Q&A: Venezuela rejects appeals to organize humanitarian relief via UN mission

Isaías Arturo Medina Mejías, former member of Venezuela’s U.N. delegation. Photo by: Manuel Elias / U.N.

Venezuela’s government has rejected overtures to help mitigate the most profound humanitarian crisis in its recent history. The country is running short on basic medicines, inflation is skyrocketing, food is scarce, and malnutrition and insecurity are growing. A recent Gallup poll on personal security ranked Venezuela the lowest in the world, with just 12 percent of respondents feeling safe walking alone at night.

Those indicators are the tip of the iceberg, pollsters told Devex. “We’ve seen this disintegration in [Venezuela’s] scores … at almost every point in people’s life experiences,” said Julie Ray, author of the most recent Gallup report. “Everything has just tanked. The majority [of Venezuelans] before 2013 said they were thriving … and in 2016 that was 13 percent. The percentage of Venezuelans who said they didn’t have enough money for food in the last year shot all the way up to 80 percent. They now rival Malawi.”

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.

The situation is worsening. Late in July, the government held elections for a new Constituent Assembly that is set to rewrite the country’s constitution and has declared itself the highest authority in the nation. The United States, as well as a number of Venezuela’s neighbors, denounced the elections and have refused to recognize the new body. The U.S. Treasury imposed numerous sanctions against individuals in the weeks following, alleging links to drug trafficking, corruption and organized crime.

Meanwhile, protesters have crowded into the streets, alarmed at the appalling humanitarian crisis and with concerns that the new assembly will prolong the current government of President Nicolás Maduro. Police have responded with force, leaving at least 124 protesters dead.

From his former position as minister counselor at the Venezuelan mission to the United Nations, Isaias Medina had a front-row seat to the international community’s reaction. As reports streamed in of resurgent disease, food shortages and skyrocketing murder rates, the mission’s permanent representative — Medina’s boss — insisted there was no crisis. Medina himself received overtures from a branch of the Vatican, as well as U.N. agencies, to provide humanitarian assistance — all of which were rebuffed by his superiors.

He resigned in late July and made a video explaining his decision. He spoke to Devex about his last months at the United Nations and made a pitch for military intervention to facilitate humanitarian relief. He and like-minded advocates have been heartened by U.S. President Donald Trump, who told reporters he is considering military options. Many of Venezuela’s neighbors would likely balk at such a move, but Medina argues that armed action is the only way to ensure that civilians get access to the goods and services they need.

Here is our conversation with Medina, edited for length and clarity.

Why do you think there has been relatively little discussion of Venezuela’s situation at the U.N. and particularly at the U.N. Security Council? From your position at the mission, did you hear or see any dialogue behind the scenes about what could or should be done to resolve the ongoing crisis?

The situation is not as easy as it may look, because the United Nations is a multilateral forum for concerns of the international community. Nonetheless, once you breach the principles of the U.N. Charter, particularly the second pillar of human rights, then you start to see the organization move. For example, the high commissioner for human rights has expressed in his reports and denounced violations of human rights, torture to political prisoners and arbitrary detainees, and all kinds of torture and other violations, such as violations of due process, where you can see people — civilians — being tried by military courts.

This delusion policy of trying to diminish the importance [of the crisis] is very sad, and I think it’s a crime. 

This represents a very difficult situation for the United Nations to stay silent. There are more than 600 political prisoners, more than 130 citizens who have been murdered during manifestations, and 15,000 injured in the last four months. All these violations of human rights have been already signaled by the OCHR, but we have to go beyond that.

At the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. brought up Venezuela a few months ago — even before the crisis was getting worse — and it just wouldn’t [get support] by consensus. But there is a doctrine [of the Responsibility to Protect] that was actually adopted unanimously by all heads of state, even though some states like Venezuela do not accept it as such.

Nicolás Maduro has clearly violated the principle of the U.N. charter, and he has systematically committed violations of human rights and crimes against humanity. The Organization of American States has appointed the former prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to denounce the crimes against humanity committed by Maduro’s regime, and this is very important.

Atrocity crimes have regional and international implications that extend way beyond Venezuela’s borders. [Thousands of people] daily leave and go to neighboring countries like Colombia and Brazil [to buy goods and medicines]. Even national guards cross to the Guyana border, another brotherly neighbor, for food. Imagine the food scarcity right now. It is a very profound humanitarian crisis, and it calls for immediate action, including military support and intervention to protect civilian population. This may raise political and legal questions, but it would solve the humanitarian crisis for millions of Venezuelan people. It is imminent that the U.N. has to address this situation in a more profound way.

When you were with the U.N. mission, did you receive any overtures of support from the U.N., other member states, or other bodies offering to assist with the crisis?

Yes absolutely — even publicly. This was one of the milestones also for me to resign: When the Colombian foreign minister took to the floor of the UNSC, and she mentioned the need to address the humanitarian situation. Immediately after, Rafael Ramirez, who is the permanent representative, said that there was no humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. This was, for me, an explosion, and it was a signal for me to step down.

Let me give you another example. [Roughly five months ago, I was approached by Oscar Rojas, permanent observer of the sovereign military order of Malta to the United Nations.] It’s a philanthropic organization that is part of a branch of the Vatican, and they expressed their willingness to donate and distribute all medicines needed — all medicines needed — to cope with the humanitarian crisis.

If they are not responsible to their citizens, they lost legitimacy, and this is why we need international action to support humanitarian intervention.

I brought this to my authorities, and they said they would not accept that there is a humanitarian crisis in my country. This delusion policy of trying to diminish the importance [of the crisis] is very sad, and I think it’s a crime. [Look at] the current reports — a 36 percent increase [in child mortality]; 85 percent less medicine in 2016 than 2015; right now there is at least 1,800 percent inflation. It’s not only difficult to find medicines, but if you find them, you don’t have the money to buy them. The same thing happens with food. People are losing limbs, they have to [amputate them], for lack of dialysis for diabetic people. Maduro’s regime also now would jail doctors who attend to injured protesters.

You could get all these medicines and food through a humanitarian corridor. And it would be so easy to do, it’s just a matter of not accepting the crisis. It seems like Maduro has a time machine and he has brought Venezuelan health to the 19th century. This is unbelievable. Our people are dying from diseases that have been eradicated from the world since the 20th century.

How could a humanitarian corridor be constructed?

It’s not hard at all. An immediate humanitarian corridor with access to medicine and food would first of all likely be without cost to the Venezuelan government or people. It would be donations from different countries. Do you know how many times Venezuela has done this for natural disasters (or situations that merit help) for their neighbors? We’ve done it 100 times. But now, I ask, is it for political reasons that we are not accepting humanitarian help from our neighbors or other countries or organizations? What is first? Where is the responsibility to protect your citizens when a government irresponsibly attacks its own citizens?

How do I see the humanitarian corridor happening? It’s very easy. First of all, the government health department needs to meet with [representatives of aid groups such as the Mission of Malta], and they would scout, what do you need exactly, what kind of medicines and what amount. After that is set up, the aid group would go and obtain these donations, and meanwhile what you do is ask for a permit to import them, and this is duty free.

Then once they get the permit, the supplies are sent to the country, they enter through the customs without any taxes, and then they are distributed proportionally to the people in hospitals in the different regions. You could even have Médecins Sans Frontières, or other NGOs, that would come and help out. Then the food: you get different countries with different foods to donate.

Our people are dying from diseases that have been eradicated from the world since the 20th century.

There have also been models by the U.N. to help with food programs. But what happens with the U.N. is that unless the member states requests the help, they cannot give it. I have the utmost respective for the U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, who says he is looking for preventative actions. But what he’s waiting for is for the country to request what it needs. I am more than certain that the U.N. has not only the capabilities and infrastructure and logistics, but also the willingness to help.

If the supplies became available, could the state public service system still distribute them and reactivate itself, after so many months of deprivation?

It’s very difficult, and this is why organizations such as the Mission of Malta presented to me the idea and need for them to help out with distribution. This is for many reasons. First to deliver the needed help to the most vulnerable citizens. But if you look at it in another way, the economic situation it’s so distraught, that if you give this to national guard, they would try to make a business, they would sell it, they would probably try to export it. Corruption is already in the bone marrow of the national guard. They make almost no money, and whatever they have, they cannot buy anything [because of the high inflation]. So now it’s make money however you can.

What impact do you think the U.S. sanctions are having or could have?

They are so important. Just one example, [in sanctioning] the former vice president, they already found $3 billion in the U.S. hidden under accounts from his family members and so on. Imagine the impact from $3 billion. My question is: can we repatriate this money back to the Venezuelan people? What about other sanctions?

I believe that we can even go further. We have to close the possibility for Maduro’s regime to be able to keep financing repression against its citizens. Economic sanctions are very important. Some people are talking about maybe a food for oil program, so as to get all the revenues from the U.S. imports from Venezuela from the different companies that purchase it and put in an escrow account. From the escrow account, we can help the Venezuelan people with food and money.

There are many ways that I think are still on the table, and as the U.S. has said, no options are off the table, including military. The sanctions are going to be very effective. The EU also offered to do the same, and you’ve seen that other countries have also adhered to U.S. sanctions. More than 50 countries have expressed their repudiation of the Constituent Assembly.

Can regional efforts at mediation and de-escalation be effective?

I am a strong believer in Chapters 6 and 8 of the U.N. Charter, which are actual mechanisms to resolve disputes among the members states, utilizing regional and subregional organizations. This is very effective — as long as you have persons of good faith and there is a level playing field among member states.

But Maduro’s regime is not an ordinary government. The Pope, the Vatican, many ex-presidents, they have all tried many times to have dialogue. All [the Venezuelan government does] is delay, delay and delay, because what they wanted to accomplish was to have this illegal Constituent Assembly.

Now what [the Constituent Assembly is] going to do is amend the constitution to keep undermining human rights and try to take out all the peoples’ guarantees. Articles 333 and 350 were new articles brought in the 1999 constitution of Venezuela. [Article] 333 states that the constitution will never expire or be changed unless you follow through the procedures established in the constitution, which [Maduro has] already violated. What that means is that the [old] constitution is not amendable until you [follow those procedures], so it will remain active.

There will be a very different constitution if we allow this Constituent Assembly to draft a new one. It would be a communist, totalitarian, authoritarian constitution that would allow them to keep violating human rights.

Article 350, which [the Constituent Assembly] will take out immediately, is an incredible article; we never had it in any constitution in Venezuela before. What it entails is to allow for civil disobedience and civil rebellion in the case that any regime undermines human rights or violates the constitution. What you see in the streets right now, and what you saw two Sundays ago with an uprising of former militaries joined with some active military and civilian components, is completely legal and justifiable. You cannot use sticks and stones against bullets. This rebellion is trying to bring back the rule of law, through military action. It’s very difficult.

When there is a military action to support humanitarian intervention, people including military who maybe are silent now, will come out into the streets with open arms and welcome intervention in order to bring back the rule of law under Article 350. There will be a very different constitution if we allow this Constituent Assembly to draft a new one. It would be a communist, totalitarian, authoritarian constitution that would allow them to keep violating human rights.

You mentioned that you believe there is a willingness on the part of the U.N. to assist. Did you hear anything more concrete to give you this impression while you were at the mission?

I remember that it was in the newspapers: somebody gave the idea that Maduro wanted to reach out to the U.N. for humanitarian help. The U.N. moved on everyone in the mission: How can we help? Is this true? We haven’t gotten a letter. It happened, and then one month, two months, three months later — they kept asking.

Do you think anyone [in the mission] was able to answer this? It was a smoke bomb, like everything they do. It was like a psychotic person, blaming anybody else for their mistakes. [Maduro] calls [the situation] an economic war from Colombia and the U.S. That is not true; it’s just a failed state that has not been able to keep good governance.

When people in the mission got these requests and offers to help, and as they watched the news reports, were they also troubled by the incongruity with policy? Or do some really not accept that there is a humanitarian crisis?

I think a lot of them, who are career diplomats, are seriously concerned about happening. There is a moment when I guess it’s a personal decision whether to keep quiet, and in my personal position, I believe that you’re either contributing to the solution or collaborating with the problem — and that’s why I preferred to resign, so that I can speak freely without any constraint, as one of 30 million Venezuelans that at least I have the fortune to be outside the country right now.

Did you experience any personal retribution from your resignation?

Of course. The first thing they did was to cancel my visa. Luckily enough I had my own personal passport, which is why I waited a little bit before I resigned. But I withdrew myself and got a leave of absence from the mission because I could not deal with it anymore, I felt completely affected by the situation. They are opening processes against me right now. I have to move around, for security reasons. My phone has been hacked several times.

I believe that you’re either contributing to the solution or collaborating with the problem — and that’s why I preferred to resign.

But I don’t really care. I have nothing to hide. Everything I’m saying is very clear and transparent. I have no ties to anybody else. I have no contract with anybody else. I’m doing this based on my principles. And I feel for every Venezuelan they kill and every person in the street who is suffering. This is why I am taking it upon myself to deliver this message to raise the awareness of the international community, and I have been calling for a humanitarian intervention since day one.

What would you say to aid organizations that might be willing to help or assist in the event that it becomes possible down the road?

I think it would be incredibly positive if NGOs, civil society, foundations, and all kinds of charitable philanthropic organizations that understand what the problem is — mainly health, food scarcity and medical treatment — that they can compile what they have and offer it openly. Maybe even talk to the U.S. government. Or the other way around, because military operation is not the priority; the priority is international humanitarian intervention. All these organizations can say, OK U.S., can you back us up? We can go in there, you can protect us, to protect the civilian population.

This is what it’s all about. It’s not to overthrow a government, but to bring humanitarian help to the civilian population. But due to the fact that this dictatorship does not allow the humanitarian help, I think there is a very clear sign that they need to be removed from their positions of power. [You need to enable] a very open and transparent [process] by international observers. I would have the U.N. hold a general election for the people to allow to choose their government, and also a commission of truth like the one they had in Guatemala.

If they are not responsible to their citizens, they lost legitimacy, and this is why we need international action to support humanitarian intervention.

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About the author

  • Elizabeth Dickinson

    Elizabeth Dickinson is a former associate editor at Devex. Based in the Middle East, she has previously served as Gulf correspondent for The National, assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy, and Nigeria correspondent at The Economist. Her writing also appeared in The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Politico Magazine, and Newsweek, among others.