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.
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.
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.
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)