Q&A: Protecting the people in the center of Venezuela's humanitarian disaster

Marianella Herrera-Cuenca, the director of Venezuelan Health Observatory, a research center at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas. Photo by: Center for Strategic and International Studies / CC BY-NC-SA

Venezuela is in the grip of a humanitarian crisis with crippling shortages of food, medicine and other essential commodities.

But authorities in Venezuela have denied the existence of a disaster in the country. No official statistics on death tolls are available to the public as the Venezuelan government has clamped down on data from being released to the international community. But figures obtained by Human Rights Watch from the Ministry of Health shows that the rate of maternal mortality is higher than previous years. Between January and May 2016, there were 130.7 deaths for every 100,000 births, which is 79 percent higher than the 73.1 rate in 2009.

Experts fear that the situation will worsen unless the government and international community take strong steps to solve some of the country’s problems.

There needs to be a political will to turn things around, says Marianella Herrera-Cuenca, the director of Venezuelan Health Observatory, a research center at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas, during a presentation at a CSIS event titled “Venezuela's Health Sector: Current Crisis and Opportunities for International Engagement.”

Venezuela's humanitarian crisis is worse than you think

Once among the richest countries in Latin America, Venezuela now needs an estimated $500 million in humanitarian assistance to halt spiraling shortages, outbreaks and widespread deprivation. The trouble is, the government won't admit there's a problem.

But in the meantime, Herrera-Cuenca said her organization and others are carrying out local interventions to ameliorate the situation. One big push is in the area of education. For example, VHO is carrying out research in the area to provide data that can assist organizations in mapping out solutions.

“We don't want the people to be damaged for the rest of their lives. Whatever state the people are in, we have to protect them and that is where we are focusing,” she said.

Devex talked with Herrera-Cuenca to gain insight on the current situation on ground and how the international community can improve its response to the crisis.

You believe it has taken too long to convince the international development community that there is a crisis in Venezuela. Why do you think it took so long?

It took so long because international agencies have a way of working in partnership with government. And they support what the government is doing and it is normal … But of course there was something going on. We could see alteration in the food distribution, alteration in some of the cities or communities where the children are experiencing undernourishment. But the general population was not aware of that. So a lesson from this is that there are alarms and you have to watch for these alarms. But we couldn't convince [the global community] because the general data was not with us.

What role do you think regional bilateral and international organizations can play in resolving the current humanitarian crisis?

I think they could be more open to dialogue and accept that even though there are some things that they had to respect in their agreement with government, they should take, for example, good academic research [that is] methodologically correct and from there start working with a team of experts that are technically adequate to improve the situation and work on solutions that can be reached by everyone.

Talking about solutions, what are some of the reforms you are expecting to see moving forward?

I would like to see a big promotion on breast-feeding in the short term along with education for mother and child. Education is a priority. Every nutrition and health care program will benefit from education.

Considering that the situation in Venezuela can happen in another country, what preventive measures can be put in place?

See the alarms [early]. When you are monitoring data and you see something is not as expected, if that is methodically correct you should take that into account. Do not disregard that.

During your presentation you also mentioned the need for more collaboration, what does that look like for the global development community?

Yes. If somebody, for example, now has a situation with food shortage, a collaboration with a Venezuelan expert will be wonderful because we now know how to deal with that. Regarding research experience, international collaboration is definitely a good thing because there are techniques you can learn to improve what you already have.

What is the current situation now in Venezuela?

The current situation is very bad. People are queuing an average of eight hours to get some food and many people still cannot get food. We have to correct that in the short term. Mostly infants under 2 years old are vulnerable and should be [protected]. Undernourished children should not exist. That is unethical. It is should not be happening in the 21st century.

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About the author

  • Ehidiamen jennifer

    Jennifer Ehidiamen

    Jennifer Ehidiamen is a Nigerian writer who is passionate about communications and journalism. She has worked as a reporter and communications consultant for different organizations in Nigeria and overseas. She has an undergraduate degree in mass communication from the Nigerian Institute of Journalism, Lagos, and M.A. in business and economics from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, New York. In 2014, she founded Rural Reporters (www.ruralreporters.com) with the goal of amplifying underreported news and issues affecting rural communities.