdown and the Cúcuta concert goes beyond a general reticence to politicise aid. The larger problem is that when aid becomes this politicised, there's no room left for a realistic assessment of Venezuela's humanitarian needs.


    On 14 February, for instance, the Organization of American States regional body held a highly politicised donors’ conference in Washington, D.C. that ended with much self-congratulatory talk of “$100 million in new pledges” of humanitarian aid to Venezuela.

    The number raised eyebrows for several reasons. First, the OAS didn’t publish a detailed breakdown of exactly who pledged what and for when, sowing seeds of doubt about how solid or serious the pledges are. Second, no monitoring, evaluation, or control mechanism of any kind was announced – which, again, can only lead the cynical to doubt how serious the whole enterprise is.


    And finally – and most seriously – the $100 million amount is completely out of proportion with even the most conservative estimates of the scale of need in Venezuela. Optimistic predictions of the impact of recent US oil sanctions alone suggest the country’s food imports will drop $120 million per month, and that is from inadequate levels that already saw three in four Venezuelans lose body weight due to hunger last year. And that’s just food, not to mention medicine, other supplies, fuel, etc.

    It could be remembered as the prelude to a catastrophe on a scale that the western hemisphere hasn’t seen in decades.

    In order to make a dent in the real humanitarian needs Venezuelans face, the OAS would have to hold that same donor conference once every three weeks or so for the foreseeable future. Even then, if the aid continued to be held up at the border, it would do no good.


    The basic message here is that aid-as-politics turns out to be incompatible with aid-as-aid in the Venezuelan context. If Guaidó’s strategy pans out and delivers a knockout blow to the Maduro regime in the near future, paving the way for large-scale relief efforts under a new government, it will be hailed as a masterstroke. But if it fails and the Maduro clique manages to entrench itself in power, it could be remembered as the prelude to a catastrophe on a scale that the western hemisphere hasn’t seen in decades.


    What is clear is that the Venezuelan opposition – alongside powerful allies in the United States, Colombia, Brazil, and Europe – has chosen an exceptionally risky approach without a credible Plan B. For Venezuelans’ sake, we can only hope it works.


    Why the Venezuelan opposition’s high-stakes aid gamble must pay off
  • Briefing: Haiti’s new crisis and the humanitarian risks

    The last decade has been cruel to Haiti: one of the world’s deadliest ever earthquakes struck in 2010; cholera, brought in accidentally by UN peacekeepers, then ravaged the country for years afterwards, claiming at least 10,000 lives; and, in October 2016, Hurricane Matthew wiped out 90 percent of buildings along the southern coast at an estimated cost of $1.9 billion.


    The Caribbean country is now gripped by deadly protests over allegations of government corruption and the crippling effects of stubbornly high inflation – protests that could bring down President Jovenel Moïse and have already plunged the nation of 11 million people into renewed uncertainty.


    ☰ Read more: Haiti’s changing fortunes


    Haiti, which shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic to the east, has a proud history – a successful revolution against French rule culminated in the formation of the world’s first black republic in 1804.


    But since three decades of brutal Duvalier dictatorship ended in 1986, its more recent past has been marked by revolts, coups, natural disasters, questionable military and foreign interventions, and political mismanagement.


    Over the course of a few decades, Haiti went from being a booming (if short-lived) tourist destination, and a large exporter of food and other goods, to a failed economic state that has to import more than 80 percent of its rice at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars a year.


    According to the World Bank, 59 percent of Haiti’s population lives below the poverty line (on less than $2.41 a day), and almost one in four in extreme poverty (less than $1.23 a day). Only a quarter of Haitians have access to electricity. The country has an official unemployment rate of 30 percent, but the real figure is believed to be higher.


    “Haitians want to work, but they can’t find jobs,” said Haitian economist Eddy Labossière, calling in particular for a better loan system for the country’s farmers. It is very difficult for Haitians to get credit to help start or build businesses – 80 percent of loans given out by the banks go to just 10 percent of borrowers.


    Clarens Renois, a former journalist who is now the president of the National Union for Integration and Reconciliation, or UNIR, a centre-left opposition party, called for dialogue and said he didn’t think it wise for Moïse to resign without a plan in place.


    “There are many players,” Renois said. “You have the private sector; in the past you had the military; you have the international community playing into it; and, of course, the Haitian politicians.”


    Haitians use democracy to protest in the streets, he said, but they can’t even find food to feed their children. “I think we’re in a really big crisis,” Renois said. “Even if schools reopen and things return to normal, you will still have to address this in the next three to six months.”


    One of the most vulnerable countries to extreme weather events, Haiti has long had chronic problems trying to feed its population. In December, the UN’s World Food Programme stated that “between March and June 2019, it is projected that 2.6 million people will be acutely food insecure, including 571,000 in a food emergency.”


    But the current political and economic crisis, aid officials are warning, will only worsen the humanitarian prognosis for what is already the poorest country in the western hemisphere.


    Why did protests erupt?

    A report published in 2017 by the Haitian Senate accused dozens of government officials and heads of private firms of embezzling $2 billion from Petrocaribe – a cut-price-oil aid programme Venezuela offers to several Caribbean countries. According to the Miami Herald, the report listed a firm Moïse owns as a beneficiary of funds from a road construction project that never had a signed contract.


    The funds were supposed to go to infrastructure development and health, education, and social programmes. The allegations fed into existing questions about what successive governments had to show for some $9 billion in foreign aid since the 2010 earthquake, even though little of it went directly to the Haitian government of Haitian firms.

    Demonstrations over a 40 percent hike in fuel prices in July 2018 marked the beginning of the current unrest. Then, on 14 August, Haitian filmmaker and writer Gilbert Mirambeau Jr. posted a photo of himself on social media holding a sign asking where the PetroCaribe funds had gone, hashtag #PetroCaribeChallenge.


    The tweet quickly went viral, inspiring both the Haitian youth and the Haitian diaspora. Black banners started being draped above streets in the capital, Port-au-Prince, asking “Kot Kòb Petwo Karibe a?” or “Where is the PetroCaribe money?”

    Pascale Solages, a spokeswoman for the PetroCaribe Challenge, said the movement is inspiring everyone to rise up and speak out against corruption. “We need to have investigations,” she told IRIN. “The people who are accused need to go on trial; we need to have justice.”


    When did the violence start?


    The movement began peacefully, attracting thousands of protesters demanding greater government accountability. However, as it grew, opposition politicians became involved and different agendas came into play. The first clashes were reported in October and November.



    A stack of tires on fire at a petrol station as protesters march behind
    Jessica Obert/IRIN
    Nationwide protests at the PetroCaribe scandal were held on 17 October, Dessalines Day – a holiday honouring a Haitian independence hero.


    Frustration over corruption but also over inflation, gas shortages, and failed government promises to introduce 24-hour electricity and boost agricultural production came to a head on 7 February when the opposition began a series of protests dubbed “Operation Lockdown Haiti”, marching on the presidential palace, and blocking the road to the airport.

    Some protesters burned cars and looted as the security situation deteriorated. At least nine people have been killed and dozens injured in 10 days of protests that also saw 78 detainees escape from a prison in Aquin, a town in southern Haiti.


    President Moïse didn’t address the nation until last Thursday, a week after the protests started. He called for the country to stand behind him, saying he wouldn’t resign to armed gangs and drug dealers. The US Embassy released a statement shortly after the address, supporting Moïse but urging his government to crack down on corruption and find those responsible for the missing PetroCaribe funds.


    Protests continued after Moïse’s speech and into the weekend, but the streets have been calmer since Sunday even while uncertainty remains.


    What are the humanitarian needs?


    High inflation for several years, recently exceeding 15 percent, has made it ever more difficult for most Haitians to buy the bare necessities and feed their families. A few months ago one US dollar was equivalent to roughly 71 gourdes. It has now risen to nearly 85. One small can of rice used to cost 35 gourdes. Now, it costs 60.


    Hospitals in the capital reported being besieged during the protests, unable to get doctors or patients in, let alone medicines, although one doctor told CNN: “To be honest this is normal for this hospital – we don't have medicines, we don't have any working equipment.”

    "Generally speaking there is food available, it’s just that people don’t have the cash to buy anything."


    WFP supported a national analysis in December that found “a significant deterioration of food security and the nutritional situation of rural households”. It said 2.2 million Haitians were facing acute food insecurity, including 386,000 in a food emergency.


    Jessica Pearl, country director of Mercy Corps, explained how most people in Haiti live on the margins, so her organisation works to build their resilience and leave them less dependent on foreign aid.


    “In the humanitarian community, we try to distribute cash instead of food so that people can support the local economy, and the cash circulates in the local economy,” she told IRIN. “In the areas where the food is not available, there would be some distribution of food that is handled by the UN World Food Programme. Generally speaking there is food available, it’s just that people don’t have the cash to buy anything. This will be the largest challenge for people.”


    What are the risks ahead?


    Pearl warned that the situation was now likely to get worse. “We were already in a difficult food security situation, and there were already plans underway to provide food assistance to a large number of people across the country,” she said. “So that need hasn’t gone away and if anything it’s probably been exacerbated.”


    The WFP prediction for March-June represents an almost 50 percent increase in those with “food emergency” status in just a few months.


    For Mercy Corps and other aid agencies, as well as any government response efforts, the volatility and unpredictability of the demonstrations makes it difficult to move safely through the streets, particularly in the overcrowded capital. This has prevented the delivery of water and fuel, and the restocking of markets.


    According to the Miami Herald, aid groups have been unclear whether the situation is even safe enough to enter Haiti.

    “We want the price of goods to go down and for the possibility to find work. We just want the country to function well.”

    In the countryside, Haitians are often dependent on gas and food coming overland from the Dominican Republic. The economic crisis has meant trucks have had difficulty providing diesel to stations outside the capital, and roadblocks have disrupted trade.


    Kesner Pharel, a Harvard graduate and economist in Haiti, warned that continued political instability would hit the economy hard as renewed calm will be needed to draw back in some foreign investment and make the devalued gourde more competitive.


    “If you look at the last 10 months, you see the riots in July, a big strike in October, one week of strikes in November, and now the country has been closed for more than a week. It’s a big shock for the economic supply,” Pharel said. “If you aren’t creating wealth, how can you solve unemployment? Where are you getting the money to buy?”


    A mother and daughter sit on a bed as light from the window falls on them
    Jessica Obert/IRIN
    Kessia Madocher and her eight-year-old daughter inside their home in Turgeau. Water and other basic essentials are becoming increasingly scarce after protests have gripped Haiti for the past two weeks.


    What do ordinary Haitians think?


    On the steep hillside in the Turgeau neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, you can almost convince yourself that all is well below. However, Kessia Madocher, 31, struggles to find drinking water and food for her daughter and four brothers and sisters.

    Normally, she’d be able to send her water canisters down the hill on a motorcycle. Now, she has to walk long distances to stand in long lines with no guarantee of getting any. Madocher has resorted to buying water from neighbours’ rain basins – used normally for bathing – and treating it with clorox. Since the unrest, she says they’ve had to cut back on food and water.


    Savanel St. Jour works as a motorcycle driver in the capital. He took part in the most recent protests and says Moïse must go because no one can trust what he says any longer.


    Madocher isn’t so sure. A friend of hers was killed last week in the demonstrations, and she says she’s afraid to leave her home to look for food and can’t send her daughter to school.

    “Jovenel didn’t say anything of substance,” Madocher says. “He didn’t speak for us or about the missing money people are protesting about. He’s speaking for the rich people that are with him.”


    Madocher leaves an empty cup used to measure rice on the table in her house. Gallons of empty jugs of water are piled up in the corner of the room. She wants the country to change, but in a way that all Haitians feel the impact. “We want the price of goods to go down and for the possibility to find work,” she says. “We just want the country to function well.”

    (TOP PHOTO: Protesters demonstrate in anger at the PetroCaribe scandal. CREDIT: Jessica Obert/IRIN)


    “We just want the country to function well”
    Briefing: Haiti’s new crisis and the humanitarian risks
  • In Libya, hard economic times force migrant workers to look elsewhere

    The well-worn description of migrants in Libya is of desperate people trapped in hellish detention centres trying to get to Europe. But many come for work, and some return multiple times despite the dangers posed by people smugglers, armed gangs, or merciless employers.


    After years of civil conflict and political mismanagement, oil-rich Libya is on the verge of economic collapse. It can hardly look after its own financially struggling citizens, let alone its migrant workforce, who have become vulnerable to extortion, kidnapping, and other abuses.


    Philip Badou, a Ghanaian pastor who has lived in Tripoli for the past 25 years and has a mostly migrant congregation there, said Libya’s downward spiral has made life so bad for migrant workers that some longtime residents of the capital are leaving.


    “Libya always provided many opportunities for Africans, and they just weren’t interested in going to Europe before because they could make good money here,” said Badou. “This big problem with migration has really only started since 2011.”


    This was the year Muammar Gaddafi was ousted. Under his rule, Libya had depended on a large migrant workforce; his 42 years in power marked by a reliance on oil revenues and the handing out to citizens of public sector jobs that required little actual work.

    “Libya always provided many opportunities for Africans, and they just weren’t interested in going to Europe before because they could make good money here.”

    The UN estimates there are currently some 670,000 migrants and refugees in Libya, including 56,455 currently registered with the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and another 6,200 in detention centres across the country.


    It’s not clear what proportion of those people are in the country solely to work, but it is still a mostly sub-Saharan African workforce that unloads cargo ships, tends to farmland, restocks shelves, operates most aspects of construction and demolition, and manages rubbish and street clearance. There are also Syrian and Ukrainian doctors and dentists, Indian and Iraqi teachers, Filipino nurses and oil workers, and Eastern European engineers.


    ‘They had rights’


    Some migrant workers in Libya manage to get regular employment, but for most it is more of a struggle.


    Across the country, many congregate at roadside points each morning, waiting for prospective employers. They can make up to 650 or 700 Libyan dinars per month – the average salary a Libyan in a state sector job makes – but their jobs are insecure and can be dangerous.


    Migrant workers say they are often held up at gunpoint for their wages after a day’s work, if they are paid at all. Some foreigners are abducted off the streets and forced to work for free.


    “One of my Nigerien workers went missing, and when I called his phone it was answered by a Libyan who had basically abducted the worker because he wanted a large farm area cleaned for free,” said Farouq, a Libyan who runs a beach resort in Misrata.


    The kidnapping of foreigners for extortion is a common practice in some parts of the country, including the southern town of Sebha, a hub for the smuggling of goods and people. One church in Tripoli, which has an all migrant congregation, reported using most of its collections in 2016 to pay ransoms to free its members, although less so in the past two years.


    Even foreigners who have been in Libya for several years have no legal resource. The country has multiple militias competing for power and no real police force with any quantifiable power, but also few migrant workers have official documents and there are few functioning embassies where they can be renewed.

    This is a change from the Gaddafi years, according to 28-year-old Libyan taxi driver Mohamed. “No one would treat migrants like this [then]. It was illegal. They had rights,” he said. “I remember well one single case, before 2011, where Libyans attacked a migrant family accused of stealing. It was a major, shocking news story.”


    Money transfer problems


    While security threats can be a factor, it is mostly disenchantment with Libya’s financial situation that is driving migrant workers away to Europe or, in some cases, back home.


    Official money transfers abroad in Libyan dinars have been impossible since mid-2014, and both foreigners and locals have to rely on the black market as the official exchange rate has been largely unavailable and irrelevant for years.


    “Money is the main reason for so many people going to Europe,” said Badou, the Ghanaian pastor. “Since official money transfers stopped, there’s no way to send wages home legally and people have to work hard just to get 700 Libyan dinar, officially $504, which, on the black market, is now equivalent to $150, which is very bad. So of course, people start to leave.”

    “Here in Libya, we really need migrant workers. To be honest, we can’t get anything done without them.”

    Libya’s economic meltdown has meant banks have limited cash and restrict daily withdrawals, leaving most Libyans unable to access their own savings. As one government employee explained, salaries – routinely paid months late – are now “just a figure on paper”. This cash crisis has has been accompanied by rising prices, leaving many struggling financially.


    The exodus is beginning to cause alarm among some Libyan employers, according to a senior member of the Ghanaian community who said Libyans had started pleading with Ghanian plasterers to stop leaving. Within Libya’s migrant workforce, many nationalities have “specialties” and there are few skilled plasterers able to fill the void left by departing Ghanaians, he said.


    Libya is heavily dependent on its migrant workforce and some say that without foreign workers, the country would struggle to function.


    “Here in Libya, we really need migrant workers. To be honest, we can’t get anything done without them,” said General Mohammed al-Tamimi, the military commander at a checkpoint north of Sebha. “Recently, when we capture migrants, they stay here with us and we employ them as labourers,” as there are no detention centres open in Libya’s south, he added.


    In the open, but not safe


    As fast as people leave, either heading home overland or braving the Mediterranean crossing towards Europe, more migrants arrive across Libya’s porous southern borders.


    Despite the dangers of their lives here, they don’t live in hiding and, in Tripoli at least, they have long been a noticeable and active part of the community.


    Tom Westcott/IRIN
    Migrant workers play football in the Libyan capital city of Tripoli.

    For example, every Friday for the last 20 years, migrant football teams have played on a wasteland patch in the capital’s Souq al-Juma district. Last year, several hundred migrants and a handful of Libyans gathered to watch the final of a four-month tournament organised by migrant football enthusiasts.


    “We have no problems, no intimidation, nothing,” said Jaffa, a day labourer from Niger, one of the organisers. “The situation for migrants here is not like they say in the media. It’s actually okay.”


    But “okay” masks a myriad of difficulties, both financial and otherwise. “These football matches are great because they allow people suffering a very difficult situation to put their energy into something positive,” said Ben Hamza Adali, a Libyan who plays on one migrant team. “This place is in a well-secured area and we don’t suffer from any threats or harassment because no one has a problem with football.”


    Mid-game, a Toyota pickup pulled up and three men armed with Kalashnikovs, wearing official blue police uniforms and balaclavas, ran onto the football pitch, shooting in the air.


    Efforts by Tripoli’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) to rein in the capital’s militias remain ineffective, with many operating independently, despite the state uniforms most now wear.


    It may just have been a show of power but it sent hundreds of terrified migrants fleeing across the pitch, scattering out into the busy road. No one was injured and, after a few minutes, the armed men sped off. The footballers returned, with a greatly diminished audience.



    In Libya, hard economic times force migrant workers to look elsewhere
  • South Sudan clashes, local aid partners, and a €500 million grant: The Cheat Sheet

    IRIN editors give their weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

    On our radar

    Thousands flee renewed violence in South Sudan

    Last week, UN envoy for South Sudan David Shearer said fighting had “diminished greatly” since a September peace agreement. He may have spoken too soon. It has since emerged that clashes in the Equatoria region have displaced about 8,000 people internally and sent 5,000 more fleeing across the border into eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, which is in the midst of an Ebola outbreak. Most of the refugees and IDPs are women, children, and the elderly – many traumatised after they “witnessed violent incidents, including armed men reportedly murdering and raping civilians and looting villages," according to Babar Baloch, spokesman for the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. The clashes began last month between the army and the National Salvation Front, or NAS, one of more than 70 armed groups in South Sudan – and one that didn’t sign last year's accord. Five years of civil war have left 1.9 million South Sudanese internally displaced and 2.4 million living as refugees in neighbouring countries.

    Overhead costs in focus for world’s largest aid grant

    The World Bank and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) are among those competing with the UN's World Food Programme for a €500 million European Commission grant. The project supports 1.5 million refugees with cash allowances in Turkey. It’s the largest single humanitarian grant in the world, accounting for about 31 percent of the EC’s emergency aid budget. One of the issues will be indirect costs. A recent EC audit questioned the seven percent overhead fee paid to WFP (to be reduced to 6.5%), which ran the first phase of the project. WFP told IRIN it is following the financial rules set by its board, which includes EU member states. The Emergency Social Safety Net project is largely implemented by the Turkish Red Crescent. Its chief, Kerem Kinik, in a statement to IRIN, declined to back a bidder, saying his organisation "remains in promotion of an impactful and cost-efficient programme design".

    Yemen heading towards ‘catastrophe’: UN experts

    The UN Panel of Experts on Yemen released its annual report to the public this week. It makes for grim reading on 2018, a period during which the country “continued its slide towards humanitarian and economic catastrophe”. In 224 pages, the group details “widespread violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law by the various parties involved in the conflict”. Tip: For the group’s look at humanitarian assistance – including the Saudi Arabia-led coalition’s obstruction of civilian flights out of Sana’a, and the Houthi rebels’ arrest of aid workers and interference in the selection of aid beneficiaries – skip to page 56. In other Yemen news, the US House of Representatives passed a bill that would end the country’s support for the war. It still has to pass the Republican-controlled Senate, and President Donald Trump’s pen. If you’re confused, yes, last year a similar resolution failed in the House and passed in the Senate, but members have come and gone since then, and the resolution has changed too.

    Counting the cost of internal displacement

    People displaced within their own borders could be costing the global economy nearly $13 billion a year, according to new research by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. Researchers assessed costs for eight countries experiencing conflicts or disasters, including Central African Republic, Libya, the Philippines, South Sudan, and Yemen. CAR was found to have the highest financial impact for each displaced person – about $230 million, or 11 percent of the country's GDP, per year. The research found that the highest burdens come from lost income, support for housing, and healthcare. People in low-income countries were also impacted worse than those in lower-middle or upper-middle income countries. Internal displacement "places a heavy burden on the economy," said Alexandra Bilak, director of the IDMC, "generating specific needs that must be paid for by those affected, their hosts, governments or aid providers". For more on how IDPs need greater protection, read this opinion we published earlier in the week.

    Examining aid partnerships

    Major donors and aid groups have made broad promises to “localise” aid – putting more power and funding in the hands of locals when crises hit. But change has been slow on the ground, to the frustration of many local NGOs, as we’ve documented in our continuing reporting on locally driven aid. So how can local and international groups make this all work? New research examines aid partnerships in four countries – Myanmar, Nepal, Nigeria, and South Sudan – to look at what kinds of practices might contribute to “localising” aid. There are the positives (locals participating in project design and budgeting), and the negatives (internationals taking credit for local work). But, unsurprisingly, most of the local humanitarians interviewed in the studies said existing partnerships between international and local organisations are not equitable – closer to the subcontracting that characterises many aid relationships. Yet genuine, long-term partnerships are seen as the most likely to accelerate “localisation” reforms. The ongoing research, which you can read here, comes from a consortium of NGOs including Action Aid, CAFOD, CARE, Christian Aid, Oxfam, and Tearfund.

    ‘I am free from the conflict, but I do not feel free’

    The number of child soldiers around the world has more than doubled since 2012, according to Child Soldiers International’s analysis of six years of UN reports on children and armed conflict. The latest report verified 8,185 cases of child recruitment in 15 countries – a 159 percent rise on the 3,159 cases verified in 2012.

    Co-produced by a former child soldier, a new project brings to life the voices of 27 children who were recruited into conflict in northern Uganda. There’s a taster below, but you can view the full comic here.


    © YOLRED and courtesy of Jassi Sandhar (University of Bristol)

    In case you missed it

    Germany: The German authorities have arrested two former officers of Bashar al-Assad’s secret service alleged to have tortured critics of the Syrian president. A third man is reported to have been arrested in France. Germany accepts the principle of universal jurisdiction, allowing its courts to try individuals accused of international crimes committed elsewhere – including war crimes, crimes against humanity, even genocide.

    Haiti: After more than a week of protests over corruption amid soaring prices and inflation, President Jovenel Moïse finally broke his silence on Thursday, refusing to step down and urging patience. At least seven people have been killed during demonstrations sparked by anger at the government and the business elite over a $2 billion development aid scandal. More protests and street gunfire was reported in the capital, Port-au-Prince, after Moïse’s speech.

    Kashmir: The deadliest militant attack to hit Indian-administered Kashmir in three decades killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary troops this week, raising tensions in a disputed region that has seen frequent civilian demonstrations against military abuses. The bomb blast was claimed by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e Mohammad, a banned Islamist group.

    Myanmar: The military is shelling villages and blocking humanitarian access in Rakhine State, according to Amnesty International. Rights groups say some of the same army divisions involved in the violent 2017 ouster of 700,000 Rohingya – labelled as a likely genocide by UN investigators – are now being deployed in a crackdown on the ethnic Rakhine Arakan Army.

    Sudan: Sudanese government forces have used "extreme violence and shocking abuses" against largely peaceful protesters, Human Rights Watch said, urging the UN to conduct an independent investigation into the violations. Activists estimate that more than 50 people have died since anti-government demonstrations began in mid-December, while at least 79 journalists have reportedly been arrested.


    Weekend read

    International politics and humanitarian aid collide in Venezuela

    The new D-Day for Venezuela is 23 February. This is when opposition leader and self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó has said humanitarian aid will enter the country to alleviate the suffering of Venezuelans gripped by widespread shortages of food and medicine. Guaidó has urged the armed forces, who remain loyal to President Nicolás Maduro, to allow the aid in. But there’s no indication Maduro, whose presidency Guaidó denounces as illegitimate, intends to do any such thing. In our weekend read, journalist Paula Dupraz-Dobias unpicks the different strands of what has become an international aid stand-off, with aid agencies caught in the middle and uncertain what to do next. This briefing is essential reading as the showdown continues to obscure a humanitarian crisis that may be denied by Maduro, but shows no sign of letting up.

    And finally

    We recommend you check out this entry to the New York Times’ Lens blog, which features the work of photographer Wesaam al-Badry. Al-Badry and his family fled Iraq just before the Gulf War for Nebraska, and his photos beautifully document their life in the United States, warts and all. There are weddings, a prison release ankle monitor, and an Arabic-language American newspaper. “My family are not one dimensional characters in a refugee story,” al-Badry says. “They have multiple layers, they have their own personalities, their own agency and ways of manoeuvring through life.”

    (TOP PHOTO: A child holds up a map in the Protection of Civilians site in Bor, South Sudan. CREDIT: JC McIlwaine​/UN Photo)


    South Sudan clashes, local aid partners, and a €500 million grant
  • In Cúcuta, a soup kitchen and a long road ahead for Venezuelans

    The Colombian border town of Cúcuta is the main point of exodus for Venezuelans leaving their troubled homeland, with up to 40,000 people crossing backwards and forwards here each day.


    Most arrive with hopes of new lives and new opportunities in Colombia, while others aim to travel, often by foot, on to other South American countries like Ecuador and Peru. Somewhere between three and four million Venezuelans have left since 2015.


    Read more: International politics and humanitarian aid collide in Venezuela


    Journalist Steven Grattan went to Cúcuta, once a thriving hub for Venezuelan tourists, and discovered how it is struggling to host hundreds of thousands of new migrants who have landed in a region where education and health institutions are now at breaking point.


    Harsh realities greet many new arrivals, as their journeys and dreams of a fresh start become derailed by their own lack of resources and by the shortage of opportunities they find in Colombia.




    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    Some Venezuelans cross into Colombia simply to buy basic food and supplies to take back to Venezuela. They bring suitcases, like the man in this photo heading back along the Simón Bolívar border bridge – the main point of entry between the two countries. Flour, eggs, toilet roll, and toothpaste are hard to come by, or are extremely expensive. Many are now scared to migrate, knowing that Colombia and other nearby countries are saturated with their fellow citizens, as jobs and opportunities abroad have dried up.

    Colombian refugees returning


    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    As recently as a decade ago Venezuela was one of the richest countries in the region, playing host itself to more than a quarter of a million Colombians fleeing war and persecution during the armed conflict between Colombian government forces and leftist FARC rebels. Freddy Garzon, 49, was one of those whose family fled Colombia and moved to Venezuela, in 1974. He is now fleeing the other way with his children, aged seven and nine. “I can’t imagine going back [to Venezuela] again. It’s really affected my head,” he says.



    A long line of people outside of a soup kitchen
    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    This is the priority line for parents with young children outside a church-run soup kitchen in Cúcuta. Some 7,500 meals are provided here six days a week, Monday to Saturday. There is a line for the elderly too. Many depend on these meals to help them through the first steps of their migration into Colombia. However, many Venezuelans who live near the border also cross daily and queue for rations as food on the other side is so scarce.

    The cooks


    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    Cooking plantain for 4,000 people’s lunch is no easy task. Elvis Baracho (at the front), 25, is a Venezuelan migrant who has worked at the soup kitchen for almost two years. His salary is minimal ($26 a month), but it allows him to pay for basic needs and he gets two free meals a day. Angel Jose, 25, (behind) lives in a tin house on the outskirts of Cúcuta with his wife and disabled child. In addition to his work at the soup kitchen, he cuts hair. He charges 2,000 pesos (63 cents) per cut, half of which goes to the woman who rents him the clippers.

    Twelve to a room


    A woman stands in the shade with her cart selling Aloe Vera juice
    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    Since migrating to Colombia six months ago, Lesther Lopez, 42, has been selling her Aloe Vera concoction around Cúcuta. It supposedly helps with liver, kidney, and cholesterol problems. She says that coming to the soup kitchen for lunch each day means the little money she earns can go toward paying the $95 in monthly rent she is charged for the one room she shares in Cúcuta with 11 others, including her children aged 22, 19, and 14.

    Scraping by to send money home


    A 48 year old man stands near a colorful wall holding a box of small goods for sale
    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    Jesus Betancurt sits on the pavement in the sweltering heat on the Simón Bolívar bridge selling biscuits and sweets to passersby. He crossed over a week ago in search of a job. “I live with the hope of being able to send something back to my family,” says the 48-year-old from Carabobo State. “I’ve been trying to find work, but this is all I can get for now.”

    Moving on


    A closeup of a printed map showing a route for migrants
    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    This map is given by the Red Cross to Venezuelan migrants walking into Colombia. It shows a 47-hour walk to the city of Bucaramanga, a small fraction of the route many will take on to Ecuador or Peru. The road winds high into hills, and people often have to sleep rough in cold nighttime temperatures.

    Hitching a ride

    For those leaving Cúcuta, the first stop is the hilltop town Pamplona. Many come on foot on their way to Bucaramanga. In the photo above, migrants leaving Pamplona are trying to hitch a ride from a passing lorry, The migrants often travel vast distances on from here on foot, through the Colombian wetlands, many with suitcases and few resources.

    Escaping the heat


    A group of men, women, and children in the back of a shipping lorry
    Steven Grattan/IRIN

    Most don’t get picked up, but these migrants are lucky enough to hitch a ride on the back of an empty lorry. The heat on the road is intense, so they are happy to catch a break. Most of these migrants are trying to leave Colombia for Peru and Chile because they believe there might be more opportunities for work in those countries. Others are searching for family members who have gone before.


    For more on the situation within Venezuela, read our in-depth reporting: A humanitarian crisis denied.

    (TOP PHOTO: Sergio Carmargo, 59, in the elderly line at the church-run soup kitchen in Cúcuta. CREDIT: Steven Grattan/IRIN)


    In Cúcuta, a soup kitchen and a long road ahead for Venezuelans
  • Power shift creates new tensions and Tigrayan fears in Ethiopia

    Disagreements over land and resources between the 80 different ethnic groups in Ethiopia have often led to violence and mass displacement, but a fast and unprecedented shift of power led by reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is causing new strains, experts say.


    “Ethnic tensions are the biggest problem for Ethiopia right now,” Tewodrose Tirfe, chair of the Amhara Association of America, a US-based advocacy group that played a significant role in lobbying the US government to censor the former regime. “You’ve got millions of people displaced – it’s a humanitarian crisis, and it could get out of control.”


    During the first half of 2018, Ethiopia’s rate of 1.4 million new internally displaced people exceeded Syria’s. By the end of last year, the IDP population had mushroomed to nearly 2.4 million.


    Tigrayans comprise just six percent of Ethiopia’s population of 100 million people but are perceived as a powerful minority because of their ethnic affinity with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. The TPLF wielded almost unlimited power for more than two decades until reforms within the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front last year.


    Since coming to power in April 2018, Prime Minister Abiy – from the Oromo ethnic group, Ethiopia’s largest – has brought major changes to the politics of the country, including an unprecedented redistribution of power within the EPRDF and away from the TPLF.


    The politics of ethnic tensions


    Despite the conflicting interests and disagreements between ethnic groups, the Ethiopian government has managed to keep the peace on a national scale. But that juggling act has shown signs of strain in recent years.

    “You’ve got millions of people displaced – it’s a humanitarian crisis, and it could get out of control.”

    In 2017, an escalation in ethnic clashes in the Oromia and the Somali regions led to a spike in IDPs. This continued into 2018, when clashes between the Oromo and Gedeo ethnic groups displaced approximately 970,000 people in the West Guji and Gedeo zones of neighbouring Oromia and the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region.


    “The pace and scale of the change happening in Ethiopia is quite unbelievable,” said Ahmed Soliman, a research fellow with the Africa Programme at the London-based think tank Chatham House.


    “The impact of inter-communal tensions and ethnic violence presents a serious challenge for the new leadership – in Tigray and elsewhere. Abiy's aggressive reform agenda has won praise, but shaking up Ethiopia's government risks exacerbating several long-simmering ethnic rivalries.”


    Although clashes are sometimes fuelled by other disagreements, such as land or resources, people affected often claim that politicians across the spectrum use ethnic tensions as a means of divide and rule, or to consolidate their position as a perceived bulwark against further trouble.


    “Sadly [around Ethiopia] ethnic bias and violence is affecting many people at the local level,” said a foreign humanitarian worker with an international organisation helping Ethiopian IDPs, who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the issue. This includes fuelling the displacement crisis and worsening the humanitarian situation.


    “The main humanitarian concern is that new displacements are occurring by the day, that due to the wide geographic scope, coordination and response in all locations is practically impossible,” the aid worker said.


    “I would like to see more transparency as to what actions the government is taking to hold regional and zonal governments responsible for addressing conflict, for supporting reconciliation, and supporting humanitarian response.”


    Tigray fears


    Although Tigrayans constitute a relatively small part of overall IDP numbers so far, some Tigrayans fear the power shift in Addis Ababa away from the TPLF leaves them more vulnerable and exposed.


    Already simmering anti-Tigrayan sentiments have led to violence, people told IRIN, from barricading roads and forcibly stopping traffic to looting and attacks on Tigrayan homes and businesses in the Amhara and Oromia regions.


    James Jeffrey/IRIN
    Tigrayans on the streets of Mekelle, the Tigray capital.

    In the Tigray region’s capital of Mekelle, more than 750 kilometers north of the political changes taking place in Addis Ababa, many Tigrayans feel increasingly isolated from fellow Ethiopians.


    “The rest of the country hates us,” Weyanay Gebremedhn, 25, told IRIN. Despite the reforms, Tigrayans say what hasn’t changed is the narrative that they are responsible by association for the ills of the TPLF.


    Although he now struggles to find work, 35-year-old Huey Berhe, who does mostly odd jobs to pay the bills, said he felt safer living among his own community in Mekelle.


    Huey said he had been a student at Jimma University in western Ethiopia, until growing ethnic tensions sparked fights on campus and led to Tigrayans being targeted. “I left my studies at Jimma after the trouble there,” he said. “It was bad – it’s not something I like to discuss.”


    ‘A better evil’


    “There is a lot of [lies] and propaganda, and the TPLF has been made the scapegoat for all vice,” said Gebre Weleslase, a Tigrayan law professor at Mekelle University. He criticised Abiy for not condemning ethnic attacks, which he said had contributed to tens of thousands of Tigrayans leaving Amhara for Tigray in recent years.

    But Amhara Association of America’s Tewodrose said the feeling of “hate” that Ethiopians have toward the TPLF “doesn’t extend to Tigrayans”.


    “There is resentment toward them when other Ethiopians hear of rallies in Tigray supporting the TPLF, because that seems like they aren’t supporting reform efforts,” he said. “But that doesn’t lead to them being targeted, otherwise there would have been more displacements.”

    ☰ Read more: The complex Tigray evolution


    Although the TPLF is credited with spearheading the 1991 overthrow of Ethiopia’s military Derg dictatorship, it is hated for usurping power from, and using it against, Ethiopia’s two main ethnic groups – the Oromo and Amhara – who represent 35 percent and 27 percent of the country’s population, respectively.


    Brewing animosity over its misgovernance erupted after a plan emerged in 2014 to increase the size of Addis Ababa into Oromia. Oromo protests gathered steam in 2015, joined by Amhara protests in 2016, and did not let up for three years.

    A unified Oromo-Amhara opposition is a source of numerical dread for the TPLF and for many Tigrayans given the Amhara region borders Tigray to the south (clashes have already occurred over the inter-regional border).

    When anti-government protests rocked the Amhara city of Gondar in July 2016, hundreds of ethnic Tigrayans living there had to flee. They reported their homes and businesses were attacked because of their ethnic association and perceived affiliation with the government.


    “In Gondar, the Tigrayans suffered because decades of mistrust, decades of grievances, and perceptions and even aspirations from other communities came to the fore, which was hammered into people’s minds through organised and persistent propaganda for two decades by domestic and diaspora media and political groupings,” said Daniel Berhane, founder of the online magazine Horn Affairs, one of few media to regularly cover attacks against Tigrayans.


    “The violence against Tigrayans because of their ethnic association marked a turning point,” journalist Abdi Latif Dahir wrote in an article for Quartz Africa following the Gondar attacks. “Ethiopia, a bastion of stability in a tumultuous region, had for years proved to be resilient and achieved impressive economic growth. But the attacks highlighted how historically, the struggle for political space in Ethiopia has always folded into a battle over land, religion, language, demography, and yes, ethnicity.”


    Tigrayans, however, aren’t as reassured. Despite the vast majority enduring years of poverty and struggle under the TPLF, which should give them as many reasons as most Ethiopians to feel betrayed, even those Tigrayans who dislike the TPLF now say that turning to its patronage may be their only means of seeking protection.


    “The TPLF political machinery extended everywhere in the country – into the judiciary, the universities… it became like something out of George Orwell’s ‘1984’,” Huey said. “But the fact is now the TPLF may represent a better evil as we are being made to feel so unsafe – they seem our only ally as we are threatened by the rest of the country.”


    Others note that Abiy has a delicate balance to strike, especially for the sake of Tigrayans.


    “The prime minister needs to be careful not to allow his targeting of anti-reform elements within the TPLF, to become an attack on the people of Tigray,” said Soliman.


    “The region has a history of resolute peoples and will have to be included with all other regions, in order for Abiy to accomplish his goals of reconciliation, socio-political integration and regional development, as well as long-term peace with Eritrea.”


    Although the government has a big role to play, some Ethiopians told IRIN it is essential for the general population to also face up to the inherent prejudices and problems that lie at the core of their society.


    “It’s about the people being willing and taking individual responsibility – the government can’t do everything,” Weyanay said. “People need to read more and challenge their assumptions and get new perspectives.”



    “Shaking up Ethiopia's government risks exacerbating several long-simmering ethnic rivalries”
    Power shift creates new tensions and Tigrayan fears in Ethiopia
  • Briefing: International politics and humanitarian aid collide in Venezuela

    Humanitarian aid to millions of hungry and sick Venezuelans has become an international political football, with President Nicolás Maduro equating the prospect of outside assistance entering his country to a foreign military intervention.


    National Assembly leader and self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó says Maduro’s election win last year was illegitimate. In calling for the president to step aside and allow fresh elections, the opposition leader has secured the support of dozens of countries – including the United States, Canada, and most of Latin America and Europe.


    But the Venezuelan military – along with Russia, China, Turkey, and leftist regional governments in Cuba and Bolivia – is still backing Maduro, who was sworn in for a new six-year term in January, precipitating mass protests in the capital, Caracas, and other cities.


    Trucks carrying US relief supplies have rolled into the Colombian border town of Cúcuta only to have their entry into Venezuela blocked by the Venezuelan military, with Maduro describing it as a “show of fake humanitarian aid”.


    Meanwhile, the UN says it cannot deliver humanitarian assistance to Venezuela unless requested to do so by the government.


    As the showdown intensifies, here’s what we know.


    What’s the current situation?


    Last week, 50 metric tonnes of aid provided by the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID, was delivered in a convoy of trucks with the help of the Colombian government to Cúcuta. Colombian and US officials say it includes basic food items such as flour, rice, lentils, and cooking oil, as well as personal hygiene items.


    The United States has pledged $20 million in assistance to Venezuela. “This is a downpayment. This is just the beginning,” US Ambassador to Colombia Kevin Whitaker told reporters in Cúcuta on Friday.


    The Venezuelan military continues to block the Tienditas international bridge between Cúcuta and the neighbouring Venezuelan town of Tachira, preventing the USAID supplies from being delivered.


    President Maduro denies that Venezuela faces a humanitarian crisis, and maintains that economic difficulties are a result of sanctions imposed by Washington.


    Read more:  A humanitarian crisis denied


    Some 10 percent of the population – more than three million Venezuelans – have left their country since 2015 as the economy has collapsed and it has become increasingly difficult to find basic and affordable food and medicine.


    Read more:  Worries grow as more Venezuelans look to Peru


    Tens of thousands of Venezuelans continue to cross every day into Cúcuta over the Simón Bolívar bridge, which has effectively become a pedestrian-only artery due to the large number of people fleeing in search of medicine or food, or to start new lives.


    What plans are there to get aid in?


    Guaidó has vowed to open routes into the country for the US aid and has called on Venezuelans to get ready to help distribute it. He says distribution plans – through various points along the border – will be made clear in the coming days.


    The opposition is appealing to the military to allow the supplies through. Up until now the military has supported Maduro, although a rebellion by the national guard was quashed last month.


    At a press conference in Cúcuta on Friday, Lester Toledo, Guaidó’s spokesperson in Colombia, said: “Dear military personnel, this aid is also for you... here comes food for your children, here comes medicine for the people who are suffering.”


    Along the border with Brazil, the indigenous Pemón community, whose lands straddle the international boundary, has said it will allow assistance to pass through its territory to be distributed in Venezuela. The area, known as La Gran Sabana, includes the only paved road crossing between Brazil and Venezuela.


    What are the main needs?


    Organisations operating within Venezuela have remained discrete about the humanitarian situation within the country due to the government’s sensitivity toward the issue and official stance that it needs no assistance.


    However, academic studies, as well as numerous media reports and stories recounted by fleeing migrants, indicate that living conditions have deteriorated sharply for most of the population and that there are dire shortages of food and medicine.


    Read more: Hunger and survival in Venezuela


    An annual study by three major Venezuelan universities on living conditions in Venezuela (known as Encovi) estimated in its latest survey, in 2017, that 87 percent of the population was living under the poverty line and 61 percent in extreme poverty (a near 10 percent rise on the previous year).


    Hyperinflation, linked to a severe contraction of the oil sale-dependent economy, was estimated at around 1.7 million percent in 2018, according to the National Assembly’s National Price Index. Venezuela’s Central Bank stopped publishing inflation figures in 2016.


    Families are often unable to feed themselves more than once a day, with Encovi reporting significant average weight losses, even by 2017.


    The health ministry stopped publishing national health data in 2017, after an official report highlighted a large increase in infant and maternal mortality rates, which led to the immediate sacking of the health minister.


    Since 2016, outbreaks of diphtheria and measles, two vaccine-preventable diseases that had all but been eradicated in Venezuela, have once again been on the rise. In 2018, the number of tuberculosis cases reported at two TB centres in Caracas rose by 40 percent. Other reports say AIDS-related deaths have tripled and malaria cases are up by more than 200 percent.


    As doctors and nurses, along with other trained professionals, have joined the exodus, hospitals have become overwhelmed and unable to cope with patients seeking help, especially as people can’t afford medicines and shortages drive up black market prices.


    A survey of more than 130 hospitals and clinics by the National Assembly and Médicos por la Salud, a local NGO, found shortages of basic drugs increased to 88 percent last year. It also found that only one in 10 hospitals – most of them private clinics – had functioning operating rooms. Shortages of running water were commonplace.


    US sanctions imposed in January on Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA may also be contributing to the suffering. The economy has shrunk by half since Maduro assumed power in 2013, and further contraction is expected as PDVSA accounts for 90 percent of the country’s hard currency inflows.


    Is it just the US offering aid?


    A number of other countries have pledged funds for humanitarian assistance to Venezuela.


    Some $2.5 million out of the $53 million Canada pledged at last week’s meeting of the Lima Group – a regional alliance seeking a peaceful agreement to the crisis – is expected to go to organisations already in Venezuela providing healthcare services.


    “We’re working with trusted humanitarian partners to try to get money to flow into Venezuela,” said Marie-Claude Bibeau, Canada’s international development minister.


    Bibeau said it was too early for funds to go directly to Guaidó, even though Canada – along with several other countries – has recognised the 35-year-old member of the centrist social-democratic Popular Will party as interim president.


    Germany has promised five million euros of humanitarian assistance to Venezuela “as soon as the political condition in the country allow this,” Heiko Maas, the German foreign minister, said last week.


    Is any international aid being provided within Venezuela?


    Although Maduro is refusing to allow in emergency humanitarian aid, he hasn’t stopped some existing programmes within the country from being ramped up.


    “UN agencies have been scaling up existing activities inside Venezuela to meet urgent health nutrition and protection needs,” Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, said on Friday.


    Laerke explained to IRIN that international organizations in Venezuela  “have an agreement with the government that (scaling-up) can happen”.


    Funding shortfalls nonetheless may affect the extent of those operations. Less than half of the $109.5 million required for OCHA’s emergency plan to help 3.6 million Venezuelans, including two million children, has so far been received.


    UN agencies working in Venezuela include UNICEF, the Pan American Health Organization (a regional agency of WHO), UNAIDS, the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR), the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and the United Nations Development Programme. Currently, the UN employs than 300 national and international staff in the country.


    Laerke said the UN is delivering 100,000 treatments for severe or acute malnutrition and six temporary shelters have been set up in border areas in western Venezuela to accommodate 1,600 people and provide them with food and clothing.


    WHO and PAHO are cooperating with the Venezuelan health ministry on healthcare management programmes. WHO spokesperson Tarik Jašarević said 50 tonnes of medicine and supplies were delivered to the country in 2018.


     PAHO also provided Venezuela with some 13 million doses of measles and rubella vaccines and 5.4 million doses of tetanus and diphtheria vaccines following outbreaks of the illnesses.


    In November, a $9.2 million UN health and nutrition aid package was announced, making it the first emergency funding approved by the government. The Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) supports programmes that offer nutritional help to children and pregnant women and breast-feeding at risk mothers.


    Local and international aid groups inside Venezuela have also been adapting their services to provide essential food and services to people in need.


    Read more: As Venezuela’s denied crisis deepens, local aid groups shift tactics


    As the crisis has unfolded, the Catholic relief agency Caritas says it has increasingly been gearing its efforts towards essential humanitarian assistance, away from its traditional focus on pastoral care for prisoners and human rights advocacy.


    What next?


    One of many organisations providing assistance to migrants fleeing Venezuela is the World Food Programme, which says it isn’t talking to political parties in Venezuela and is only working with Maduro’s government and aid partners outside the country.

    “Any potential political use of humanitarian aid can generate risks, in particular for those the aid is intended to support."

    However, Hervé Verhoosel, the WFP’s senior spokesperson in Geneva, said the UN agency has begun to “pre-position food” at the Colombia-Venezuela border so it “will be ready when we have the authorisation to go (into Venezuela)”.


    An international NGO forum in Colombia, which includes Oxfam, the Norwegian Refugee Council, Médecins du Monde, Terre des Hommes and others, has expressed concern about the plans to send humanitarian aid to Venezuela from Colombia following tensions surrounding the delivery of US aid to Cúcuta.


    “Any potential political use of humanitarian aid can generate risks, in particular for those the aid is intended to support, if this use is not based on technical and objective criteria,” it warned.

    Christian Visnes, country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, told IRIN from Cúcuta that it was “key to differentiate governments’ aid from humanitarian aid.”


    The International Committee of the Red Cross, which operates independently and in support of the Venezuelan Red Cross, was critical of the “highly politicised environment”, which it said makes it “challenging for humanitarian organisations to operate in”.


    Calls for dialogue to find a peaceful resolution to the crisis – and by association, to improve the humanitarian situation in Venezuela – are yet to bear fruit.


    A request from Maduro to allow the Vatican to mediate talks was initially welcomed by Guaidó, but he insisted any negotiations must begin with Maduro’s exit.

    (TOP PHOTO: A Venezuelan migrant feeds her baby at the Divina Providencia migrant shelter in Cúcuta​, Colombia, on the border with Venezuela, on 7 February 2019. CREDIT: Schneyder Mendoza/AFP)


    Briefing: International politics and humanitarian aid collide in Venezuela
  • Q&A: Inside the effort to break the Venezuelan aid impasse

    The UN has warned against politicising humanitarian assistance to hungry and sick Venezuelans after the country’s armed forces set up roadblocks at border points with Colombia, where food and medicine was expected to enter the crisis-ridden country.


    US aid has arrived at the Colombian border at the request of Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader who recently declared himself president, and European states have also pledged to contribute humanitarian support after recognising Guaidó as head of state earlier this week.


    Allowing in assistance would be tantamount to accepting a US-led invasion, according to President Nicolás Maduro, who, along with his government, denies a humanitarian crisis exists and blames his country’s economic problems on US sanctions.


    International aid groups, meanwhile, want to help more but are wary of getting caught up in a political row. Supporting one side or the other could, they fear, muddy fundamental humanitarian principles of neutrality.


    In the middle of it all is Maria-Alejandra Aristeguieta Alvarez, the ex officio representative of the Venezuelan opposition in Geneva, where much of the international aid sector is based.


    Formerly a member of the Venezuelan mission here, Alvarez was forced to resign her post in 2002 and now heads Iniciativa por Venezuela, a group acting as go-betweens for the Venezuelan opposition and international organisations in Geneva.


    Aid groups have been providing assistance to Venezuelans fleeing via key border points in Colombia and Brazil, but they can’t help within Venezuela because Maduro’s government hasn’t invited them in.


    Since 2015, up to four million people have left Venezuela, where an economic collapse marked by hyperinflation and chronic unemployment has led to a lack of food and basic medicines, even to the return of once-eradicated diseases like diphtheria and measles.


    Alvarez spoke with IRIN this week about the aid stand-off at the Colombian border and what is happening behind the scenes to get assistance to those who need it. She described the current situation in Venezuela as “something that doesn’t make any sense,” adding: “nobody from any government would try to kill its own people, but that is exactly the way it is.”


    The interview below has been edited for clarity and length.


    IRIN: Given the role Geneva plays on the humanitarian front, has the opposition nominated a representative to the international organisations that are critical for organising assistance?


    Maria-Alejandra Aristeguieta Alvarez: Officially there is no one, because the UN has not recognised Guaidó as the new government. It will be a long shot at this stage to achieve that recognition, because while 40-plus governments have recognised the Guaidó government, there are some 190 member states at the UN. It is also a matter of time, because the General Assembly – which can adopt a decision recognising the government – will only meet in September. Meanwhile, I have been acting as the ex officio representative of the opposition here.


    Since the beginning of the humanitarian crisis, [Iniciativa por Venezuela has] been speaking to the various international organisations in Geneva about the humanitarian situation and about what comes next.


    IRIN: How much discussion on these issues is taking place within those organisations here in Geneva?


    Aristeguieta Alvarez: Most of the discussions are taking place in Caracas. I am much more of a facilitator, and raising awareness of situations. I work with both sides: with Caracas [the National Assembly led by Guaidó], telling them how and who to get in touch with… and, on the other side, we are working with organisations in Geneva to inform them about the situation in Venezuela...


    IRIN: Which organisations have you been in contact with?


    Aristeguieta Alvarez: I would rather not mention them as they have people on the ground in Venezuela, and once you say that they have been in touch with the opposition, either here or in Caracas, they are concerned about the fate of their representatives in Venezuela. They have been carrying out work in Venezuela in a very low-key [way], very discreetly… and would like to keep it that way.


    IRIN: Do humanitarian projects run by international organisations receive approval from the government?


    Aristeguieta Alvarez: Yes, absolutely, they get approval from the Maduro regime. They have been working with them on different projects in different areas, from medicine and also on the humanitarian side, and also issues related to food…


    The organisations are operating in Venezuela, but not as extensively and as comfortably as they would like. Of course they would like to get all that humanitarian aid coming from Colombia and Brazil, and Curaçao and Aruba. (Earlier this week it was announced that American aid would be delivered to Colombia, Brazil, and a Caribbean island).


    IRIN: As the UN says it cannot deliver assistance without a request from the Maduro government, who exactly is coordinating the assistance at the border and efforts to get the aid into Venezuela?


    Aristeguieta Alvarez: A few organisations are working there. Across the border you have the ICRC, UNHCR* (the UN’s refugee agency), IOM (the UN’s migration agency), and OCHA, the UN humanitarian coordinator. They work together as a team to bring humanitarian aid to people who have been migrating over the past two years. They have been focusing on those migrants, providing primary aid and food so that they can continue their journey onwards. They have been working in Colombia and Brazil very efficiently.


    They have been also working there with the government of Colombia, which said it is willing to offer them support, as well as with the Americans and Canadians and any other countries aid [departments] in helping to transfer it across the border to Venezuela. As it is a long border between Colombia and Venezuela, [if aid is allowed into Venezuela] there would be a couple of ‘compilation points’ where food and medicine would be transferred to the other side.


    IRIN: Is the opposition talking to the international organisations to see where aid could possibly enter the country?


    Aristeguieta Alvarez: Definitely. We have been carrying out discussions with the various organisations that are in Venezuela, and increasingly with those that are on the other side of the border, particularly in Cúcuta, Colombia. They have been discussing particular ways of helping the migrants, and now how to help those within Venezuela.


    IRIN: This week, Maduro’s forces set up roadblocks to stop trucks from crossing the border to deliver aid. Who exactly is responsible for coordinating the trucks that need to cross the border?


    Aristeguieta Alvarez: We have many Venezuelans on the other side of the border who are willing to help. There are also members of the army who have fled and who are eager to help.


    We have associations around the world, mostly in Colombia. These organisations have spoken to the Colombian government and (Guaidó’s) National Assembly, saying that they would be ready to help and to be part of the logistics, meaning that these would be Venezuelans going into the country and driving perhaps those trucks or cars to bring food in...


    On Tuesday, Miguel Pizarro, the head of the technical commission (in charge of humanitarian aid in the National Assembly), said there would not be any forcing of aid into Venezuela. If the borders are not open, the boxes will just stay there.


    IRIN: Given the long border that may be difficult to police, will there be attempts to bring aid in through other entry points?


    Aristeguieta Alvarez: Aid has been sent to Venezuela for some time from different countries. Individuals and associations have been doing so. People return to Venezuela with suitcases filled with food to distribute to their families and to give to NGOs in the poorest areas. Courier deliveries are also bringing food to Venezuela. This has been going on for two, three years now. But along the border between Venezuela and Colombia that is over 2,000 kilometres long, you get people entering informally, who move back and forth.


    In some cases I can tell you that there are some embassies on the ground who are providing funds to buy the food.


    We are now talking about volumes of assistance that you cannot take though those “caminos verdes” or illegal borders. You would have to bring it though places where there is infrastructure, such as over the Simón Bolívar bridge (in Cúcuta), which is now pedestrian, where you would have to stop people crossing to Colombia to allow the trucks to come across.


    IRIN: Could we imagine humanitarian corridors being set up by international parties such as the UN?


    Aristeguieta Alvarez: That is what we are hoping for, but so far we only have several states, who are then accused of wanting to invade the country (by the Maduro government)...


    We hope that some organisations will take this opportunity. The Red Cross (ICRC) and the UN have said that they are eager to get [the Maduro government’s] OK... I am sure the Red Cross would not admit it, because of their concern to remain neutral. But I would think that the UN, because of the political implications and the potential humanitarian impact, would take a different stance.


    IRIN: In Geneva, one can imagine international agencies must be knocking at the Venezuelan mission’s door offering assistance.


    Aristeguieta Alvarez: They have been receiving proposals from various organisations for quite some time, but to admit that they need help means admitting to a failure in how they run the government as well as to ideological failure. They have been denying this crisis for the past five years and denying that there is any hunger, as people [help] themselves from garbage piles, and [die] from chronic diseases because there is no treatment.


    IRIN: Will donors be stigmatised by the politicisation of the situation, where the Maduro regime is exploiting images of USAID packages with US flags at the border to warn of an alleged US invasion risk? Do you think donors may be disincentivised to contribute?


    Aristeguieta Alvarez: As soon as the European countries began on Monday to recognise Juan Guaidó as the president of Venezuela, we immediately began receiving aid proposals from different countries. Germany offered five million euros in humanitarian aid, and (Spanish Prime Minister Pedro) Sánchez said he was ready to send humanitarian aid to ‘compilation points’. Far from disincentivising those countries, there is a multilateral approach that is taking precedence over any unilateral approach.

    (TOP PHOTO: Aerial view of the Tienditas Bridge, in the border between Cucuta, Colombia and Tachira, Venezuela, after Venezuelan military forces blocked it with containers on February 6, 2019. CREDIT: Edinson Estupinan/AFP)


    (*An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that OHCHR, the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, was working in Venezuela. It should have read UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency. The story was updated to reflect this on 12 February)

    “Nobody from any government would try to kill its own people, but that is exactly the way it is.”
    Q&A: Inside the effort to break the Venezuelan aid impasse
  • As Venezuela crisis spirals, needs across the Colombian border grow

    Martha Alarcon strokes the head of a young Venezuelan woman in tears who is  hungry and exhausted from walking the highway in scorching heat.


    This is nothing new for Alarcon. Owner of a small roadside snack stall, the 55-year-old Colombian has been helping Venezuelans trying to escape their country’s economic collapse for more than two years – providing food, drink, and a place to sleep on the outskirts of the overrun border town of Cúcuta.


    Recent days have seen an unusually high influx of migrants, and Alarcon’s resources are scarce. Up to 200 migrants can pass by her stall each day on their long walks up into the high Andes, and beyond to Ecuador and Peru.

    “Sometimes there are too many,” she says. “But I at least give them a piece of bread and some juice.”


    The Simón Bolívar International Bridge into Cúcuta is the main point of entry from Venezuela into Colombia. It sees around 40,000 Venezuelans crossing per day to seek respite from the immiseration in their homeland.


    According to aid groups and local people, last week saw an upsurge in arrivals as the situation in Venezuela spiralled further out of control, amid mass street protests calling for President Nicolás Maduro to step aside.


    Read more: Hope rises in Venezuela’s hunger-driven political crisis


    Since last week, more than 30 countries have recognised opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president, including the United States, Canada, several EU countries, and Colombia, while 15 others – including China and Russia – continue to support Maduro. Eleven regional countries have also issued a statement urging the Venezuelan military to back Guaidó and calling for the urgent delivery of humanitarian aid.

    “Sometimes there are too many, but I at least give them a piece of bread and some juice.”

    Maduro is blamed by many for his country’s predicament, accused of widespread human rights abuses as he clamps down on dissent, and criticised for refusing to acknowledge the extent of the humanitarian crisis and accept international assistance.


    Cash seen as most helpful


    In December, the UN estimated that another two million Venezuelans could leave the country in 2019, bringing the total since 2015 up to 5.3 million.


    International aid for Venezuelans has been slow to arrive, even for those who have fled, putting a strain on Colombia, as well as other neighbouring countries. The International Rescue Committee, one of several large aid organisations responding to the crisis, has deemed the response “critically underfunded”.


    A UN appeal was made for an injection of $738 million this year to help Venezuela’s neighbours cope with the influx. The Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan allocates $315 million to Colombia, $117 million to Ecuador, $106 million to Peru, and $56 million to Brazil – the countries that have borne the brunt of the exodus. The appeal has received less than $5 million in funding so far, according to UN data.


    Steven Grattan/IRIN
    Children wait outside a Red Cross facility in Pamplona. The IRC says more children have been migrating recently than before.

    In Colombia, the IRC says it is concentrating on providing cash aid to Venezuelans, which best serves their most common problems: food, rent, healthcare, shelter, medicine, and joblessness.


    “A recent IRC assessment found that the top six needs reported by Venezuelans in Colombia could all be met with access to cash, which is why the IRC has prioritised giving Venezuelans money so they are able to buy what they need most,” says Marianne Menjivar, IRC country director in Colombia.


    In emergency situations where there are healthy markets, it is common practice to meet a range of basic humanitarian needs by providing cash allowances. Recipients can then buy what they need.


    Menjivar said her team used to see predominantly men coming in search of work to send money home, but that over the past months the trend has changed to include more families and children crossing in increasingly deep states of desperation.


    “I couldn’t be there anymore”


    Venezuela’s once-buoyant socialist economic system has failed since the collapse of world oil prices in 2014, with inflation soaring to almost two million percent.  Millions of Venezuelans have been driven to neighbouring countries due to the lack of food, medicine, and security in the country.


    Read more: Hunger and survival in Venezuela


    Many cross into the arid city of Cúcuta to buy basic food and medicine that is unavailable in Venezuela and then return, while others use it as their first port of call as they migrate elsewhere in Colombia or to other nearby countries.

    “IRC teams are seeing children who are suffering from malnutrition or have diseases that were previously eradicated in the country,” says Menjivar. “Venezuelans are increasingly desperate to find stability, reunite with family or just find a way to buy food.”


    Hanging from the walls and ceiling of Alarcon’s stall are thousands of handwritten notes. Some are scribbled on worthless Venezuelan money, lamenting their sad fates as many have left their families behind.


    Steven Grattan/IRIN
    The notes of lament left by Venezuelan migrants passing through Martha's stall.

    Edwar Espina, 29, choked up when he spoke about his troubled homeland in Martha’s shelter. A former paramedic from Yaracuy state, he is migrating with his childhood friend, with just a tattered backpack to his name.


    The pair slept for five days on the streets of Cúcuta before continuing on, like so many others, on foot in the sweltering heat. Their destination – the Colombian capital, Bogotá – is more than 550 kilometres away.


    “I couldn’t be there anymore,” Espina says of his homeland. “I asked ‘why am I here? I’m wasting my youth!’.” Espina doesn’t know where they will sleep the night, probably on the side of the road.


    Heading on


    From the scorching heat of Cúcuta, some migrants head to Pamplona, a frigid mountain town some 80 kilometres away. From there, they make their way across Colombia’s vast wetlands, trying to reach larger cities like Bucaramanga, or on to Peru or Ecuador, in search of job opportunities.


    The journey to Pamplona can take a whole day on the windy roads, and many carry small suitcases and even wheel prams along the difficult trek, which reaches an elevation of 2,343 metres. Migrants arrive exhausted, dehydrated, and then have to face cold nighttime temperatures in the city.


    At the top of the hill upon entry to Pamplona are two small refuges, run by locals. One was set up by 52-year-old Douglas Cabeza, who lives in a hut with his 83-year-old mother and several dogs.


    “People arrive ill,” he says. “They have swollen feet, there are pregnant women, babies without diapers, and people with stomach problems.”


    Cabeza says he recently quit his job as a shoe mender so he could do this voluntary work full-time.


    The service he offers is basic, but without it migrants would have nothing upon arrival. He says the only real help he has received has come from the Norwegian Refugee Council, and that other local aid is scarce.


    Steven Grattan/IRIN
    Venezuelan migrants at Douglas Cabeza's shelter in Pamplona.

    Thanks to the NRC, he was able to go from taking in 15 people, when he began, to having space for over 120, offering them basic showers and sleeping areas.


    At the back of his house, he has constructed a series of unstable makeshift bridges with logs that lead to a foliage-filled jungle of small campsites, six in total, with foam beds and plastic sheets propped up with sticks for migrants to sleep under. There is no electricity or water.


    “There’s nothing at all”


    Almost 1.5 million Venezuelans have settled in Colombia since 2016. This number is increasing daily and, as the Colombian government tries to keep its doors open, services are becoming overstretched.


    At the Cúcuta border, some Venezuelans cross each day simply to buy food, others to eat at soup kitchens.


    Men offer to buy Venezuelan women’s long hair for the wig business, and vendors have started doing a good trade in selling contraband medication, including even basic drugs like paracetamol (acetaminophen) that are now almost impossible for Venezuelans to obtain in their homeland.


    The lack of doctors and medical care in Venezuela has also meant many come across for treatment for the day.


    “There’s nothing at all. No doctors, nothing,” says Kelma Mendoza, 31, sitting outside a Red Cross medical centre at the border. She travelled for two hours by bus with her four-month-old baby boy to get his first injections.


    Mendoza plans to return, to whatever happens next in Venezuela. But most will continue on, pursuing their dreams of a better life across the Simón Bolívar bridge, but discovering some harsh realities in Colombia: a lack of aid, resources, and jobs.



    “There are pregnant women, babies without diapers, and people with stomach problems”
    As Venezuela crisis spirals, needs across the Colombian border grow
  • Reporter’s Diary: Hope rises in Venezuela’s hunger-driven political crisis

    Smiles are more numerous here in Caracas than they have been for years. When I lived here last winter, apathy was widespread. President Nicolás Maduro’s soldiers had shot live rounds at protesters throughout the spring, quelling their courage and splitting the opposition. No one had the stomach for further protests, because what did it matter? Now, hope is on the rise again.


    Not even Juan Guaidó's wife knows where he is sleeping. Since the opposition leader proclaimed himself the legitimate president of Venezuela on 23 January – in the midst of street protests against Maduro’s regime – he has had to be cautious. He only appears in public at carefully planned events, people close to him say.


    From a podium on Saturday in Caracas shopping and leisure district Las Mercedes, he shares his plans with a crowd wrapped in flags and full of new hope. He will only serve as president until free elections can be held. His support from most of the world's democracies will make the army realise it’s time to abandon Maduro (only foot-soldiers at home and senior military people posted abroad have so far done so). A promise of amnesty to those who desert their posts will get the top brass to reconsider, says Guaidó, waving papers containing an amnesty law.


    This offer likely isn’t enough to tempt officials who make a lot of money from corruption, cocaine, food price speculation, and the artificially high exchange rate to change sides. But perhaps US sabre-rattling, the freezing of bank accounts, and a hunger crisis so bad even soldiers rummage through trash cans for food can get enough of the military to back Guaidó?


    Helena Carpio/IRIN
    Juan Guaidó speaks to supporters at Alfredo Sadel Plaza.

    The humanitarian crisis is now so bad that previously eradicated diseases like diphtheria and measles have returned, while the healthcare system, like the economy, is in a state of complete collapse. Maduro’s regime denies the crisis and refuses to accept most international aid, although the United States now says it will be sending aid at Guaidó’s request.


    Read more: As Venezuela’s denied crisis deepens, local aid groups shift tactics


    "Who is President?” the crowd chants. “Guaidó!” These scenes have been proliferating across the country. A few weeks ago, many protesters didn’t even know who Guaidó was. Here in Las Mercedes, they praise him as a national father figure, even though he is only 35 years old and his speech is quite forgettable. At least he's not Maduro. At least he has been able to unify the opposition. I stand a few metres from him; he looks calm and humble. He looks like someone who has had eight hours of solid sleep. Looks might be deceiving.


    “It’s now or never”


    "Venezuela will be free," says Gregory Sanabria with a smile. The 24-year-old theology student was released this summer after three years, eight months, and 26 days in the intelligence service SEBIN's snail-shaped torture palace, where grass grows in the crevices of the concrete and political prisoners disappear. Sanabria was accused of "participation in conspiracy", but his case never made it to trial. His eyes are still red, his forehead scarred by beatings, and the bones in his nose are broken. But now he is back on the streets – and an optimist again: "It’s different this time. Now, the world is on our side."


    Even while we speak, Guaidó has gained the support of several Western and Latin American countries. Most of the world's democracies are now backing him, while Russia and China – along with Cuba, North Korea, Iran, and Turkey – support Maduro.


    "It's now or never," says Sanabria, nervously smoking a cigarette.


    Venezuela may have two presidents, but only one of them, Maduro, has an army. If Guaidó is to have power, his supporters in poorer neighborhoods will have to continue facing down the military.


    I drive around between these areas on the back of a motorbike to sense the mood. You can drive for hours in Caracas and only see the sadness of slums: piles of burning garbage, mangy mutts, long queues in front of half-empty shops. We drive through red lights to avoid being mugged.


    Everywhere, anger towards Maduro is growing, but so is the brutality of his security forces. Some 850 people were arrested last week and at least 40 have been killed – many in their homes by the new FAES special forces. When ordinary soldiers refuse to kill, Maduro sends in FAES to do the job instead.


    Anger overflow


    "This shit has to end," rages Victor Marquez behind the Gato Negro metro stop, where Maduro comes to vote at elections. Marquez is a father of four. His minimum wage no longer allows him to buy enough food to feed his children. He lives in Catia in the western part of Caracas – once a Chavista stronghold, now a hive of rebellion.


    The riots began in earnest on 21 January, in Cotiza not far from here. Soldiers from the National Guard robbed an armory and seized a military barracks. When Maduro's forces moved in, the local residents took to the streets. Thrown bottles were met by live rounds, and eventually the rebel soldiers were taken away.


    But over the next few days, the rebellion in the slums just grew.


    Adriana Loureiro Fernández/IRIN
    Protests on 23 January 2019.

    On 23 January, the sound of shooting continued throughout the night in the José Félix Ribas neighbourhood, says a woman who is afraid to let her name be used.


    "It was ugly. Pow-Pow-Pow. It kept going, and garbage containers were set on fire in the middle of the street," she says, adding that she had to take a long detour to get home by bus.


    Maduro's enemies are in the majority, but his friends are better organised. Several are standing this Saturday afternoon in front of the peach-colored walls of the government palace of Miraflores, shouting "Chávez vive, viva Maduro", waving red flags, and listening to llanera folk music.


    "When Venezuela speaks, the cowards shake," a woman with very red lipstick sings.


    A woman from the poor neighbourhood of San Juan admits she is here because she received a threat: show up or lose the CLAP – the term for the boxes of food the government distributes free of charge to the country's poorest people.


    Read more: Hunger and Survival in Venezuela


    But 52-year-old Sixto Álvares – a Christian wearing a Cardenales de Lara baseball jersey and ripped jeans – is an ardent Maduro supporter. He calls Guaidó a coup instigator and a lackey for the empire, i.e. the United States. So, Guaidó should be jailed? I ask. "He’s just passed the age of responsibility, right?" the answer comes back.


    We are interrupted by a guard in civilian clothes with a moustache and walkie-talkie. I am not allowed to be here, he informs me, demanding to see my passport. I hand him my press credentials. “Passport,” he insists. "Wait here, and I'll get it to you right away," I answer, hurrying around a corner to get away. On Tuesday and Wednesday alone, 11 journalists were imprisoned or deported in Venezuela; only two have been released since. Like many others, I was also detained for hours at the airport when I arrived.


    "We've lost our fear"


    To get an idea just how much Maduro’s power is waning, I drive out to the infamous slum of 23 de Enero. It was named after 23 January, 1958 – the day the dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez was overthrown. It is probably the most famous stronghold of the Chavistas. Here, Hugo Chávez lies buried. Here, the colectivos, motorcycle militias faithful to the government, patrol the streets with long rifles and black Sandoval helmets.


    And here, also, contingents of Cubans are in charge of medical care, social services and, not least, surveillance. They make lists of anti-Maduro protesters. These lists are used by the colectivos when they go door to door to tell Maduro’s opponents they are being punished and will no longer receive the free food boxes from the government.


    The Chavistas have the power, but have they lost the people?


    "It has been many years since a majority of us actually supported them. Now, we just pretend," says 60-year-old José Ochoa, who is wearing a net undershirt and has a tribal tattoo, and a grandson on his arm. He is a secretary in one of the local Chavista councils and works in the Ministry of Education; on paper, at least, a true Chavista.


    But this loyalty is now a mirage. He claims that 40 of the 52 council members, like him, simply fake loyalty to ensure benefits for themselves and their loved ones. Nothing new, perhaps. But it is new and surprising that many are now so angry that they are happy to be quoted. Before, they used to sneak into neighbouring opposition areas to demonstrate. Now, they’re ready to do it right here, in the Chavista stronghold where they live.

    "They seemed to be afraid. So am I."

    We talk together in the yard while two stoned men sell cannabis and some happy children chase a football. Here, at noon, the colectivos are joyfully absent.


    "We've lost our fear," says 30-year-old Adriana Rodriguez. On 23 January, she and most of her apartment complex knocked on pots and pans and demanded Maduro’s resignation. The army and police had withdrawn from several of their posts in the neighbourhood and left the riot control to the colectivos, who stood on the rooftop of the 12-storey concrete building and aimed their guns at anyone who ventured into the yard.


    "They always do that," says Rodriguez. "But, this time, we defied them. We shouted "mamahuevo" (cocksuckers) and "we’ll kill you when your kingdom collapses" at them. They seemed to be afraid. So am I."


    Reporter’s Diary offers personal perspectives on humanitarian emergencies from our correspondents in the field.

    (TOP PHOTO: Crowds gather to listen to Juan Guaido at Alfredo Sadel Plaza. CREDIT: Helena Carpio/IRIN)

    "It’s different this time. Now, the world is on our side."
    Reporter’s Diary: Hope rises in Venezuela’s hunger-driven political crisis

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