How to Fix a Humanitarian Crisis If Nobody Dares To Call it That Way

The debate over whether to openly call what is happening in Venezuela a “crisis” seems to be maturing. Even the Venezuelan government, albeit timidly, is starting to recognize it as one: They did so a couple of weeks ago in Washington, DC.

Photo: Council on Foreign Relations

Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and the United States: 13 member states of the Organization of American States (OAS) requested last April 17 a meeting of its Permanent Council to review “the humanitarian situation being experienced by the Venezuelan people and its impact on the countries of the region”, and just saying “the humanitarian situation” was a smart way to not predispose (even more) Venezuela and its allies. On Monday, April 30, the meeting was held and, boy, a plot twist was ahead.

Procedures matter, especially in diplomatic circles, but looks like good leadership goes a long way. Venezuela and Bolivia took the floor to question the Permanent Council Chair’s invitation to members of civil society to speak of Venezuela’s current events. After some back and forth, the Chair just quoted the February 8 OAS Resolution, where the countries agreed “to remain seized of the situation in Venezuela.” This served as the perfect context to hold the meeting, and the agenda was approved.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) presented un pantallazo of migration flows. The data was circumscribed to the routes and numbers that official authorities are managing in each country; at least 1.5 million Venezuelans are now living in other countries and, apart from traditional destinations (US, Spain, and Italy), the flows have diversified in increasing numbers to others of the region (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Uruguay). The message was one of engagement, their tone was not at all condemnatory of the Venezuelan government (probably because they want it present and any outright criticism would be ultimately counterproductive).

One of Venezuela’s health experts, and one of the few rigorously collecting data on health indicators, Professor Julio Castro from the Universidad Central de Venezuela, described in detail how to measure the success of a health system: human resources, infrastructure, vaccine programs, medicines and medical supplies, and equipment. “Precarious” here is an understatement: as much as 30% of all Venezuelan medical doctors graduating in the last 40 years have emigrated, specially those who graduated 10 years ago or less (65% are already working as medical doctors in other countries). In terms of infrastructure, it’s really hard to describe the deterioration Dr. Castro alluded to, so take a look at this. The vaccine programs don’t exist. The spread of diseases like malaria, tuberculosis and diphtheria put Venezuela back to 1940, with no chances of getting better in the short term. Medicine and medical supplies shortages mean that a lot of people with treatable diseases now have chronic ones. He specifically referred to patients with HIV-AIDS. The government has made a deliberate decision to suspend their treatment, creating a crisis of new diseases as their immunodeficiency manifests.

The message was one of engagement, their tone was not at all condemnatory of the Venezuelan government.

Regarding food, Caritas was expected to show up, but word is that the Venezuelan government pressured them and they decided to stay home, sending instead a video message by Monseñor Porras, and a statement describing in detail how much suffering the Venezuelan people, especially the children, are enduring. Caritas thinks that the deterioration merits the label of “humanitarian crisis” since, according to government official sources, in 2016, 11,400 children died before turning one year old.

11,400, man.

It was 33% more than the previous year, and there was a 65% increase in maternal mortality. The level of malnutrition in the poorest parishes attended by Caritas doubled from 8.2% to 16.2% for 2016-2017, and there’s, at least, a 90% shortage of medicines, and 40% shortage of basic food items.

As previously shared on this site, the OAS carried out a visit to the border between Venezuela and Brazil, and their report reveals the humanitarian nature of the crisis, the vulnerabilities in terms of health and malnutrition of Venezuelan migrants and refugees in Brazil, the nature of the Brazilian response to the crisis, and some proposals to support OAS countries when receiving massive flows of Venezuelans.

But the final blow came from the OAS itself. Luis Almagro, secretary general, in what we could call a brilliant exercise of fine research, but especially of vehemence and mastery of the democratic and humanitarian challenges facing Venezuelans, walked those listening through more than 15 different indicators describing the level of social deterioration in Venezuela. The dialogue that ensued reflected opinions that, almost without exception, labeled the situation as “a crisis.”

However, one of the best outcomes of the meeting, and something certainly unexpected, was that, albeit timidly and in passing, the Venezuelan representative admitted in a regional, multilateral forum, the existence of a crisis. That’s the first step to a different conversation, and a path that, hopefully, can allow the much needed humanitarian aid inside Venezuela.