Could USAID deliver Venezuela assistance through neutral channels?

Boxes containing humanitarian aid at a warehouse on the Tienditas cross-border bridge between Colombia and Venezuela in Cucuta, Colombia. Photo by: REUTERS / Edgard Garrido

WASHINGTON — As the U.S. government plans expanded sanctions against Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Venezuela, some experts believe the Trump administration should direct more assistance through politically neutral channels to blunt the impact those measures might have on the country’s already distressed citizens.

“Aid groups that are operating in Venezuela need to do so … quietly and with very little publicity, and if there’s any uptick in the amount of aid they’re distributing it gets noticed and scrutinized.”

— Marco Rubio, U.S. Republican senator

“My concern about the additional effect of the sanctions is based on talking actually to humanitarian workers inside Venezuela who are concerned, not that people eating three meals a day go down to two meals a day and lose 20 pounds, but [that] there is actually widespread starvation,” Cynthia Arnson, director of the Wilson Center’s Latin American program, told lawmakers on Capitol Hill Thursday.

The U.S. Agency for International Development has airlifted and prepositioned multiple shipments of humanitarian supplies, but efforts to deliver those lifesaving goods inside Venezuela have so far been blocked by Maduro loyalists.

On Thursday, USAID’s deputy administrator accompanied a military flight carrying the latest shipment of humanitarian goods to Cúcuta, Colombia.

If the Trump administration moves forward with additional sanctions, as the president’s special envoy Elliott Abrams suggested it would, that would increase the urgency of ensuring aid actually reaches the people who need it. Since the U.S. efforts are embroiled in the geopolitical standoff with Venezuela, private and independent groups that have had some success moving relief supplies across the border could provide a needed solution, Arnson told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

“It would be very important to channel some portion of U.S. assistance — not just have it parked on the border waiting to go into Venezuela — but actually channel it through the various organizations that have been able to maintain their neutrality and are on the ground and are looking for a nonpolitical way to get that money in and get it out to needy people regardless of any kind of political affiliation,” she said.

Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida who chaired the hearing, agreed that finding neutral channels for aid would be a good idea, but doubted that such groups would actually be willing to provide this kind of channel for American assistance.

“The problem is that current aid now is basically an open secret,” Rubio said.

“These aid groups that are operating in Venezuela need to do so, but they need to do so quietly and with very little publicity, and if there’s any uptick in the amount of aid they’re distributing it gets noticed and scrutinized,” he said.

Increased aid deliveries run counter to two narratives the Maduro regime has put forward, Rubio argued. The first is that there is no humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. The second is that the regime is the sole provider of staple items, which gives them control over the population.

“If there’s a significant increase in the amount of aid you’re distributing, it might cancel your entire program, because the Maduro regime doesn’t want you to do that. Ideally, you would be able to work through those groups, but those groups don’t want it, because it endangers their small-scale existing programs,” Rubio said.

USAID attempted to send aid across the border on Feb. 23, resulting in a dramatic standoff that erupted into violence and left an estimated 86 people injured and two trucks carrying aid supplies on fire. Other protests along the Venezuelan border with Brazil left at least two dead and more than a dozen wounded.

In recent days, USAID took an inventory of the material losses that the humanitarian goods sustained in the confrontations. “The good news is the losses were relatively minor, and so that assistance is being repositioned,” Mark Green, USAID’s administrator, told the Senate committee.

“It really is up to the leadership of interim president Guaidó. This assistance was prepositioned at [the] specific request from Guaidó to President Trump, Secretary Pompeo, and all of us, and so we are working with him and following his lead,” Green said.

About the author

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    Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.