Venezuela: UN agency warns of humanitarian 'catastrophe'

The World Food Program director called on the US and other nations to provide financial assistance to Colombia. NGOs have tried to help Venezuelans directly, but President Maduro has repeatedly refused humanitarian aid.

The World Food Program director, David Beasley, urged the international community on Tuesday to help Colombia handle the humanitarian "catastrophe" that is unfolding at the border with neighboring Venezuela.

Beasley delivered the warning after a two-day visit to the Colombian border city of Cucuta, where he gathered testimony from Venezuelans who had crossed the border.

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DW News | 06.03.2018

Colombia worried over massive influx of Venezuelans

"I asked, 'Why are you here?', and the answer people gave me was, 'We don't have any food.' And they said, 'Even if we had money, there's no food,'" Beasley recounted. "I don't think people around the world realize how bad the situation is and how much worse it could very well be," the WFP director said.

"This could turn into an absolute disaster in unprecedented proportions for the Western Hemisphere," Beasley warned.

Read more: Could there be a Venezuelan refugee crisis?

Colombia at risk

The Venezuelan exodus has sparked alarm across Latin American nations. It is estimated that as many as 3 to 4 million Venezuelans have emigrated, with several hundred thousand in 2017 alone. The bulk of these migrants in 2017 have fled to neighboring Colombia. The Colombian Ministry of Defense, Luis Carlos Villegas, said that there were approximately 700 thousand Venezuelan immigrants registered in the country.

Read more: Venezuelan exodus is Colombia's burden

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UN World Food Program: 'Venezuelans are starving to death'

While Beasley said Venezuela's humanitarian crisis was not being driven by an armed conflict, he also warned that the crisis could worsen. He pointed to the example of Syria, a country with a smaller population than Venezuela, which began with a minor food emergency and now has 6 million people a day that need UN food assistance.

As hyperinflation and widespread shortages of food and medicine batter Venezuela, the UN has offered to assist the South American nation directly. Yet, President Nicolas Maduro has repeatedly rejected offers of humanitarian aid, claiming that these are veiled attempts by the US and others to destabilize his government.

Read more: For Venezuela HIV patients, lack of medicine 'a death sentence'

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Now the WPF director is urging the US and other nations to provide financial assistance to Colombia. The food NGO already has an established presence in Colombia, where it had helped feed those displaced by the country's half-century guerrilla conflict and it is currently working with the government to help meet its malnourishment eradication goal by 2030.

Beasley stressed the importance of shielding Colombia from the adverse effects that Venezuela's crisis could bring. "Colombia has made so much progress in the past many years with peace and the last thing it needs now is for all that success to be undone," he said.

Read more: Venezuelans facing economic crisis cross border to secure cash lifelines

On Saturday, the UN Refugee Agency asked countries in the region to share the burden of the Venezuelan refugee tide and appealed for countries to allow them in and provide them the necessary protections.

Venezuela on the brink

The last straw

In March 2017, violent protests erupted across the country in response to a Supreme Court decision to strip the legislative branch of its powers. Amid an international outcry, President Nicolas Maduro reversed the decision, but it was too late. Thousands continued to take to the streets, calling for new elections. More than 100 people were killed in clashes with security forces.

Venezuela on the brink

Hunger, a growing problem

The violence added to the ongoing economic and political crisis in Venezuela. Many Venezuelans spend more than 30 hours a week waiting in lines to shop, and are often confronted with empty shelves when they finally enter a store. President Maduro blames the crisis on US price speculation. The opposition, however, accuses the Socialist government of economic mismanagement.

Venezuela on the brink

Health care in crisis

The crisis has even affected health care in the oil-rich nation. Venezuelans often head to Colombia to collect medical supplies to send home, as seen in this picture. Hospitals across Venezuela have compared conditions to those seen only in war zones. As patient deaths rise, health officials have sounded the alarm on the rise of malaria and dengue fever.

Venezuela on the brink

Power grab

By July 2017, Venezuela's pro-government Constituent Assembly was established. For observers, it had all the hallmarks of a power grab. The new body adopted the authority to pass legislation on a range of issues, effectively taking away the powers of Venezuela's elected congress, which was under the opposition's control. The move drew wide international condemnation.

Venezuela on the brink

The West sanctions

In response to the political crisis, the United States and European Union imposed a series of sanctions against ruling officials. The US blacklisted members of the Constituent Assembly and froze all of Maduro's assets that are subject to US jurisdiction. The EU banned arms sales to the country.

Venezuela on the brink

Government victorious in regional elections

In October 2017, Venezuela held two votes: regional elections and elections for governors, which were long overdue. The opposition boycotted the vote, but then split, as some candidates and small parties chose to participate. This caused a deep rift within Maduro's opponents. The government went on to sweep the vote, which detractors say was unfair and heavily favored the regime.

Venezuela on the brink

Debt default

In November 2017, the oil-rich, cash-poor nation faced its day of reckoning. Credit ratings agencies declared Venezuela and its state-run oil company in "selective default." But Russia offered to restructure the South American country's debt to ensure Caracas pays its other creditors. US and EU sanctions, however, limited the chance of an agreement.

Venezuela on the brink

Presidential elections scheduled

The National Assembly announced in January 2018 that it would grant Maduro's call for snap presidential elections. The electoral authority, CNE, held the elections on May 20. The EU, the US and 14 Latin American nations warned that they would not recognize the results. The mainstream MUD opposition alliance boycotted the vote, leaving only one possible outcome.

Venezuela on the brink

Maduro wins ...

Maduro was re-elected to a second six-year term with about 68 percent of the vote. Turnout was only 46 percent, according to electoral authorities. However, the MUD opposition alliance put turnout at less than 30 percent. The Organization of American States (OAS) called the elections neither free nor fair.

Venezuela on the brink

... Guaido assumes power

But weeks into the new year, the situation took a drastic turn. On January 23, 2019, parliament president Juan Guaido declared himself interim president of Venezuela — a move that was quickly recognized by US President Donald Trump. Maduro called it a US-backed "coup." Days later, the US sanctioned Venezuela's state oil firm, while Guaido staked his claim on the country's foreign assets.

jcg/rc (AP, EFE)

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