In February 2019, a tense standoff over US humanitarian aid for Venezuelans led to accusations of a foreign invasion and rival pop concerts at opposite ends of the bridge connecting Venezuela to the Colombian border town of Cúcuta.
A year on, much has changed, but not the politicisation of aid within Venezuela.
According to Miguel Pizarro, who acts as the UN representative and as an intermediary with international organisations for the opposition “government” of Juan Guaidó, politics is even depriving people of basic services.
“If you demonstrate, and raise your voice, and go to the streets, you do not have food, medicine, water, or domestic gas,” Pizarro told The New Humanitarian. “Eighty percent of Venezuelan households are supplied with gas by the state. If you become active in the political arena, they take away that right.”
Employees of international organisations operating in Venezuela say they feel under constant pressure from the Venezuelan government. A representative of one UN agency in the capital, Caracas, told TNH that President Nicolás Maduro’s socialist government is trying to manipulate information by accusing those who collaborate with the humanitarian effort of supporting capitalism.
But Maduro, who back in early 2019 was denouncing the arrival of US supplies as the early stages of a US military invasion, has evolved his position on foreign aid over the past 12 months.
Last March, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) negotiated terms with Maduro – who had long denied the existence of a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela – to allow aid to be delivered. Soon after, the UN announced it was stepping up its programmes.
But aid remains reliant on shifting political dynamics, on both global and national fronts, and humanitarian groups are struggling to address what are still – despite almost five million people having fled the country’s economic meltdown since 2015 – growing needs within Venezuela.
Feliciano Reyna, president of Acción Solidaria, a local Venezuelan NGO that works with more than 100 partner organisations around the country to provide health services and supplies to the population, told TNH that the government regularly pressures the aid groups providing the urgent services it can’t.
“We are going into public hospitals with the help of physicians. But it is all done underground, quietly, taking into account the risks and the fact that we could be raided at any time, or harassed, or criminalised,” he explained.
Reyna feared a recent World Food Programme food security assessment, which reported a more serious crisis, might prevent the WFP from gaining hoped-for access to the country. "It may not be seen by the government with a good eye and they may prevent the World Food Programme from coming in, at least for a while,” he said.
The assessment estimates that roughly one third of the population – some 9.3 million Venezuelans – are food insecure, 2.3 million of them severely.
Hyperinflation, estimated to have exceeded one million percent since 2012, has seriously impeded the ability to purchase food, with many people earning $5 or less a month. Dietary diversity has deteriorated and families are surviving largely off cereals, roots, and tubers, according to the WFP assessment.
After the regime softened its stance in April 2019 – accepting humanitarian aid as a means to confront “punishing US economic sanctions” – the ICRC tripled its budget for operations in Venezuela to $24.6 million. But, in spite of a call from UN Secretary-General António Guterres to meet the “significant and growing” needs in the country, securing funding for the aid programmes of the UN and others has proved difficult.
The UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, reported a funding shortfall in November of $146 million for its 2019 response plan, which targeted 2.6 million people in need. Meanwhile, the IFRC said in December that less than 10 percent of its CHF 50 million international appeal for the year had been funded.
Amid these funding concerns, Pizarro met recently with international organisations in Geneva to underline the scale of Venezuela’s aid needs. TNH caught up with him as he returned to the city late last month for the opening of the Human Rights Council.
Here are extracts of that interview, edited for length and clarity.
TNH: How does the current situation in Venezuela compare to a year ago at the time of the aid blockade at the border?
Miguel Pizarro: Without any doubt, the situation is much worse than one year ago. As we saw in the recently published World Food Programme assessment… almost one third of the population is not able to buy food and the basic supplies they need for survival.
If we look at what is going on in the health sector… 40 percent of hospitals do not have electricity, 70 percent of hospitals do not have regular access to water. They also do not have supplies, and only 10 percent of hospitals are conducting surgeries. That gives you a clear panorama of what is happening inside the country.
TNH: In February, you were here in Geneva to speak with some of the international organisations. What did you discuss and what leverage do you have in your role as a representative of the political opposition?
Pizarro: There is a sense of urgency. Sometimes, those in the international community only see numbers and PowerPoint presentations; they don’t see the real urgency within the country... four out of every 10 kids aren’t growing as they should because they don’t have the food or receive basic assistance, they are being condemned for the future. It is a generation that is nearly lost due to the lack of attention. The international community needs to pressure the regime to force a humanitarian space within the country. Without that pressure, and this is a message to all countries, there is no way that Maduro’s regime will open the country for humanitarian assistance the way it should. He is not allowing clusters to be developed as they should; he is not allowing the full access UN agencies should have to deliver assistance; and the regime is not allowing the registration of international NGOs to implement the last mile of coverage in the distribution of humanitarian assistance.
But the biggest concern we have regarding humanitarian assistance in the country is how to avoid its diversion and political use. The only control the regime has over the population comes from two sources. First, from brutal force – from the police, the FAES (the Special Actions Force within the police), SEBIN (the national intelligence service), and counter-intelligence. The second force is social control. If you demonstrate, and raise your voice, and go to the streets, you do not have food, medicine, water or domestic gas. Eighty percent of Venezuelan households are supplied with gas by the state. If you become active in the political arena, they take away that right. In the 21st century, just imagine a population that is deprived of water, gas, and electricity. How can they live?
TNH: What proposals have you presented to the international organisations?
Pizarro: First, we need to build capacities within national organisations. You have a lot of NGOs and civil society organisations from the human rights and development sectors that became humanitarian groups because of the [new] realities surrounding them and the [new] context. But you need to scale up the capacity of the organisations inside the country to allow the delivery of the assistance to be the least politicised it can be. Also, regarding… the humanitarian response plan and the needs map within the country that are being developed by the UN, it is very important that the numbers and the reality reflected in those reports are accurate, and that they do not underestimate a crisis that has been unprecedented in our region. Why do we need these two documents? We are trying to build… the humanitarian space and mobilise all the funds and organisations to, at very least, attend to the most urgent: to children, through school feeding, by providing them with food and assistance, and the elderly, who are most impacted by the refugee situation. You now have a population made up of grandparents and grandchildren, but where the middle section of the population – the parents – is missing. The vulnerable elderly have been left behind.
Meanwhile, the structural damage in the health system and in the water supply system make it impossible to eradicate tuberculosis, malaria, polio. Without the appropriate infrastructure, people living in the provinces, those who are in most need of attention – the poorest of the poor – receive no medical attention, as the only infrastructure that exists is located in the small hubs in the main cities. People with the least means face [having] fewer opportunities and less critical infrastructure.
TNH: Is there concern about the lack of transparency regarding aid distribution within Venezuela?
Pizarro: I do not think that a generic answer to that question is fair. Everyone has doubts regarding the distribution of aid. Regarding the vaccination efforts, it is very difficult to obtain public data about those efforts, because the regime would not allow anyone to keep a list and know which children are being vaccinated by them. So that data is not available.
The government is using the school feeding programme for propaganda, saying we are feeding thousands of children when that information is not real. There is a huge gap between what they claim they are doing and what is actually happening.
The humanitarian actors find themselves in the middle of this situation. You cannot blame the humanitarian actors for the manner in which they are attempting to deliver the assistance. But we have to focus on the regime, because the lack of transparency, the lack of logistical autonomy, and the lack of access is due to them and political decisions.
TNH: Your panel event in early February at the UN in Geneva was sponsored in part by the US mission. You mentioned the politicisation of aid, but are you not concerned that support from President Donald Trump’s administration may be detrimental to your efforts?
Pizarro: We have a wide alliance spectrum. The [February] event was sponsored by the Czech Republic, Brazil, and the United States. This week [during the Human Rights Council], we had an event that included Canada, Guatemala, Honduras, Peru, Chile, and Ecuador. We have countries helping us in different efforts… We are trying to maintain the biggest consensus possible because... we are a cause for freedom and democracy. If a country wants to support us, we are more than welcome to receive them.
TNH: How much more assistance do you think the country really needs?
Pizarro: Right now, the approach of the humanitarian actors in Venezuela is based on capacity and not on needs. Therefore, when you are based on capacity, you are only covering what you can cover. The first change of mindset that is needed is to aim towards the needs, because if you focus on the needs you then are forced to build capacities. Currently, we are only covering about 10 percent of the country’s needs. We have insight in some areas. We know what is going on with PAHO [the Pan-American Health Organisation, the WHO’s regional arm] and part of the Red Cross efforts. OCHA tries to share efforts for a lot of what is being done. But the scale… of their attention within the country is small in comparison with the level of the crisis. No matter what happens in the near future… if we don’t scale [up] the capacities and do not aim for the needs, it will be impossible to have a different approach inside the country.
Why is the operation small right now, even though [Venezuela] is recognised by the world as a humanitarian emergency and you have a lot of civil society actors involved in the effort? It’s because in the same way that the political side of the regime – the regime’s control – doesn’t allow the scaling up of the humanitarian response, it is impossible to achieve what you have to do. An example is the logistics cluster. In any humanitarian country team, a cluster for logistics exists to develop how things reach every part of a country. You don’t have that cluster development in Venezuela. The regime is trying to keep control of transportation. Every organisation and every humanitarian actor has to request permission from the government to bring one box of medicines from point A to point B.
TNH: Are there not efforts by organisations to bypass these constraints?
Pizarro: They do a lot. They work in semi-clandestine ways, but under a dictatorship that involves huge risks. From the perspective of the regime, you become a criminal, no matter what you may be transporting in your truck. What we are trying to do is maintain a certain distance between the political actors and the humanitarian actors, because, since last year, we have been trying to build a humanitarian space. We are in the middle of the worst political confrontation in our history, because one guy is trying to remain in political power at all possible cost. What we are saying is that we need all the international pressure against the regime, and in parallel we need to open the sources to reduce harm to the population and to address the level of suffering we are now seeing. But that is not new. If you listen within the Human Rights Council, it sometimes sounds as if the Venezuelan crisis began in 2017. I was elected to my second mandate in the National Assembly in 2015 and our first act in 2016 was to declare a humanitarian emergency. At that time, it was reported that two out of 10 children were not developing normally. Four years later that number is four out of 10 children. At the time, it was 2.5 million people needing assistance. It is now 9.3 million people. Time matters.