The Red Cross said Friday it had received permission from Venezuela’s government and opposition to roll out one of the organization’s biggest global relief campaigns, signalling a possible easing in the dire humanitarian emergency gripping the country.
The announcement amounted to the first tacit acknowledgment by the government of Nicolás Maduro that Venezuelans are suffering from lack of food and other basics.
In scale and ambition, the relief effort could become an “operation very similar to what is happening in Syria,” said Francesco Rocca, the president of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, to reporters in Caracas on Friday. “It obviously will not and cannot solve the country’s problems, but it’s a necessary step to save lives.”
Mr. Maduro had repeatedly denied that the country needed help, even as the economy hurtled toward collapse. The crisis has led to an explosion of malnutrition and infant mortality, a resurgence of nearly eradicated diseases and the biggest refugee crisis in South America, as hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans fled.
The Red Cross said a diplomatic waiver granted by Mr. Maduro would allow it to begin delivery of medical supplies as soon as mid-April. The organization’s local affiliate runs hospitals in Venezuela, but until now the organization has not been allowed to operate a national humanitarian aid-delivery campaign.
Now, the Red Cross will double its budget for Venezuela to an equivalent of at least US$60-million this year, hoping to reach about 650,000 Venezuelans and stimulate a new wave of donations that would finance a further expansion of the campaign later in the year.
“We’re open to all the donors,” Mr. Rocca said. “We’re ready to negotiate with everyone.”
As Venezuela’s economic travails have worsened over the past few months, both Mr. Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaido have attempted to control supplies of aid for political advantage. Mr. Maduro and Mr. Guaido have been locked in a power struggle since Mr. Guaido proclaimed himself president with support of the United States and about 50 other countries, including Canada, in late January.
Mr. Maduro has used food distribution and access to medical care as tools to ensure his support among the needy population. His government stopped publishing any health statistics in 2016, while denying the country needed any aid.
“In Venezuela there’s no humanitarian crisis,” Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza told the United Nations in February.
Venezuela’s aid predicament has mirrored the international alliances forged by the competing sides. The United States and the EU nations have become the main donors for humanitarian projects launched by Mr. Guaido. China and Russia have delivered relief supplies to Mr. Maduro.
Mr. Guaido has opened three aid depots on Venezuela’s borders in Colombia, Brazil and Curacao, which have collected at least US$100-million worth of supplies donated by the U.S. Agency for International Development and other allies. Mr. Maduro called the USAID supplies a “Trojan horse” aimed at toppling his government and has vowed to prevent them from entering the country. His Vice-President, Delcy Rodriguez, even called the opposition’s supplies “cancerous.”
Mr. Guaido’s plan to bring basic supplies into Venezuela in February, intended to help the population but also to bolster his standing and discredit Mr. Maduro, was stymied by Mr. Maduro’s armed forces and paramilitaries. At least seven people were killed and dozens were seriously injured during the chaotic and inconclusive standoff along the country’s border.
The Red Cross said its relief in Venezuela will not be linked to any political parties.
To maintain impartiality, the Red Cross said supplies such as surgical kits and basic medication will initially be delivered directly to the eight hospitals that the organization owns in Venezuela, bypassing the government’s distribution networks. The organization also aims to equip all Venezuelan hospitals with power generators to reduce the number of deaths caused by the rolling blackouts affecting the country.
Mr. Rocca said the organizations would also consider distributing medical donations collected by the opposition in Cucuta, Colombia, if they met their standards.
The Red Cross was granted the permission after personal meetings with Mr. Maduro and Mr. Guaido, said a person involved in negotiations, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss confidential talks.
The announcement comes days after the United Nations made a confidential plea to the country’s two rival leaders to end their political dispute over aid, pointing out that nearly all of the country’s population of 32 million has been thrust into poverty.
Multilateral organizations, including those affiliated with the United Nations and the Catholic Church, have been quietly ramping up their operations in Venezuela in recent months with unspoken agreement from the government. The deal reached by the Red Cross allows it to become the first global relief organization to launch an official campaign inside Venezuela.
Now that the Red Cross has been allowed in, both the government and the opposition have sought to take credit for the decision.
“Humanitarian aid is a fact today and in the next hours, next days, we will be receiving important medical help to contain this tragedy,” Mr. Guaido said in a video address posted on social media Friday. “The government has recognized its failure in accepting the existence of a humanitarian emergency.”
The government, for its part, on Friday announced the arrival of a ship carrying medication from China.
But by granting Red Cross a humanitarian mandate, Mr. Maduro is exposing what critics call the hypocrisy of his social policy, said Jose Felix Oletta, a former Venezuelan health minister.
“It’s absurd to have blocked for two years the entrance of these resources,” he said. “They are now indicating that they don’t have capacity to resolve this.”
The Red Cross announcement also presents a challenge for the opposition, which has sought to present itself as the solution to the country’s humanitarian needs.