Will Humanitarian Aid Save Us?

With the imminent arrival of humanitarian aid, new problems arise. Lack of infrastructure, storage facilities, qualified personnel and transportation, rampant corruption and the political questions: Will the Armed Forces let it in? Will they disobey Maduro to allow food and medicine into the country?

Supporters of Venezuelan opposition leader and self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaido hold a banner reading "humanitarian aid now outside the usurper" during a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela January 30, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Photo: PBS retrieved

Humanitarian aid is one of the most crucial matters in the current Venezuelan political and social panorama, and it’s been prominent in caretaker President Juan Guaidó’s discourse since he took office as National Assembly Speaker. This weekend, Guaidó announced that the aid will reach three collection points near the borders: Cúcuta, Boa Vista and an undisclosed Caribbean island, but he has yet to explain how this operation will be carried out. He’s also included an explicit call to the Armed Forces to allow the aid to enter the country, a question that entails its own risks as the Red Cross has recently pointed out.

The U.S. in particular has been very vocal about mobilizing humanitarian aid to Cúcuta in recent days, but offered no details on how they plan to proceed. In a speech earlier this Monday at the National Assembly, Guaidó said that this first batch will supply four hospitals for a month.

This has sparked concerns about using humanitarian aid in political discourse without offering proper information to the public. There’s also a popular narrative that the arrival of humanitarian aid will be escorted by troops across our borders, forcing the military to turn on Maduro and free us from the dictatorship.

In view of this situation, we should ask ourselves, do we really know what humanitarian aid is? Let’s review some considerations: First, humanitarian aid won’t solve the crisis; it simply consists of special supplements to treat life-threatening malnutrition, basic medicines and antibiotics, chemotherapy treatments and medical supplies. We’re not getting any flour, rice or eggs; nor are we getting supplies for long-term treatments.

Second, these supplies must be handled by trained personnel from international institutions and local Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), they can’t simply be distributed among the population by the state’s usual structures (CLAP, communal councils, the military, etc.), the most vulnerable citizens, the elderly, the ill and children are prioritized; they require studies, professional assessments, functioning infrastructure, transportation, electricity, water, all the things that are also failing in the country.

Moreover, CSOs have a limited capacity and they have their own issues to attend; overburdening them with supplies they can’t manage may violate the first principle of humanitarian aid: Do no harm.

Corruption’s also a big problem. With no oversight from proper agencies, these supplies may fall in the hands of unscrupulous individuals willing to make a profit off people’s despair. And we’re talking about a land run by a criminal mafia in a very delicate situation. Humanitarian expert Susana Raffalli says: “In fragile states, massively divulging the facilities, routes and groups channeling humanitarian aid, increases the risk of looting, kidnapping and violence and cripples the safety of humanitarian organizations and their staff.”

Most importantly, the money and the supplies run out at some point, while trained personnel, international institutions and volunteers are required elsewhere. If the state fails to solve the economic crisis or to revitalize domestic production by then, the whole effort will be for naught and Venezuelan citizens will continue to die.

As for the military question, there’s no evidence that any country is moving troops to Venezuelan borders at any level. The actual goal is to force the Armed Forces to either reject the aid as Maduro has repeatedly done, or to allow it to enter the country, defying the regime’s stance. The hope is that, faced with that choice, soldiers will desert Maduro, but there are no guarantees of that.

Summing up, humanitarian aid isn’t a panacea that will end hunger and heal all diseases, and its arrival won’t secure the end of the chavista government. Let’s bring our expectations down to size and confront our very real crisis with our feet on the ground.