Maduro Is Blocking UN Food Aid Into Crisis-Ravaged Venezuela

A deal to allow the United Nations food agency to bring aid into Venezuela, home to one of the world’s worst hunger crises, is stalled as President Nicolas Maduro insists on controlling distribution, according to people familiar with the matter.

The agreement, negotiated for eight months, would permit the UN’s World Food Programme and international aid groups to bring food into the country, where one in three people was undernourished even before this year’s Covid-19 pandemic, increased U.S. sanctions and fuel shortages.

Negotiators reached a tentative deal with the government around two months ago, according to three people with direct knowledge of the talks, who asked not to be named discussing private talks. But Maduro won’t sign. At issue, they say, is control of the aid: The WFP requires neutral, non-political distribution, while Maduro wants it channeled through networks he controls, including one to deliver food boxes to the poor, widely seen as a means of ensuring loyalty.

Maduro Is Blocking UN Food Aid Into Crisis-Ravaged Venezuela

He also wants his national militias involved in the distribution, whereas the WFP contends they can only be involved in security, not in procurement and delivery, according to one of the people.

“We have been discussing with the government of Venezuela the way forward to provide assistance to those who are food insecure in country,” the WFP said in an email response to questions. The “process is still ongoing,” the agency said, adding that it is guided by principles of “humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence.”

Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza, speaking on the sidelines of a press conference in Caracas this week, said that negotiations continue and the disagreement is over the WFP’s conditions that “don’t recognize Venezuela’s sovereignty.” An official in the opposition says Maduro may be holding out until U.S. President-elect Joseph Biden takes office next month to use the agreement as leverage for a reduction in sanctions.

The Venezuelan Information Ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment.

It’s unclear if the deal can be resurrected. Its collapse is another blow to the international community’s attempt to respond to the country’s humanitarian crisis. The number of undernourished people tripled to 9 million from 2017 to 2019. In recent years, some 5 million Venezuelans have emigrated.

The decline in Venezuela is unprecedented. With oil reserves greater than Saudi Arabia’s, it was among the world’s two dozen richest countries as recently as the late 1970’s. Mismanagement has caused a catastrophe comparable to what is happening in war-torn Yemen.

Maduro’s government has imposed limits on non-governmental organizations and threatened to shut down those that receive financing from abroad, alleging they are conspiring against the government.

Two aid groups that work on food distribution, Alimenta la Solidaridad y Mi Convive, which provide meals for more than 25,000 people, have been harassed, their bank accounts frozen and offices raided. The newly elected National Assembly, which is controlled by Maduro’s Socialist Party, is considering a law to limit the activities of those that receive U.S. funding.

Maduro Is Blocking UN Food Aid Into Crisis-Ravaged Venezuela

Hopes were high a year ago when Maduro allowed the WFP in to carry out an assessment. Researchers fanned out across the country, producing a report that found more than 2 million were severely food insecure and another 7 million moderately so -- nearly a third of the population.

Two months ago, the two sides reached an agreement for distribution through Colombia and planned to start it around now, according to the people involved in the talks.

Diego Moya-Ocampos, a political risk analyst at IHS Markit, said Maduro uses food as a loyalty lever. “It’s a sort of blackmail system linked to patronage at high levels of the government, which include the military and private importing product companies,” he said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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