Maduro victory in Venezuela leaves aid organizations bracing for more refugees

Nicolás Maduro, president of Venezuela. Photo by: chavezcandanga / CC BY-NC-SA

WASHINGTON — The results of Sunday’s Venezuelan presidential elections have left those responding to the country’s humanitarian situation bracing for an uptick in migrant outflow from the once prosperous oil-rich nation that is now on the brink of collapse.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was re-elected on Sunday to another six-year term, increasing the likelihood that the impact of this man-made crisis will continue to reverberate across the continent. The main opposition party boycotted the election, and much of the population appeared to heed their calls to stay home from polling stations, with turnout at 46 percent.

But Maduro claimed a victory, winning 68 percent of votes cast, and he has shown no interest in deviating from the policies that have caused an estimated 1.5 million Venezuelans to flee the country. His victory makes it likely that even more people will leave, according to humanitarian experts.

“What we do hear is that more and more people may expect to leave Venezuela because of the elections and fact that Maduro won again. I think for a period of time prior to the elections, many families were holding out to see if there would be a change,” said Provash Budden, Mercy Corps Americas regional director. “That hasn’t happened, and so we are expecting more people to leave this year. The number could go up to 2 million by end of the year.”

Although the results of the election are no surprise — the international community had widely condemned the electoral exercise as a sham before it even began — they are a grim signal for the future of Venezuela and its neighboring nations that continue to take in refugees fleeing hyperinflation and food and medicine shortages.

Colombia has been hosting the largest migrant population — an estimated 700,000 Venezuelans — with the majority currently residing near the border, Budden said. The U.S. pledged $18.5 million to aid the country’s response earlier this month, adding to the more than $21 million it has given for the regional response.

Yet some inside in the country say that with the situation likely to worsen, sending aid to Venezuela’s neighbors is not helping the situation for those Venezuelans who have not left.

“It’s important ... not just to attend the problem in the borders, it’s important to focus on what’s happening inside of Venezuela.”

— Beatriz Borges, executive director of the Centro de Justicia y Paz

Beatriz Borges, executive director of Venezuelan human rights nonprofit Centro de Justicia y Paz, said responding to the humanitarian situation inside the country is made more difficult because the majority of international aid is going to the border response, rather than to organizations working inside the country. The Venezuelan regime has restricted international aid access inside its borders, preventing a formal needs assessment and rejecting funds from the U.S.

“It’s important ... not just to attend the problem in the borders, it’s important to focus on what’s happening inside of Venezuela,” Borges said. “The chaos and consequence is in Venezuela, and it’s important to not forget [that].”

Yet with Washington and Caracas at diplomatic odds and an often precarious security situation on the ground in Venezuela, major aid organizations will likely continue find it difficult to reach civilians still inside the country.

Budden said his organization doesn’t have any local staff in Venezuela responding to the crisis due to the complications of working there.

“For Mercy Corps, as a global organization, to be able to set up shop for humanitarian assistance in Venezuela is near to impossible at this point,” Budden said. “We’ve been talking to Venezuelan organizations with whom we can partner.”

A statement from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the election as “fraudulent” and said the Maduro regime “selectively parceled out food to manipulate the votes of hungry Venezuelans.”

A senior U.S. administration official told reporters on a background call on Monday that on election day, near the polling stations, Venezuelans were rewarded for voting at booths with red awnings — the party color. Citizens had their identification cards scanned and then were given money or food if they had voted for Maduro.

“In Venezuela, the Maduro regime is using hunger as a weapon,” the official said. “We’ve seen multiple reports that neighborhoods not voting for the regime had their access to subsidized food benefits cut. In a country with rampant malnutrition, where people are losing weight and struggling to make ends meet, this insidious policy makes it clear you either vote for the regime or you explain to your family why there’s no food on the kitchen table.”

After calling for a regime change in Venezuela earlier this month, the U.S. responded to the election with a new set of sanctions targeting Venezuelan debt and equity transactions, but continued to hold off on imposing oil sanctions. Oil is Venezuela’s major export, and the country sits atop the largest known oil reserves in the world. Sanctioning that industry, however, would likely cause the country to collapse completely and spur an even deeper humanitarian crisis, economists and humanitarians say.

“Right now we are suffering,” Borges said from Caracas. “Those kind of measures can generate more suffering in Venezuela.”

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About the author

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    Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is a reporter with Devex based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa wrote about Latin America from McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She worked as 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.