Two massive shipping containers stood tall in the Tienditas Bridge on the border between Venezuela and Colombia in 2019. They were purposefully placed by the Maduro regime to prevent a humanitarian aid convoy from entering the country. Though Venezuela has been suffering from extreme shortages, a massive decline in standards of living, and a catastrophic economic crisis, Maduro refused to let in much-needed assistance from the international community. As the United States and international organizations were preparing to supply medicine and food and alleviate the crisis in the country, a blockade led by the Venezuelan National Guard prevented aid trucks from entering the country. Over the past six years, the Venezuelan economy has collapsed as a result of widespread mismanagement, corruption, and misguided policies which have led to hyperinflation, a 76% drop in GDP, and have forced over 5.4 million people to flee their country. As the crisis worsened over the course of the last seven years what once was the richest country in South America is now officially the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. According to the National Survey of Living Conditions (ENCOVI in Spanish) 96% of the population are living below the poverty line. To make matters worse, the COVID-19 shutdowns have forced many Venezuelans to rely on remittances from abroad. Despite the crushing conditions, the regime has impeded large-scale aid delivery. Maduro’s paramilitary groups and security agencies have impeded any efforts from international organizations to improve the conditions on the ground if they pose a challenge to Maduro’s authority.
Mark Green, former USAID Administrator (2017-2020), headed the efforts of the international community to support Venezuelans in need of humanitarian assistance, both within the country and the rest of the region. During his tenure at USAID, he spearheaded the approval of over $1 billion in aid, channelled either through partner nongovernmental organizations, UNHCR, allied governments, or faith-based organizations that have been able to provide relief to Venezuelans faced with the harsh conditions. Unlike recent environmental catastrophes that have demanded such action from the international community, Green describes the Venezuelan crisis as “man-made” which makes the situation “incredibly tragic” in his opinion. Thus far, the United States and partners have been able to work with Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and other countries in the region who have opened their borders to Venezuelan migration, largely maintain solidarity with Venezuelan migrants, and some even certify their academic degrees despite a recent rise in xenophobia against Venezuelans. The greatest challenges that USAID has faced emerge from both the inability to operate directly on the ground, and the outdated infrastructure in Venezuela “that [is] often held together by band-aids.” Despite the issues in Venezuela, Green points to the diaspora groups and faith-based organizations as success stories since “[they] are able to operate quietly in the country while safeguarding [US] government money from corruption and inefficiencies.”
In 2016, the Venezuelan regime created a system to allow people to buy foods or receive their pensions called the “Fatherland Card” in partnership with ZTE and the Chinese government, but rather than a measure to strengthen the safety net or provide support to the Venezuelan citizens, it has become a mechanism for social control. The QR code-equipped card has been used to monitor the citizens of Venezuela, coerce them into voting or attending regime rallies, and, according to Green, it has allowed Maduro to “reward his friends and punish his enemies.” The card has also become a mechanism through which the regime has engaged in widely corrupt practices, reportedly having contractors who overcharge the Venezuelan government and give kickbacks to members of the regime. To counter Maduro’s tactics and support Venezuelan people directly, recent USAID programs, Interim Government-led initiatives, and NGOs—both in Venezuela and abroad—have increasingly embraced multipurpose cash transfers as a way to deliver aid to Venezuelan nationals. Green points out that there are a “number of tools being developed on cash transfers” that are expected to take on a major role moving forward. In Ambassador Green’s view, cash assistance contributes to the larger USAID mission to “affirm human dignity” and “reinforce. . . humanity.” In comparison to other forms of support, cash transfers allow individuals to make their own choices with the aid, and it also “gives them a sense of self-worth.” According to a study carried out by the Center for Global Development, cash transfers are 18% more efficient than in-kind aid, while many who receive in-kind aid tend to trade some of the food they receive for other goods and services that they need to cover. Thus, cash aid provides both agency and allows organizations to distribute support more efficiently. However, cash transfers pose challenges when the goods sought by recipients are not available in the local markets. Some medicines and food stuff remain scarce, which has led to inter-border “traffic of food and medicine” between Colombia and Venezuela to meet basic needs that cannot be met by the internal markets according to Green.
The root of the issue in Venezuela, nevertheless, continues to be the Maduro regime’s systematic mismanagement of the economy and the oil industry, as well as misguided policies that have caused the most businesses to close. Under the Chavez and Maduro regimes, the government took on a greater role in the economy and imposed widespread price controls, exchange controls, and seized small businesses and bigger companies operating in Venezuela. The regime’s unwillingness to undergo deep reforms caused hyperinflation and an unprecedented decline in GDP. Despite challenges from the Venezuelan Interim Government, Russia, Iran, Cuba, and China have continued to prop up the regime. In Green’s view, greater sanctions that target those who are “profiting from the tyranny” might lead to a transition while supporting both the Interim Government, those who are displaced, and the people of Venezuela.
Even though USAID has had a significant role in aiding Venezuelans, a Brookings study reported that the crisis still remains significantly underfunded and requires the support of other countries in the international community. In the meantime, USAID, NGOs, and civil society groups have continued supporting the Venezuelan people throughout the catastrophe. Most recently, I have been working on a fundraising platform that will allow individuals abroad to support Venezuelans directly in the areas of healthcare, nutrition, education, and small businesses, and will conduct a trial in December. Yakera—gratitude in the Venezuelan indigenous language Warao—will connect Venezuelans and their stories with aid from abroad and utilizing a third-party platform called AirTM to deliver help into the hands of Venezuelan people through a peer-to-peer network that allows them to cash out the support they will receive in US dollars in their Venezuelan bank account.By partnering with Nutriendo el Futuro, a local NGO that feeds hundreds of children daily in a community in Caracas, Yakera will create individual fundraising campaigns for twelve families, which will receive the funds in their Venezuelan bank accounts. Beyond the individual campaigns, we will support four community projects to provide personal protective equipment to the two local hospitals of the community, school supplies and nutritional supplements to the children of the community, and repairments to the public transportation jeeps used by the community. Our goal is to test the site, record data on our community impact, and in the long term become an alternative to access aid in Venezuela overcoming the regime’s regulations and empowering individuals with agency over their lives through peer-to-peer decentralized cash transfers.
Though the issues in Venezuela continue and Maduro refuses to let widespread aid into the country, private and US government initiatives that can overcome regulations and funnel support directly are now more relevant than ever. If both increased direct aid to the people and greater pressure on the regime come together, Venezuela can see a pathway out of the crisis and finally rip off the band-aids imposed by the regime.
DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute for International Leadership is a non-partisan "do-tank" that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.