CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The first shipment of humanitarian aid from the Red Cross arrived in Venezuela yesterday, delivering medicine and supplies for needy patients in a country whose president has long denied the existence of a humanitarian crisis.
Workers in blue vests helped load boxes with the Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies emblem onto trucks while leaders with the organisation pleaded for officials to keep the aid out of the nation’s political dispute.
“It will be distributed in conformance with the fundamental principles of our movement, especially neutrality, impartiality and independence,” said Mario Villarroel, president of the Venezuelan Red Cross. “Don’t allow the politicisation of this great achievement.”
The delivery of international humanitarian aid has become a focal point in Venezuela’s power struggle, now in its third month after opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself interim president. Both the opposition and the government have been accused of politicising the nation’s crisis, which rights groups say continues to cost lives as hospitals struggle to provide even basic care.
Guaido has rallied the international community and collected several hundred tons of aid, primarily from the United States, at the border in Colombia. But President Nicolas Maduro has previously refused to allow it in. In February, state security forces blocked border bridges and repressed opposition leaders trying to deliver the shipments.
“We aren’t beggars,” Maduro said in justifying his denial.
But as hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets protesting his rule this year, Maduro has been pressed to address the nation’s shortages of essential goods like food and medicine. He’s selectively chosen to accept aid from allies like China, framing it as a necessary measure to confront US. economic sanctions.
The delivery of any aid is tacit recognition that his country is indeed in the throes of a humanitarian crisis, a notion he has long dismissed as opposition propaganda.
In recent years, an estimated 3.7 million people have fled the South American nation for neighbouring countries like Colombia, many seeking health care for everything from minor infections to cancer treatment they can no longer obtain. Hospitals in Venezuela often operate without essential supplies, asking patients to bring in surgical gear and medicine.
A recent report by Human Rights Watch in collaboration with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health concluded Venezuela’s health system is in “utter collapse”. It cited increased levels of maternal and infant mortality, the spread of vaccine-preventable diseases and high levels of child malnutrition.
“The combination of medicine shortages and food shortages, together with the spread of diseases across Venezuela’s borders, amounts to a complex humanitarian emergency,” the report stated.
In late March, the Red Cross federation announced it would soon begin delivering assistance to an estimated 650,000 people and vowed that it would not accept interference from either side of the polarised country. Federation President Francesco Rocca said Red Cross workers would focus on the medical needs of hospitals, regardless of whether they are state-run or not.
“The distribution has to be neutral,” he said.
Nonetheless, both sides made not-so-subtle inferences seeking to claim the upper hand in the aid’s arrival.
Health Minister Carlos Alvarado, dressed in a red hat and speaking from the airport where the shipment landed, stressed that the medical gear was coordinated “hand in hand” with Maduro. He said a total of 24 tons was delivered yesterday, including 14 generators which have become vital as the nation suffers from consistent blackouts.
“We’ve always said that when supplies are authorised and agreed upon with the Bolivarian Government, that Venezuela doesn’t have any problem in receiving a shipment, which also helps a bit in countering the international blockade,” he said.
Guaido, meanwhile, lashed out at Maduro’s Government for letting Venezuela’s health crisis spiral out of control and denying that an emergency existed.
“Aid is entering because they destroyed the health system,” he said. “It entered because we demanded it.”
Villarroel said the aid will be distributed to various hospitals around the country and thanked both state and private institutions for their help, while reiterating the organization’s focus.
“Our mandate is to help save lives,” he said.