Venezuela's humanitarian crisis tests military loyalties
In Venezuela, both the acting president, Nicolas Maduro, and the interim president, Juan Guaido, are claiming leadership of the country. Guaido can count on support from the United States and numerous European countries, whereas Maduro is backed up by Russia, China, and — to date — the Venezuelan military. Now, though, the row over urgently needed aid supplies is set to become an arena for the power struggle. Supplies of food and medication in Venezuela are disastrously inadequate.
"Apart from the fact that it's very difficult right now to get hold of food in Venezuela on a regular basis, what shocks me most is the total collapse of public hospitals," economist Pablo Rafael Gonzalez told DW. "We are experiencing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, and one of the consequences is that there are no medicines, because the national pharmaceutical industry had already been wrecked under Hugo Chavez' government.
It's also virtually impossible to find doctors and nurses, because the majority have left the country, along with more than three million refugees," Gonzalez explained. "And although there are hospitals that are still functioning, people don't have the money to pay for treatment. Six dollars — the equivalent of the monthly minimum wage in the local currency, bolivars – will hardly buy you a kilo of cheese."
In an interview with the Spanish television station LaSexta just this week, Maduro was asked if he was responsible for the humanitarian crisis in his country. Maduro replied: "There is no humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. Many people have been lied to about this."
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Massive food shortages cause widespread hunger
However, contrary to Maduro's assertion, a survey by several Venezuelan universities about living conditions in Venezuela found that 64 percent of respondents had lost an average of 11 kilos because they couldn't get hold of enough food. The United Nations estimates that three and a half million people have had to leave Venezuela, in part because of the inadequate food supply.
Admitting the existence of a humanitarian crisis would be an implicit admission that Maduro's government has failed. And no country or international organization can insist on providing aid to another country if its government will neither request nor accept it. Now, though, Guaido has asked the international community for help.
"I have confirmed to the interim president @jguaido that [the Colombian border town] Cucuta will be one of the three humanitarian aid collection centers for Venezuela. We will provide the necessary equipment, medicines, food and everything else our sister nation needs," Colombian president Ivan Duque tweeted on February 4.
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Political observers regard the assurances of aid from foreign governments as a calculated move. "This is a clever strategy from the countries in the Lima Group of 13 South American countries plus Canada and the USA, which serves a dual purpose," Roberto Cajamarca, a former Colombian diplomat in Venezuela, told DW. "The primary objective is to provide immediate aid to people whose lives are currently endangered, patients in need of dialysis, transplant recipients without immunosuppressive drugs, or people who are severely malnourished, including around 200,000 children."
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Will the army let aid in?
But Cajamarca says that the immediate provision of aid from abroad is also an attempt to put pressure on the Venezuelan armed forces. "If the Venezuelan army lets the aid in, it will be disobeying the orders of President Maduro," he explains. "And if it doesn't let the supplies in, the military will have to explain why it's blocking this aid, which the whole population urgently needs." The military may well have to explain itself very soon: Venezuelan soldiers have closed the border crossing at Las Tienditas near Cucuta to all aid deliveries until further notice — presumably on Maduro's orders.
So could the dispute over humanitarian aid escalate the situation? Cajamarca believes it could lead to a split within the Venezuelan military, and, in a worst-case scenario, to armed incidents at the border once medicines and food supplies arrive.
This is why he believes it would be better to entrust the distribution of these supplies to experienced international nongovernmental organizations, like Caritas and the Red Cross, rather than to armed soldiers. Janeth Marquez, the director of Caritas Venezuela, has already called on the Venezuelan authorities not to obstruct the import of aid deliveries and to allow them into the country.