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)