Last week, humanitarian aid was at the center of discussion of the Venezuela crisis in the US, and evidently at the center of Juan Guaidó’s plans to challenge the Maduro government’s hold on power in the country. The New York Times noted that:
The battle over the legitimate leadership of Venezuela — which has included rallies of thousands, international diplomacy and oil sanctions — is now focused on a single heavily guarded shipment of humanitarian aid.
Venezuela’s opposition, which has relished a month of victories in its effort to challenge President Nicolás Maduro and take over as the country’s legitimate government, brought the donated supplies of food and medical kits to the country’s border with Colombia.
Its goal was to bring the supplies into Venezuela, forcing a confrontation with Mr. Maduro, who has refused the help. This would cast Mr. Maduro in a bad light, opposition leaders said, and display their ability to set up a government-like relief system in a nation where the crumbling economy has left many starving, sick and without access to medicine.
Meanwhile, the Red Cross and the United Nations have criticized the US approach as politicizing crucial aid and potentially undermining their ongoing work in the country. From the Associated Press:
Alexandra Boivin, ICRC delegation head for the United States and Canada, said Friday that the ICRC had told U.S. officials that whatever plans “they have to help the people of Venezuela, it has to be shielded from this political conversation.”
“It is obviously a very difficult conversation to have with the U.S.,” she said. “We are there also to make clear the risks of the path being taken, the limits of our ability to operate in such an environment.”
And Reuters reported:
"Humanitarian action needs to be independent of political, military or other objectives," U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters in New York.
"When we see the present stand-off it becomes even more clear that serious political negotiations between the parties are necessary to find a solution leading to lasting peace for the people of Venezuela," he said.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation explained, following investigation by Justin Emery and FAIR.org, that while the CBC and many other outlets shared photos and reports of a bridge allegedly blocked by Maduro’s government to prevent the distribution of aid, the bridge had in fact never been opened:
Over the past week or so, the image of a blockaded bridge between Colombia and Venezuela has been all over news sites around the world. It's been featured in stories describing how the president of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, is keeping international food aid from his desperate citizens.
Trouble is, the photo doesn't tell the full story…
The bridge, which spans between Cucuta, Colombia, and the town of Pedro Maria Urena in Venezuela, hadn't been open for years. In fact, it's never been open.
As the CBC points out, the image came from a tweet by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
On Wednesday, Congressman David Cicilline (D-RI) questioned USAID Acting Assistant Administrator Steve Olive about the politicization of aid in a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Venezuela:
Cicilline: ...would you say that in order to provide life-saving assistance in war-zones and dangerous areas humanitarians need to be able to operate in a neutral and apolitical way?
Cicilline: Is it true that the US through USAID is prepositioning humanitarian aid at the border with Venezuela?
Olive: Yes, we are.
Cicilline: Do you have any concerns that tying humanitarian assistance to a particular political outcome could have unintended consequences or harm our ability to deliver assistance in Venezuela or to other countries and what steps is the administration taking to ensure aid does not become a flashpoint?
Olive: Administrator Green has said we will always, as the US Government, be ready to help those in need. There are people in need in our hemisphere right now as a result of this crisis and we already are supporting them in these border areas and doing what we can to build the capacity in country to receive and distribute aid securely and efficiently and be able to monitor those distributions and that is our focus.
Researchers Tim Gill and Rebecca Hanson wrote at The Nation last week that USAID had in fact been deeply involved in fomenting and supporting the student opposition movements that developed Guaidó as a leader:
A former USAID/OTI member who helped devise US efforts in Venezuela said the “objective was that you had thousands of youth, high school, and college kids…that were horrified of this Indian-looking guy in power. They were idealistic. We wanted to help them to build a civic organization, so that they could mobilize and organize. This is different than protesting.” In other words, USAID/OTI sought to take advantage of racialized fear of Chávez to organize middle-class youth around a long-term strategy to defeat him.
How exactly did the United States help these students? One USAID/OTI contractor who worked directly with them on a routine basis revealed to Gill that Washington provided funding and training to the student groups that developed at the same time Guaidó was part of them.
The Venezuelan government alleged that a US company is shipping weapons to its opposition as a Canadian analyst spotted what he considered to be unusual cargo plane movements. McClatchy reported:
An Ottawa-based analyst of unusual ship and plane movements, Steffan Watkins, drew attention to the frequent flights of the 21 Air cargo plane in a series of tweets Thursday.
“All year, they were flying between Philadelphia and Miami and all over the place, but all continental U.S.,” Watkins said in a telephone interview. “Then all of a sudden in January, things changed.”
That’s when the cargo plane began flying to destinations in Colombia and Venezuela on a daily basis, and sometimes multiple times a day, Watkins said. The plane has made close to 40 round-trip flights from Miami International Airport to Caracas and Valencia in Venezuela, and Bogota and Medellin in Colombia since Jan. 11.
The air cargo company involved and its client denied the allegations, but 21 Air is itself linked to a company alleged by Amnesty International to have been involved in a CIA rendition program.
It’s worth noting that Elliott Abrams, the Trump administration’s special envoy to Venezuela, is notorious in part for his role in covering up the US-sponsored smuggling of arms shipments into Nicaragua under the guise of humanitarian aid. As the Los Angeles Times reported in 1987:
Oliver L. North and other Reagan Administration aides deliberately used a 1986 program of "humanitarian aid" for Nicaraguan rebels to help support the secret effort to deliver military aid to the contras , U.S. officials said Monday...
The aid was administered by the State Department's Nicaraguan Humanitarian Assistance Office, but officials said that all significant decisions were made by a "Restricted Inter-Agency Group," consisting of North, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams and Alan D. Fiers, chief of the CIA's Central America Task Force.
Underlying all this discussion over humanitarian aid is the devastating impact of US sanctions on Venezuela, which were intensified last month but have been in place for years. As CEPR co-Director Mark Weisbrot wrote at The Intercept:
Though the government’s economic policies have played a role in Venezuela’s woes, the Trump sanctions have made things considerably worse since August 2017, decimating the oil industry and worsening shortages of medicine that have killed many Venezuelans. The Trump sanctions also make it nearly impossible for the government to take the necessary measures to exit from hyperinflation and depression.
Though the U.S. media is quiet on the matter, it’s important to note that the Trump sanctions are both violently immoral — again, they kill people — and illegal. They are prohibited under the Organization of American States Charter, the United Nations Charter, and other international conventions that the U.S. is party to. The sanctions also violate U.S. law, since the U.S. president must state, absurdly, that Venezuela presents “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security” of the United States in order to impose these measures.