NEW YORK — The United Nations and international aid agencies should now begin contingency planning for executing a humanitarian response in Venezuela, opposition leaders, exiled officials, economists, and fellow regional governments urged around the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday.
Despite escalating shortages of food and medicine, as well as widespread insecurity, the government of President Nicolas Maduro has denied the existence of any humanitarian crisis and rejected outside assistance. Offers of aid from neighboring countries, the Vatican, and the United Nations have been turned away.
A former top diplomat for Venezuela at the United Nations tells Devex why he resigned his position and how his former mission received countless offers of help for a profound humanitarian crisis — all rebuffed by Caracas.
But key figures in the Venezuelan opposition and local government told Devex that international humanitarian organizations could begin working with them, through the National Assembly and elected municipality leaders, to establish plans for aid distribution. These leaders told Devex that they need more clarity from the international community on what aid they would be willing and able to provide and urged aid groups to consider building links inside Venezuela now.
“I think the first thing [we need to do] is to take a diagnostic of what countries and what international organizations can support us with humanitarian aid and to clearly understand how much,” first Vice President of the Venezuelan Assembly Freddy Guevara told Devex. “Until we have a political solution, [international organizations] need to work with the opposition and the institutions to prepare the actions of political socioeconomic recovery that we can begin.”
Without those connections and relationships, future relief and recovery could prove challenging. At the moment, public institutions would likely struggle to absorb and distribute assistance in a fair, needs-based way. The economic crisis and widespread insecurity have weakened public institutions and left many distribution networks in the hands of military or government-allied armed actors.
Opposition leaders, regional governments, and U.S. government officials gathered to discuss the Venezuelan crisis on Tuesday at the Concordia Forum. The conversation served as a vivid reminder of the depth of the humanitarian challenge. Three-quarters of Venezuelans have lost at least 9 kilograms from lack of food, and infant mortality rates have risen by as much as 70 percent, participants said.
“We need immediate solutions, because hunger does not wait," Liliana Tintori, wife of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, told the Forum by Skype. “This is a call to the international community.”
The conversation followed a dinner meeting on Monday between U.S. President Donald Trump and regional leaders to discuss Venezuela. Presidents Michel Temer of Brazil, Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, Juan Carlos Varela of Panama, and Argentina Vice President Gabriela Michetti attended.
“The Venezuelan people are starving, and their country is collapsing. Their democratic institutions are being destroyed. The situation is completely unacceptable, and we cannot stand by and watch,” Trump told the U.N. General Assembly in his speech to the body on Tuesday morning. “We are prepared to take further action if the government of Venezuela persists on its path to impose authoritarian rule on the Venezuelan people.”
Aid groups seeking to form connections with the Venezuelan opposition would need to be deftly aware of the political risks in order to not jeopardize their interlocuteurs.
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David Smolansky, an opposition mayor of the El Hatillo municipality who fled Venezuela in August after being sentenced to 15 months in prison, told Devex about the challenges of making those connections under scrutiny from authorities. “I’ve worked a lot to find to build alliances with international community, but it's difficult because you could be threatened immediately,” he said.
Aid organizations could also begin drawing up their own needs assessments, so as to be ready to deliver assistance when they can. The U.N. could appoint a country humanitarian coordinator for Venezuela, suggested Jared Genser, managing director of Perseus Strategies, LLC, who has served as a legal representative for Lopez. “Appoint a coordinator to consider what’s possible,” he urged.
Regional country officials said that this planning effort was urgent, given the growing stakes and impact of the Venezuelan crisis.
One possibility for greater international aid would be to work along Venezuela’s borders, Juan Carlos Pinzon, former ambassador of Colombia to the U.S. who resigned, told Devex. Tens of thousands of Venezuelans are believed to have crossed into Colombia to live and work over the past two years. Hundreds of thousands, meanwhile, come to Colombia to buy key staples and medicines that are no longer available in Venezuela.
“We don’t have a serious policy right now on refugees and because of the scale of what is happening in Venezuela, it’s no longer immigration; it’s a refugee crisis.”— Juan Carlos Pinzon, former ambassador of Colombia to the United States
“I think Colombia should ask the international community at the U.N. level, the refugee agency ... to help us to create a humanitarian program for Venezuelans in need, so they can come and be protected, fed, and treated with dignity, even to prepare them for jobs,” Pinzon said.
While there are a number of international responders on the Colombian border, the scale of the response isn’t yet enough, said Pinzon. “More is required. We don’t have a serious policy right now on refugees and because of the scale of what is happening in Venezuela, it’s no longer immigration; it’s a refugee crisis.”
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