After denying the existence of a humanitarian crisis for years and blocking foreign aid, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro struck an unexpected deal in March to allow the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to assist his increasingly hungry and sick population.
One month after the first shipment of medical supplies and generators arrived in Venezuela, The New Humanitarian spoke to Yves Daccord, director-general of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and IFRC Secretary General Elhadj As Sy to find out how the mission was going.
Amid ongoing political upheaval – opposition leader Juan Guaidó failed on 30 April to get the Venezuelan military to overthrow Maduro but this week opened talks with the US military to put renewed pressure on the president to resign – the top Red Cross officials acknowledged the politicised environment but said they had created the “space” for humanitarian help.
The economy of Venezuela, which has the largest proven oil reserves in the world, has collapsed over the past decade, with soaring inflation and a scarcity of jobs, food, and healthcare sending an estimated 3.7 millions citizens into flight since 2015.
In April, the ICRC announced it was almost tripling its budget for operations in Venezuela, from $9 million to $24.6 million. With other foreign aid to the country of 30 million people remaining limited, this is currently the biggest single humanitarian operation in Venezuela.
Read more → Venezuela: Millions at risk, at home and abroad
In late 2018, the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund released $9 million for aid within the country. The UN estimates that seven million Venezuelans, or a quarter of the population, need humanitarian assistance. The IFRC said a first phase of its reviewed humanitarian programme, which began in April, would assist some 650,000 Venezuelans.
Daccord stressed that emigrants remain a central concern as those leaving the country are increasingly desperate, while he and As Sy pointed to the many Venezuelans left behind struggling with disease and health problems and said strengthening the nation’s hospital system was a priority.
Here are excerpts of the interviews, edited for length and clarity.
TNH: What has happened since you reached the agreement with the government?
Elhadj As Sy: The situation in Venezuela is marked by the scale and magnitude of the needs, which are quite unprecedented. Among those needs we have identified health as amongst the most important, and it has become the priority for our intervention. We have managed to create a space to deliver supplies to help the medical infrastructure, with the Venezuelan Red Cross as well as hospitals and health centres in neighbouring countries. This is only a drop in the middle of much greater needs, but it is a beginning. It is one first step that we believe may be followed by many more. We are working with partners to maintain that open space in order to achieve more.
TNH: Since the recent protests and growing political tensions, have you reconsidered the amount of aid required?
As Sy: In spite of the tensions, we have managed to create a humanitarian space. We are doing everything possible to preserve it and continue to work in that spirit. So far, so good – that is has not been impacted by any political developments.
TNH: Are you talking with the opposition to coordinate assistance?
As Sy: We are talking with everybody. Sometimes we don’t know if they are opposition or if they are from the government because they don’t identify themselves as such. But these are critical players in the field that allow us to do the work, and they recognise and respect the Red Cross. The organisation was there before, it is there during, and it will be there after… It would have been more difficult if we were only present now… because it is very difficult to build a partnership in the middle of a crisis.
TNH: Mr Daccord, how do you assess the situation in the country, particularly since 1 May and heightened political tensions?
Yves Daccord: The situation is extremely tense in Venezuela. The main problem is that a political consensus does not exist today. The situation for the population is really difficult, and access to health services is very worrying and remains very complicated. Due to (spiralling) inflation, the economic situation remains dramatic, meaning that the ability for an average person to satisfy basic needs and access basic health services and medication remains extraordinarily complicated. The work of humanitarian workers is very limited proportionately to the needs.
“There is a total politicisation regarding humanitarian assistance.”
TNH: In the past, there was criticism regarding the close relationship between the Red Cross and Maduro’s government. Are these concerns to your organisation?
Daccord: The main concern that I have is that there is a total politicisation regarding humanitarian assistance. Every time we try to work on humanitarian issues and seek impartiality – in other words, to respond to the needs of the people not on the basis of their political affiliation – it’s extraordinarily politicised. The behaviour of some [foreign] states worries me, because every move is immediately politicised. There are countries like Ukraine, which is an interesting to compare to with Venezuela, where there is the same politicisation, which makes our work – and that of the local Red Cross organisations – extremely complicated.
TNH: Speaking of the politicisation of aid, and as you are working with both the government and the opposition, do you find that you are operating in certain parts of Venezuela more than others?
Daccord: Typically, in a complicated situation like this – one that does not involve open conflict – we work with the local Red Cross and its branches in different parts of the country and it is on them that we rely. However, on specific issues we negotiate with the government or the opposition according to requirements. We play a major role in negotiations, so that humanitarian aid works. We would like to establish a pipeline that could be much more open. We are in a serious situation, and unfortunately we need to prepare for even more complicated situations. I would really like us to have the capacity to work in the whole country, for all the people and not just for one side or the other. And on this point I am a bit worried.
TNH: Have you discussed what could be done with the aid that the United States delivered to the border earlier this year?
Daccord: The assistance that came from the US is ‘small’ aid. It is limited aid relative to the humanitarian needs. My main challenge with the government, as well as the opposition, is to gain the capacity for the national Red Cross, and for us too, to help the entire hospital system. That is a real priority. Secondly, is to provide critical protection of people. We forget that there are political prisoners. These are people who are very much in danger in such situations. And there are the migrants, the many people who leave the country. Those who had money and resources have already left. But the people who are leaving now are those with the least means possible. These are people who are really at risk. Within the migrant flow towards Colombia, there are many, many risks. The borders are very dangerous. So there is a lot of work to be done. This is what I am interested in, more than collecting aid from one point or another, but rather to work within the entire country.
(TOP PHOTO: A cancer ward in a Venezuelan hospital, from Susan Schulman’s coverage of the healthcare crisis in the country.)