In Venezuela, a country that for years has been grappling with widespread shortages of food, medicine, and essential goods, the COVID-19 pandemic is aggravating an already dire humanitarian emergency. By some estimates, Venezuela has just 8 hospital beds per 100,000 people. Health workers face an alarming lack of protective supplies, medicine, and functioning medical equipment. Many families live with the reality of struggling to find enough food to sustain themselves.
As the health crisis worsens over the coming months, millions of Venezuelan families will face drastic challenges. To mitigate and address human suffering in Venezuela, the international community must support efforts to broker new humanitarian agreements with the de facto Maduro government.
New efforts to broaden humanitarian access in Venezuela must build on the encouraging progress made in recent months. On June 1, the opposition-controlled National Assembly and the Maduro regime negotiated a deal to work together with the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) to distribute badly-needed medical equipment to respond to the pandemic. The opposition, which controls funds in frozen accounts abroad and has access to financial resources through its international recognition, committed $20 million to this effort. This deal is an important milestone, and shows that agreements can be reached to improve the humanitarian response on the ground even as the political crisis drags on.
Now is the time to fully implement this accord, as well as to broaden it and urge the Maduro government to implement a much greater humanitarian response. Any further humanitarian accords should address a number of roadblocks, including:
- Opening the doors to more humanitarian actors. The humanitarian organizations doing lifesaving work in Venezuela continue to face major obstacles. These groups continue to face restrictions that limit their work, including limitations on visas and difficulties that hamper access to registration. As the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs noted in its 2020 Global Humanitarian Overview, “the inability of international NGOs to register has also impacted the operational capacity to respond on a greater scale.”
- Increasing humanitarian capacity. One of the humanitarian actors that could make a significant difference is the UN World Food Program (WFP), which has a proven logistical capacity to work with partners to distribute large quantities of humanitarian aid in difficult contexts across the globe. The WFP has monitored the situation closely, and has already carried out a food security assessment in the country that suggests that over 9.3 million people are food insecure and in need of assistance.
- Unrestricted access on the ground. Humanitarian efforts must have full and complete access to distribute aid. While restrictions on mobility are an important response to the COVID-19 pandemic, authorities should provide exemptions to humanitarian workers and identify ways to facilitate their distribution efforts (such as by offering preferential access to fuel).
- Upholding humanitarian and protection principles. Any accord must follow standard humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality, independence, humanity, and doing no harm. True humanitarian assistance must be entirely independent of political and ideological concerns, and international supporters of a new humanitarian accord should maintain a strict emphasis on human rights and rejection of repression or violence.
Now is the time for Venezuela to open its doors to a full humanitarian response. Negotiating partial humanitarian accords like the PAHO deal can improve living conditions, and may help build momentum towards a broader negotiated solution to the political crisis. The international community can and should urge the Maduro government to reach further humanitarian agreements with the opposition that address the needs of everyday Venezuelans. Even as the country’s political crisis drags on, the Venezuelan people should not have to pay the price.