Venezuela-UN aid deal in limbo as humanitarian crisis drags on

A Venezuelan migrant, carrying a girl on his shoulders, walks across the Darién Gap from Colombia to Panama in hopes of reaching the US, 9 May 2023. (Keystone/AP Photo/Ivan Valencia)

An agreement signed last November between the Venezuelan government and its opposition to deliver aid using frozen assets with the assistance of the United Nations is on pause, as the country’s crisis endures.

Like many other Venezuelans, Miguel* spent years throughout South America in search of a better life after fleeing his country in 2015. As a police officer in the capital, Caracas, he barely scraped by to provide for his family, including his three daughters, and was increasingly at odds with the policies of President Nicolás Maduro’s government.

By July of this year, as he sat near a shelter, under an elevated highway in an industrial neighbourhood in Brooklyn, he pondered how his journey brought him to New York and the challenges he would continue to face.

“I don’t know where to turn (for assistance) and don’t know what to do,” Miguel* said. Having applied for asylum leaves him unable to work, and with the city’s mayor recently imposed 60-day limit for single adults to stay at shelters, he didn’t know where to go once his time ran out. “Most people here are racist and disparaging towards us. I really need assistance and don’t know where to go. The situation is really tough.”

After leaving Venezuela, the 32-year-old said he lived in every Andean-range country from Colombia to Argentina, but that growing xenophobia and increasingly restrictive policies toward migrants made life “very complicated”. He said he arrived in the United States in early 2022, after travelling through the Darién Gap, a dangerous, gang-controlled jungle region bridging South America and Central America, where a record number of crossings – over a quarter million – have been reported during the first six months of this year.

‘Like a small Yemen’

With over 7.3 million Venezuelans having left their country since 2015, experts do not expect the human tide to reverse any time soon. HumVenezuela, an independent data platform that monitors the humanitarian situation, reported that 19.1 million people out of a population of 28.7 million are in need of humanitarian aid with a similar number having lost their means of livelihood. Nearly 11 million experience chronic hunger, while a collapsed health system that 90 per cent of the population relies on and the widespread lack of access to water has made life a struggle for most of them.

“It is frustrating to see the extent of the needs and the gaps that exist regarding the provision of services, care and access to various humanitarian programmes, and then to see how underfunded the Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) is,” Feliciano Reyna, president of Acción Solidaria, a local Venezuelan NGO working with more than 100 partner groups to provide health services and supplies to people with HIV Aids, told Geneva Solutions. HRPs are strategies drawn up by the UN and its partner organisations to deliver emergency assistance to populations affected by humanitarian crises. According to UN data from July, only 14 per cent of the country’s HRP requirements have been funded, making it one of the most underfunded crises globally.

Read also: When health and human rights collide in Venezuela

David Smolansky, a former Venezuelan mayor now in exile, compared the country to other global crises: it is “like a small Yemen” regarding levels of starvation, “it is even more violent than Mexico (...), and despite having the largest oil reserves in the world, the economy is the size of Tanzania.”

Newly opened migrant shelter for single male adults in Brooklyn, New York, 24 July 2023. (Geneva Solutions/Paula Dupraz-Dobias)

Where’s the aid?

In contrast to the worsening humanitarian situation within the country, Maduro’s government has long denied the existence of a crisis. As a result, limited international aid has entered Venezuela. The few exceptions were after agreements were struck between the state and the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) in 2019, and the World Food Programme two years later to allow aid into the country. But last month, the country’s supreme court sacked the head of the Venezuela Red Cross after employees were harassed by state officials, casting doubt on its future as concerns were raised about its independence.

Additionally, the government has intimidated and threatened civil society groups, including with the adoption of an NGO law that fines groups receiving foreign funding.

Read also: Venezuela committing crimes against humanity to crush dissent, UN report finds

A food distribution system known as Clap, set up by the government in response to food shortages in 2016, was found to be operated by a corrupt network that imported substandard food, often going to poor families in exchange for government support.

In November 2022, as political talks in Mexico resumed between representatives of the government of Nicolás Maduro and the opposition, an agreement was struck between the parties asking the UN to manage a fund – worth $3 billion in frozen Venezuelan assets laundered in US and European banks – to deliver assistance to Venezuelans still in the country.

Human Rights Watch last month criticised the slow process in implementing  the aid agreement, and urged the Maduro government, the opposition and the UN to “take concrete action” to carry it out. The US-based NGO said delays came from Venezuela’s “government’s lack of action to identify frozen assets abroad, delays by foreign governments and banks in releasing those assets, and slow reaction by the UN to create the fund”. It recalled that it took six months for the US government to inform the UN that it would protect the fund from creditors that seek to seize the money to repay the country’s debt.

Speaking from Venezuela, Reyna said it was “frustrating that given the political conflict that we're going through, and finally having a possibility to reach an agreement between the government and opposition forces, supposedly with the support of the UN system (...) that it has not been established and it has already been months.”

“My concern is that in the end, with millions of people affected, nothing is moving forward,” he said.

Distrust has long prevailed particularly as the government’s promises for economic recovery have not materialised, and releasing funds that would support key services such as health and education may help the government ahead of general elections, expected in 2024 but which the government is yet to announce. Maduro has said that free elections will only happen with the lifting of western sanctions.

Meanwhile, the US government, whose state and treasury departments are involved in the release of Venezuelan funds, has begun to crack its diplomatic door open to Caracas, following global energy supply fluctuations caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Neither US government department responded to questions regarding the aid deal by the time of publication.

In an email statement to Geneva Solutions, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Geneva said: “The UN continues to engage with the parties and others with a view to finding a solution allowing for the implementation of the social agreement (...) (from) last November, which has the potential to support millions of vulnerable Venezuelan people and deliver broader benefits to its population.”

Pan-American Health Organization (Paho), which is expected by sources to be involved in distribution of the aid, wrote to Geneva Solutions: “Paho remains ready to make its expertise available to support the implementation of the agreement in all components related to health, including vaccination, according to decision by the parties.” Sebastián Oliel, spokesperson for the World Health Organization’s regional branch, added in the email that Paho provides technical and logistical support to vaccination programmes in the country.

Earlier this month, the Spanish daily El País reported that sources close to negotiations expect frozen assets to be released “in coming weeks”.

Venezuelan money and Swiss watches

In Switzerland, where officials found in 2018 that one out of eight banks held laundered Venezuelan government funds, a spokesperson for Bern’s diplomatic mission to the UN in Geneva responded to questions from Geneva Solutions about Bern’s involvement in discussions about the aid agreement. “Switzerland has been informed of this agreement, but has not been involved in it so far,” an email reply said.

Investigations by Zurich police in 2018 showed that hundreds of accounts in roughly 30 banks were involved in suspicious financial flows linked to Venezuela worth $9bn that had been identified by prosecutors. Alejandro Andrade, former Venezuelan treasury secretary, and television magnate Raúl Gorrín, a close friend of Maduro, were found in investigations in the US to have laundered funds from the state oil firm PDVSA through Switzerland, before funds were cashed out to purchase pricey trophies such as real estate, jets and expensive Swiss watches.

Swiss banks UBS, Credit Suisse (now absorbed by the former) and Geneva-based Compagnie Bancaire Helvétique have appeared in investigations involving Venezuelan money laundering.

Earlier on, in 2016, the US ordered Swiss authorities to release $51 million in Venezuelan laundered funds to a US treasury forfeiture account of $118m that Washington asked be frozen.

Switzerland’s State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) did not respond to questions regarding Venezuelan frozen assets by the time of publication.

But for the millions of Venezuelans, the ongoing discussions over the aid fund, amounting to the equivalent to a couple of years of the underfunded UN emergency aid appeals, as well as geopolitics involved, are far from their daily concerns.

Sitting on a stoop near his shelter, located roughly 10 kilometres from UN headquarters in New York, Miguel* doesn’t expect much to change even if relations show signs of warming, at least behind the scenes, between his country and the US.

“Those changes are mostly due to oil. It hasn’t changed anything on a human level with regard to us. Everything is politics. The reality is that we are nothing,” he said.

*The name has been changed to protect the identity of the person.