Charities Are Running Out of Time in Venezuela

A new NPR report shows how charities and NGOs, the last hope for thousands of neglected victims of Venezuela’s crisis, are facing extreme difficulties to keep doing their already diminished work.

Photo: Cristian Hernández

Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis worsens by the minute and with a government that refuses to fully acknowledge it, charities and NGOs are the only ones doing something for those suffering the most. Every day, their work gets harder, limiting the already small impact it has, as reported by John Otis from NPR news.

“If the government doesn’t recognize the situation, that limits us because the entrance of aid into the country has to be approved by them,” says Carlos Montiel, director of the Venezuelan Red Cross’ Zulia chapter. On April 16th, his organization received the first humanitarian aid packages officially authorized by Maduro’s administration; both opposition and government speakers took the credit for its entrance, but two months later, the impact has been minimal. The initial aid was expected to benefit a little over 600,000 people, less than 10% of the people who need it, according to Max Lowcock, Under-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs of the UN.

Every day, charities and ONGs work gets harder, limiting the already small impact it has.

The situation in Maracaibo, as NPR reports, is particularly bad, given the generalized looting sparked by the ongoing electrical crisis, which forced many stores that used to donate food to charities to close their doors.

“We still feed 300 people a day, but it’s a reduced menu,” says Sara Cooper, a volunteer server. “We have to work with what we have.”

But what they have is less and less. Contrary to a few months ago, when the soup kitchen where Sara volunteers could offer chicken and meat, the only thing available at the time Otis visited them was rice mixed with eggs and some milk. Still, several hungry men and women lined up outside, waiting for a meal.

For Maduro, acknowledging the full scale of the crisis would be admitting to the world that his government failed. So far, his administration has limited the aid to small quantities from allies like China, Russia, Turkey and more recently, the Red Cross, but still refuses to let in the hundreds of tons that organizations like UNICEF and the Red Cross itself believe will be needed to palliate the crisis. According to the NPR report, the few supplies that actually get to Venezuela are often stolen at airports or military checkpoints, where soldiers regularly demand their cuts.

To make things worse, Otis reports that following February 23rd (when the opposition tried to get aid delivered by USAID through the Colombian border, to pressure the Venezuelan military into rebelling), intelligence agencies are now constantly monitoring and harrassing volunteers, who are often accused of conspiracy.

“They began spreading false information that there were outbreaks of diarrhea and that we were forming an opposition movement,” said Franklin Montilla, a cook at Maracaibo’s soup kitchen.

Intelligence agencies are now constantly monitoring and harrassing volunteers, who are often accused of conspiracy.

Similarly, Gustavo Rincón, president of the Samaritan Foundation, a Maracaibo-based NGO, said that he’s regularly intimidated by Venezuela’s secret police: “They’re trying to intimidate me because if we bring in the aid, that’s bad for their image.”

Rincón also told Otis (during a power outage) that the crisis itself is making his work virtually impossible. He hasn’t been able to visit a leper colony where he used to go regularly, because all five vehicles owned by the foundation broke down. He visited the colony that day, in the company of Otis, who paid for the taxi ride.

Rincón was received like a hero by patients and medical personnel alike. The state-run facility is extremely neglected: workers have been forced to beg for food on the street, and patients regularly share their meals with the malnourished staff. Power cables were stolen recently, leaving the place without energy and air conditioning, forcing some patients to take their beds outside, in order to fight Maracaibo’s anecdotic heat.

“May God bless you,” said one patient as Rincón promised to come back soon. A promise no one knows if he can keep.

The full NPR report is available here, as well as its narrated version.