In Brief: GAO report shows US sanctions impact humanitarian assistance

Volunteers serve lunch at a community kitchen in Cúcuta, Colombia at the Venezuelan border. Photo by: Marco Bello / Reuters

All nine U.S. Agency for International Development implementing partners in Venezuela have had bank transactions rejected or delayed, or had accounts closed due to concerns over running afoul of U.S. sanctions against Venezuela, according to a new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The sanctions, first imposed in 2015, have targeted government officials, other individuals contributing to the country’s political and humanitarian crisis, the Central Bank of Venezuela, and the state oil company. The GAO report was conducted to determine how the economic punishment targeted at the Venezuelan government was impacting delivery of humanitarian assistance in the country, which is experiencing a political and economic collapse that has left an estimated 96% of the population impoverished.

Despite the availability of U.S. Treasury Department licenses to authorize humanitarian-related transactions, some banks seek to protect themselves further by limiting entirely any dealings with Venezuela. Sanctions posed other challenges for operations, humanitarian organizations told GAO, including causing increased gas shortages, electrical outages, and supply chain disruptions.

Why it matters: As of September, USAID had obligated over $104 million for humanitarian assistance inside Venezuela. Despite momentum in 2019, the international community still finds itself incapable of dislodging Nicolás Maduro’s government, which remains in power as millions of Venezuelans pour out of the country’s borders. NGOs operating inside Venezuela face increasingly difficult conditions in distributing humanitarian assistance to the neediest population without political interference.

What to watch: House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair and Democratic Rep. Gregory Meeks said the report will “help Congress and the [President Joe] Biden Administration chart a better approach to Venezuela” after former President Donald Trump’s administration — but the U.S. government doesn’t have many remaining sticks in its diplomatic toolbox to restore democracy.

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is a Senior Reporter at Devex. She has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.

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