In February 2019, several trucks loaded with humanitarian aid were consumed in the flames on the border between Colombia and Venezuela. The humanitarian operation led by the United States, Colombia and the opposition leader Juan Guaidó to weaken Nicolás Maduro sought to force the truck caravan to enter the force. Two years later, in an independent process, the UN World Food Program (WFP) achieved a week ago sign an ambitious agreement with the Venezuelan Government after more than a year of tough negotiations and which ensures the depoliticization of humanitarian aid in a highly polarized terrain.
“The agreement is important because it is the first time that it has been recognized that humanitarian activities in Venezuela must be based on the principles of operational independence, neutrality, impartiality and humanity,” Miguel Barreto, Regional Director for Latin America and the WFP Caribbean. “This opens up an important space for other actors and reflects a mutual interest in boosting operational activities that favor the most vulnerable,” he adds.RELATED
Paco Rey, co-director of the Institute for Conflict Studies and Humanitarian Action, says: “The manipulation of humanitarian issues in the Venezuelan crisis has been a constant for a long time. Two years ago the humanitarian ‘circus’ mounted from Colombia. This attempt to manipulation has taken place on both sides in Venezuela. On the one hand, the government tried to minimize the consequences of the crisis and in turn some outside actors wanted to intervene politically and resorted to humanitarian terminology to justify their actions. “
That February 23, while the protesters tried to break through the police barrier to allow the goods to pass through; while the tanker trucks crossed prevented the passage of vehicles arriving from Colombia; and while some of the trucks burned –The US publicly blamed the government for burning aid humanitarian, but later it was shown that it was an accident caused by opponents– WFP staff could not enter Venezuela and could only serve hungry Venezuelans crossing the border into Colombia. Under normal circumstances, the UN agency can only enter at the request of the State in question.
A few months after those riots, and after initial negotiations, the Government of Venezuela invited a WFP team to carry out an assessment of the situation in the country. It is a process that any United Nations agency has to follow before settling in to study the needs and plan a possible relief mission.
The study, conducted between July and September 2019, was published in January 2020 and it was an important step because it revealed a crisis that until then the government had tried to minimize. According to UN findings, one in three people was “food insecure” and in need of assistance; 59% of households did not have sufficient income to buy food; and 65% were unable to purchase essential hygiene items, clothing, and footwear.
“WFP had complete independence in the design and implementation of the evaluation and had unimpeded access throughout the country for data collection at the household level,” the report clarified.
Two months later, in March, as Barreto confirms to this medium, negotiations began to start an aid program in the country. “It has been a complex process of bilateral exchange of positions where mutual interest in working together and the need to recognize humanitarian principles prevailed,” they explain.
As published by Bloomberg in December 2020, citing various sources, negotiators reached an agreement in principle in October, but Maduro blocked the signing because he allegedly wanted to distribute humanitarian assistance through channels he controls in the country, while the UN agency demanded an impartial distribution.
According to the media, Arreaza affirmed that the lack of agreement lay in the conditions of the WFP that “do not recognize the sovereignty of Venezuela.” Then he clarified and assured: “We are in talks and we aspire to reach an agreement that respects its principles and our laws.”
WFP’s fear was that the Government would make a political distribution of humanitarian aid, something that had already been denounced by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in a July 2019 report.
“Until recently, the government refused to acknowledge the scope of the crisis and did not take appropriate measures. As the economic crisis deepened, the authorities began to use social programs in a discriminatory way for political reasons and as an instrument of social control, “says the report.
“The list of beneficiaries of these programs is managed by the local structures of the ruling parties, not by government institutions. Interviewees denounced that members of these local structures monitor the political activity of the beneficiaries,” the text added.
In addition, during the negotiations with the WFP, the Executive attacked some humanitarian organizations not aligned with the Government. “Since November 2020, the Venezuelan authorities responding to Nicolás Maduro and his security forces have carried out a systematic campaign against humanitarian and human rights organizations working in the country, which has included freezing their bank accounts, issuing warrants for arrest and raid their offices, in addition to detaining some of their members for questioning “, denounced Human Rights Watch (HRW).
On the other hand, according to a new regulation, as of May 1, the NGOs must register with the National Office against Organized Crime and Terrorism Financing, to whom they must present a list of members and sources of funding, which many have criticized as a serious attack on their work.
Finally, the final agreement was signed on April 19 and all parties have celebrated. “The fact that the negotiations have lasted more or less time reflects the tensions that have existed and neither is the arrival of Biden to the White House, which seems to have lowered the tension,” says Paco Rey. The Trump administration was one of the main promoters of Juan Guaidó’s option to overthrow Maduro.
“The important thing is that this agreement has been supported by all parties, both nationally and internationally. Now we are focused on getting the operation up and running,” says Barreto, WFP’s regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean.
That both the Maduro government and opposition leaders have signed the agreement is an achievement for Venezuelan humanitarian assistance.
Once signed, it has to be put into operation, maintained and met its objectives, something that is also complex. The program aims to feed 185,000 boys and girls a day by the end of this year and reach 1.5 million by the end of the 2022-2023 school year.
“The WFP will immediately establish an office in Venezuela to begin the operation in July. The implementation will start progressively. We will initially use internal emergency funds, but the financing definitely requires the support of international donors. The estimated annual amount to reach 1.5 million children is 190 million dollars a year, “says Barreto.